Where Do the Toronto Blue Jays Go From Here?
A little over a week ago, things were starting to look up for the Toronto Blue Jays. Having just taken two of three from both the Yankees and the Red Sox, the team had reached .500, and headed out for a seven-game road trip full of optimism.
What a difference a week makes.
Having lost two of three to the Orioles, and four straight to the surprising Astros, the Blue Jays find themselves at an early season crossroads, four games below .500, and last in the American League East, five games back of the Yankees.
How did this happen ? What became of the high expectations of spring training? While it still is early in the baseball season, two clubs (the Brewers, and yesterday, the Marlins) have fired their managers, and Blue Jays fans are calling for John Gibbons to become the third.
Let’s try to break this down. What, specifically, has led this team to fall short of expectations?
1. Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
No matter how you evaluate it, the Blue Jays have come up short on many counts in this department.
Their 4.78 team ERA is the 2nd worst in the majors; their 4.81 FIP is the worst. Their 1.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio is also next to last in MLB. Say what you will about the legitimacy of the Quality Start stat, but the Blue Jays 12 is tied for the second-least. If there was a lights-out bullpen to bail those starters out, that would be one thing – but there isn’t.
The Blue Jays pitching problems really manifested themselves in Saturday’s loss to the Astros. Starter Marco Estrada had trouble economizing his pitch count, and even though he had a season-high 8Ks, he was gone from the game after having thrown 98 pitches in 5 innings. Which meant that the bullpen had to get 12 outs against the potent Astros offence, the first two of which were put into the hands of lefty reliever Jeff Francis, whom lefthanded hitters are now hitting .375 against. Brought in to get out the first two hitters in the sixth (who were, you guessed it, lefthanders), Francis gave up a pair of hard hits, and was lifted from the game in favour of righthander Liam Hendriks. Hendriks fared even worse, giving up a Home Run to Chris Carter, followed by a long, loud flyball to Hank Conger, and then another homer to Marwin Gonzalez before eventually getting out of the inning. Francis and Hendriks demonstrated why, as an opponent, you want to get deep into the opposition’s bullpen – the likelihood of journeymen pitchers like those two getting even six outs before things get turned over the the back of the bullpen is low. Conversely, your chances of winning increase when your starter can last at least one or two outs into the sixth inning or beyond. And Blue Jays starters have not done that often. Of the starters, only R.A. Dickey is averaging more than 6 innings per start.
Of course, at the outset of spring training, this seemed like a remote possibility. The rotation was burgeoning with promise. Drew Hutchison was drawing Roy Halladay comps, Marcus Stroman was touted as a future Cy Young winner, and vets Dickey and Mark Buehrle would fare better because they wouldn’t be counted on to anchor the rotation as much as they had their first two years north of the border, and Aaron Sanchez was going to lock down games in the 9th inning, because Daniel Norris was going to win the fifth starter’s job. Fast forward two months, and the picture looks radically different: Stroman is out for the season after tearing up his ACL in the first week of spring training; Hutchison has a 6.17 ERA (although only a 4.10 FIP), Dickey is struggling through one of his worst stretches as a starter, Buehrle, after a rough 2nd half of last year, appears to be on fumes, and Sanchez is the runaway leader in walks in the American League, while Norris is learning to command his stuff (9Ks and 3 walks Saturday) in Buffalo.
Of the bullpen arms, really only rookie Roberto Osuna and, after a slow start, Brett Cecil, have been dependable. Aaron Loup has been hampered by a bad back, Steve Delabar has made a return to the majors but has yet to pitch in a high leverage situation, and Ryan Tepera has shown promise but is still getting his feet wet. Miguel Castro became the closer after a scintillating March, but as MLB hitters made adjustments to him, Castro’s fastball command slipped, and he found himself in Buffalo with Norris.
Blue Jays fans may be fuming that GM Alex Anthopoulos didn’t do enough to upgrade the bullpen this offseason. But let’s face it – spending huge dollars on relief arms is highly risky business. The shelf life of most MLB relievers is incredibly short. And while the bullpen hasn’t been great, it’s not the worst one in the league, according to the most recent ESPN rankings. Working in the limelight, however, it’s highly noticeable when the bullpen fails to do its job.
Even catcher Russell Martin has not been immune to the pitching staff’s struggles. Long regarded as one of the game’s best pitch framers, his ranking in that new area of baseball quantification have fallen off considerably this year, which at least in part can be attributed to the pitching staff’s wildness.
2. A Feast or Famine Offence
The Blue Jays lead MLB in Runs Scored per game, but that statistic has been heavily skewed by 7 wins in which they scored 10 or more runs. But given the pitching staff’s woes, there’s pressure to put up runs almost every game – the Blue Jays are 2-16 when they score four runs or less.
And those outbursts have covered up the fact that the team has struggled at the plate, especially in May. Devon Travis, the AL Rookie of the Month for April, has hit .185/.241/.315 this month. The team has been carried over the past few weeks for the most part by Martin and Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion‘s bat has finally come to life, but the offence drops off markedly after that. Kevin Pillar continues to be Kevin Pillar, making highlight reel catches in the outfield, but still showing poor pitch recognition at the plate, posting a .620 OPS so far. And even Jose Bautista has had his struggles. Limited to DH duties by a shoulder strain, Bautista dispelled some of the doubts as to his ability to swing the bat with a long home run in Houston, Bautista is getting on base at his usual clip, but has struggled to put balls in play.
Clearly, due to injury, inconsistency, and the failure of some of the young players to produce as anticipated, the lineup has some holes, and while this team can put up 10 runs in a hurry, they can also go into a funk that can last several games.
