Homer Simpson: “You know, Marge, getting old is a terrible thing. I think the saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my dad at most things, and Bart experienced that at the age of four.”
The Toronto Blue Jays have finished below the middle of the pack the last two seasons, as they’ve clearly moved on from their 2015-16 peak. Yet, despite their distant fourth place finish in the AL East in back-to-back seasons, they’ve managed to grab national headlines over the course of the past calendar year for the wrong reason, namely their handling of baseball’s top prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
White Sox fans are all too familiar with this situation in the aftermath of the Eloy Jimenez saga, and quite frankly, the Sox are lucky that what Toronto pulled with Vlad Jr. was somehow even more egregious. Guerrero hit over .400 in a half-season at Double-A New Hampshire and the mashing only continued upon his promotion to Buffalo. The Jays finally brought him up near the end of April, hoping he could breathe some life into the sagging Toronto offense. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s only going to be a matter of time.
That said, the Jays’ offense has been hurting. Although the team’s aggregate numbers are misleadingly low due to being dragged down by guys who have been now ushered out of regular playing time (Billy McKinney, Lourdes Gurriel, and hello, Alen Hanson!), there isn’t a whole lot clicking. Their best hitter — by far — has been 33-year-old Eric Sogard. You’re reading that right, the funny little bespectacled second baseman of the Oakland A’s of yesteryear is mashing the ball. He’s already got more home runs (4) than in any other season of his career and has more walks than strikeouts. It goes without saying he won’t OPS over 1.000 all year, but what he’s doing is unprecedented for his career.
The Jays have also received reasonably strong production from their 1B/DH tandem of Justin Smoak and Rowdy Tellez. The 32-year-old Smoak’s Indian summer has been fueled by pop and a sky-high walk rate. Tellez is a 24-year-old who put himself back on the map last season with a strong year at Triple-A. His strikeout rate is up there, but he posts respectable batting averages by hitting the ball very hard when he connects.
The rest of the lineup hasn’t been too impressive. Randal Grichuk might need to worry more about his uptick in strikeouts and drop in power than going after Tim Anderson as the latest card-carrying member of the Fun Police. The Blue Jays tried to keep Brandon Drury in their everyday lineup after the arrival of Vlad Jr. by pushing him out to right field; his .244 OBP and horrendous 2018 leave Toronto short on reasons to be so accommodating. Teoscar Hernandez hit 22 home runs last season but hasn’t found the power this year, and his current sub-.200 batting average shows what happens when a guy who whiffs a lot doesn’t hit ’em where they ain’t. Add in the fact that both Toronto catchers have a sub-.500 OPS, and one can see why runs are sometimes tough to come by for the Jays.
Fortunately, Toronto’s pitching staff has fared better. Marcus Stroman enters this series with a 2.96 ERA and a 3.10 FIP, which somehow buys him a 1-5 record. Unlike most ace starters, Stroman relies more on getting grounders by the truckload rather than whiffs. In contrast to Grichuk, it’s worth noting that Stroman became an unlikely Tim Anderson ally after their past issues.
Aaron Sanchez was one of baseball’s best pitchers in 2016, but since then he’s encountered a litany of blister, finger, and hand issues that have kept him from appearing all that often. Like Stroman (but to a lesser degree), the ground ball is Sanchez’ friend, which he often needs to erase all those nasty walks he allows. The Jays appear to have been major benefactors of Houston’s 40-man roster crunch, as 25-year-old Trent Thornton has hit the ground running in his first taste of the major leagues in Toronto. The curveball-heavy righty has four legitimate swing-and-miss offerings, and while he’s had some command hiccups, the complete package has been midrotation starter production for his new team.
I first starting following baseball prospects in earnest back in 2007, and it shocks me when I see that the top guys on the lists back then, like Clay Buchholz, are 34 years old. Buchholz’s career has been as uneven as any player I can think of. In between his biennial major injuries, he’s shown splashes of brilliance mixed in with cover-your-eyes ineffectiveness. The only constant with him is that he slows games to a grinding halt. With the whiffs on Buchholz’ changeup drying up, his career might not be able to stave off the glue factory much longer. Thomas Pannone‘s last name is unfortunately pronounced “puh-NOHN” rather than “puh-NAH-nee”, because the latter would go great with “Tommy”. He’s a generic curveball-heavy swingman lefty who has gotten thumped when asked to start games in Matt Shoemaker‘s (ACL tear) absence.
The Blue Jays have some exciting complements to Guerrero coming through the pipeline. Catcher Danny Jansen made an encouraging debut last season before stumbling out of the gate this year, and Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio could eventually give Toronto sons of three former All-Stars (and two Hall-of-Famers) in their infield. That’s certainly a set of favorable bloodlines, but it’s an open question whether it will enable Toronto to soon compete with the beasts of the AL East. If there’s one thing that 2015 and 2016 showed us, it’s that there’s no shortage of baseball fervor in Toronto when the team is good, and given the alternatives in their division, there’s two reasons to say, “Go Jays.”
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Friday, May 10: Dylan Covey vs. Clay Buchholz
- Saturday, May 11: Ivan Nova vs. Marcus Stroman
- Sunday, May 12: Lucas Giolito vs. Aaron Sanchez
- Eric Sogard – 2B
- Freddy Galvis – SS
- Randal Grichuk – CF
- Justin Smoak – 1B
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 3B
- Rowdy Tellez – DH
- Brandon Drury – RF
- Teoscar Hernandez – LF
- Danny Jansen – C