With a little more than a quarter of the season behind us, it’s a good time to check the pulse of this Blue Jays team – to have a closer look at where they are, how they got to this point, and where they go from here.
Before the season started, I projected what the opening day lineup would be and made a few predictions as to what would happen over the course of the season. Overall, I believed that this was a .500 level team and they have performed to my expectations in that regard, currently hovering at that mark. However, I thought it would be the strength of the starting rotation that would keep them in games. The opposite has turned out to be true, as is usually the case in baseball. The Blue Jays starting rotation is ranked 14th of 15 teams in the American League in ERA and struggles collectively to get past the 5th inning.
While I was concerned that the Blue Jays’ patchwork bullpen would blow leads late in games, manager John Gibbons has deftly managed this rag-tag group, extracting more value out of them than anyone could have predicted. While the Jays’ relief corps currently sit second in the American League in ERA, this level of performance is unsustainable. With Roberto Osuna on administrative leave, the back-end of the bullpen has been leaned on heavily to perform in high-leverage situations. As of Sunday morning, Tyler Clippard was one back of MLB’s leader in appearances. Ryan Tepera is one game behind him. Seung Hwan Oh and John Axford are two and three games behind, respectively. These guys are getting fatigued. When that happens, you’ll see what John Axford and Tyler Clippard did vs. Oakland much more frequently.
Concerned about the ability of Diaz and Ngoepe to perform, I thought we would see Lourdes Gurriel Jr at the Major League level if one of them faltered. And that’s exactly what happened. Although Gurriel Jr. is an improvement on Ngoepe, it is clear he has much more development ahead of him. Gurriel’s footwork at shortstop needs to be improved, and his selectivity at the plate deteriorated with each passing game. He has a great foundation to build on – he’s a fine athlete with a cannon of an arm – he just needs more repetitions and coaching at the lower levels where the spotlight isn’t so bright.
Devon Travis struggled out of the gate, just like he did in 2017. This time he wasn’t able to work his way through, and was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo. Unfortunately for Travis, Yangervis Solarte has proven to be a capable player at second base and has been quite productive offensively – all while injecting this lineup with much-needed passion.
Gif courtesy of atedaryl.tumblr.com
With Troy Tulowitzki on his way back from bone-spur surgery in the near (?) future, Travis’s stay at Triple-A could be an extended one.
With injuries to Randal Grichuk, Curtis Granderson, and Steve Pearce, we’ve seen nearly the entirety of the Blue Jays’ substantial outfield depth play at some point at the Rogers Centre thus far. This includes Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith Jr., and Dalton Pompey. At this point, it looks like the best outfield configuration the Blue Jays can field has Curtis Grandson and Steve Pearce platooning in left field, Kevin Pillar in centre field, and the enigmatic Teoscar Hernandez in right field. While Randal Grichuk has had an absolutely abysmal season thus far, I’m not convinced that he’s shown us the type of player he really can be.
Perhaps Randall Grichuk is still dealing with a lingering ribcage injury. They can take months to heal. It easily explains why he can’t catch up to above-average fastballs.
— mopupduty (@mopupduty) April 26, 2018
You may recall Grichuk missed a few spring training games due to a ribcage injury. Speaking from experience, ribcage injuries can linger for a very, very long time. Though it’s not enough to keep you out of the game, ribcage injuries impact the ability to perform baseball activities considerably. Hopefully the time Grichuk has spent on the disabled list for an unrelated knee sprain will have allowed him to fully heal from the ribcage issue. When Grichuk is activated from the DL and Steve Pearce rejoins the team, Hernandez will be optioned to Buffalo. Probably.
Starting pitching depth
There’s talk of stretching out Joe Biagini and leaving him in Buffalo to be the Blue Jays de-facto backup starter. This is a bad idea. Biagini is terrible in the role of a starting pitcher and is much more effective pitching out of the bullpen.
That talk sadly turned out to be true: Joe Biagini became the team’s de-facto sixth starter, and his performance was in line with my low expectations. It’s time to pull the plug on this failed experiment and place Biagini in position where he can succeed. The Blue Jays are currently without a reliever in the bullpen who can comfortably pitch multiple innings in a single appearance. Biagini would fit quite nicely in this role.
As for who takes Biagini’s place as the “sixth starter,” my choice is Deck McGuire. The former first round draft pick of the Blue Jays has had a career renaissance of late. In 2016, while pitching in Double-A, Deck McGuire adopted an aggressive, attack early and attack often approach. It paid off for him as he led the league in innings pitched, starts, strikeouts, and finished with an ERA of 2.79. McGuire parlayed his newfound success into an impressive late-season cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds in 2017. After signing with the Blue Jays in the off-season, McGuire arrived at spring training feeling like he had “unfinished business.” In 10 innings pitched, McGuire didn’t allow a single earned run while striking out 13. Although spring training stats are to be taken with a grain of salt, when a guy is actively competing for a job, I place a little more weight in his performance. Assigned to Triple-A Buffalo to begin the season, McGuire picked up where he left off. In five starts for the Bisons, McGuire posted a 2.70 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 30 innings. To me, McGuire has earned the shot because he’s performed consistently for more than a year now. The Blue Jays owe it to themselves to see what they have in McGuire. After all, it’s not like they’re unfamiliar with the concept of “late bloomer.”
The problem with being a .500 team is this: while you’re never really in the playoff hunt, you’re never really out of it either. The Blue Jays have been within striking distance of the second wild card spot all season, hovering between three and five games back. This gives fans and players a false sense of hope when it comes to postseason aspirations. In order for the Blue Jays to nail down a wild card spot, the following things need to happen:
- Josh Donaldson regains his form and plays at the level of his 2015 & 2016 seasons. He’s the best player on the team and he needs to produce like it.
- Justin Smoak continues to produce at this current level.
- Aaron Sanchez regains his 2016 form, becoming the clear “ace” of the pitching staff.
- Marcus Stroman returns from injury and pitches the way he did last season.
- Roberto Osuna returns from administrative leave in the very near future.
- Randal Grichuk improves upon his 2017 season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Russell Martin gets his OBP past the .320 mark.
- Troy Tulowitzki, at the very least, performs at the level of his 2016 season. Preferably his 2015 season. He also can’t be a cinder block at a premium defensive position.
- J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada remain healthy for the rest of the season.
If all of these things were to occur, a late-summer call-up of Vlad Guerrero Jr. would be warranted. While the younger Vlady continues to have defensive kinks that need to be ironed out, he is clearly a force of nature with the bat. In this scenario, the needs of the team take precedence over the needs of the individual player. Kendrys Morales is jettisoned to the refuse bin and Vlad Guerrero Jr. becomes the team’s full-time designated hitter. The lineup is as follows:
- Curtis Granderson LF
- Josh Donaldson 3B
- Justin Smoak 1B
- Yangervis Solarte 2B
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. DH
- Troy Tulowitzki SS
- Teoscar Hernandez/Randal Grichuk RF
- Russell Martin C
- Kevin Pillar CF
The bench consists of Aledmys Diaz, Steve Pearce, Luke Maile, and either Hernandez or Grichuk
The starting rotation is:
- Aaron Sanchez
- J.A. Happ
- Marcus Stroman
- Marco Estrada
- One of Jaime Garcia/Deck McGuire/Sam Gaviglio
The bullpen consists of:
Roberto Osuna CL
Seungwhan Oh SU
Tyler Clippard SU
It should be clear to most that the likelihood of this happening is slim to none. Does anyone feel confident that this team can go toe-to-toe in a seven game series against the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, or Astros? Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro once said, “As we deliberate on the different strategies and the different directions to go, we feel an obligation to try to field a contending, competitive team and at such a time we feel that is not possible, we will pivot.”
Of course, the main reason a team would be reluctant to pivot is to avoid alienating the team’s fanbase. However, Blue Jays fans have already made it clear that they either don’t believe in this team or they don’t want to pay the higher cost of tickets… or both:
#BlueJays are averaging 25,970 fans per game in 2018, down from an average of 37,471 last season.
Through 23 games, that's already over a quarter-million fewer fans through the gates at Rogers Centre. It's the biggest attendance dip in MLB.https://t.co/vauurNJ8un
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) May 18, 2018
On the Sunday of a long Victoria Day weekend, the Blue Jays were barely able to attract 30,000 fans.
So why bother with the false pretenses? It’s time to sell… err, “pivot.”
It’s time to get rid of everyone we know and love to make way for new beginnings. Say goodbye to Justin Smoak, Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Kevin Pillar, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Steve Pearce, Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales, and Curtis Granderson. If done right, this is roughly what the Blue Jays lineup should look like in September.
- Devon Travis 2B
- Anthony Alford LF
- Yangervis Solarte 3B
- Teoscar Hernandez RF
- Randal Grichuk CF
- Kendrys Morales 1B (it’s unlikely the Blue Jays will be able to move him, but if they do, Rowdy Tellez will slot in here and it will be ugly)
- Aledmys Diaz SS
- Dwight Smith Jr. DH
- Danny Jansen/Luke Maile C
Bench: Richard Ureña, Gio Urshala, Tellez, Maile, maybe even Gurriel.
The starting rotation will be:
- Aaron Sanchez
- Marcus Stroman
- Deck McGuire
- Sam Gaviglio
- Ryan Borucki/Jordan Romano/Sean Reid-Foley
The bullpen will be more difficult to project, but if I had to guess:
Roberto Osuna CL
Of course, the Blue Jays won’t be able to trade away all of their assets in one go. The lineup won’t be this young and inexperienced. However, directionally, this is what you can expect. It will be reminiscent of the J.P. Ricciardi days. Tuesday night games will attract between 7,000 – 8,000 fans. Although it will be painful, it will be exciting to watch the emergence of top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Anthony Alford, Bo Bichette, and other newly-acquired impact talent in 2019. By maximizing the value of the current roster, the Blue Jays will set themselves up for years of success in future years. No longer will there be a small “window of opportunity” to contend. With these core pieces in place, the Blue Jays have a chance to create a dynasty.
..to Luke Maile. In March of this year, I wrote this about the Blue Jays backup catcher:
With Russell Martin entering his 13th season – and a great deal of wear and tear on his body – a solid backup catcher is needed to shoulder the load now more than ever. Luke Maile isn’t that guy.
Unbeknownst to me, Luke Maile played 2017 with a torn meniscus in his right knee. He had surgery in the off-season and has emerged in 2018 as a completely different player. Defensively, he calls a great game and fires absolute seeds to second base, striking fear into the hearts of would-be base stealers. Offensively, he’s no longer an automatic out. He even homered off Chris Sale. Chalk it up to ignorance on my part, and I apologize for making an ill-informed statement about Maile’s value. He’s a capable back-up catcher…so far, anyway.
Featured image credit: Chris So/Getty Images