Every club has to deal with this one, but looking back, the injuries to Stroman and Michael Saunders have proven to be possibly even larger than was thought at the time of their initial surgeries. Stroman’s injury, as noted above, immediately weakened the bullpen, which may have been Aaron Sanchez’s eventual landing spot, while Saunders’ knee woes meant that the planned Dalton Pompey–Kevin Pillar platoon had to be shelved, and Pompey proved, like Norris, that despite a breakout 2014, he wasn’t quite ready for full-time duty. Chris Colabello has provided some short term relief, but the club has not made up for the production from the departed Melky Cabrera.
The cracked rib suffered by Jose Reyes meant that the team has had to go with Ryan Goins at shortstop, and while Goins is an improved player offensively (and is arguably an upgrade over Reyes with the glove), the offence has suffered from Reyes’ absence at the top of the order. Jose Bautista’s strained shoulder has meant more time in the field for Edwin Encarnacion, and less playing time for Justin Smoak. Dioner Navarro‘s value to the club was likely going to be as trade bait, but he has been on the shelf for several weeks, and the at bats he may have gotten have now gone to Josh Thole.
What Should the Blue Jays Do?
There are several options, chief among them:
1. Fire the Manager
This, of course, is the easiest option. Far easier than, say, replacing a starting rotation or a bullpen, say. Still, you can’t help but wonder when a manager is fired early in the season how we was good enough to run the club six weeks earlier. Did he get awfully dumb in a hurry? For a General Manager like Anthopoulos, who knows with a new President/CEO coming on board after the season, the future is now, and firing the manager at least gives the appearance of doing something.
Is Gibbons a good manager or not? That’s hard to say, because in his second tour of duty with the club, he certainly hasn’t been given an All Star-studded lineup to work with. And when his frontline players have gone down, because the organization has gone with a great many high school draftees that take longer to develop, there hasn’t always been the depth to make up for it. All organizations rely on veteran help to plug holes in their lineup and provide injury insurance, but that the Blue Jays still need a Randy Wolf, despite how well he has pitched at AAA, to provide roster depth speaks to the thinness at the highest levels of the system.
Evaluating Gibbons after four games with Houston may not be the most accurate barometer, either. These are not the Lastros, and with prospects Mark Appel and the exciting Carlos Correa likely to join the club at some point this season, they are on an absolute roll at the moment, but they have their own feast or famine offensive issues that may come back to bite them.
Gibbons is on board with the Blue Jays approach, and use of advanced metrics. That may be reason enough to stay the course with him. As many have pointed out, Gibbons can’t wield a bat or throw a pitch, and can only use players management has given him.
2. Fire the General Manager
While this may make the casual fans who seem to call for Anthopoulos’ head after every loss happy, such a move during the regular season rarely makes sense. The June draft of college and high school players is one of the most important dates on the baseball calendar, and with that even just weeks away, teams rarely (if ever) pull the rug out from underneath the efforts of their scouting department by firing their General Manager prior to the it.
While he no doubt is on the hot seat, Anthopoulos’ day of reckoning will come the day after the Blue Jays final game of the season, whenever that is. Firing the GM right now sends a message to candidates who might be interested in the position that this is an organization that flies by the seat of its pants.
3. Make a trade to shake things up
As all GMs are involved in draft preparation at this point, trades rarely happen in the weeks leading up to it. Having said that, the Blue Jays have been actively scouting Cincinnati pitcher Johnny Cueto, an impending free agent who likely will be dealt before the trade deadline. At least 20 other teams are also said to be following Cueto, so this may be more a case of the Blue Jays doing their homework than signs of an impending deal. If and when any dealing is done, it will probably happen after the draft.
Many fans have advocated for dealing Encarnacion and/or Bautista for prospects, and while Branch Rickey said it’s better to trade a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to rip up the heart of the order (especially in the case of players on team-friendly contracts). And the problem with dealing stars for prospects is that teams aren’t willing to give up top-tier prospects like Correa. Yes, the Mets pried Noah Syndergaard away from the Blue Jays in the Dickey deal, but they were also prepared to wait several seasons for him, because he was a lower level player at that time, with a promising upside, but no guarantees.
There is no doubt that a deal could plug some holes in the lineup, but it would likely cost one or more of Sanchez, Norris, Pompey, Castro, or even Jeff Hoffman, who is set to make his first start since Tommy John surgery this week. Veterans like Dickey and Buehrle, despite what many fans think, don’t have a great deal of value. And before we get too excited about Hoffman, who some have said might make a contribution later this year, while most TJ patients experience a return to their former velocity within a year, it takes several more months (as in the case of Osuna) to develop command of it and their secondary pitches. A Stroman-like shot in the arm this year is nice to dream about from Hoffman, but it can’t realistically be counted on.
Francis was designated for assignment overnight, paving the way for the return of Todd Redmond. Norris appears to be on the right track, but the club wants to make certain that he has solved his command issues before he returns. Pompey has struggled since his demotion, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Otherwise, there are few players at Buffalo or New Hampshire who could make much more than a limited contribution this season. One move worth considering would be to insert southpaw Matt Boyd into Francis’ long relief role (which appears to have gone, for the time being, to Redmond). The knock against Boyd is that he didn’t have the velocity to pitch in a relief role, and it may be true that his mix of four pitches and feel for pitching might be better suited to a starter’s job. At the same time, he’s struck out better than a batter per inning again this year, and his delivery, which features a high leg kick and a slight hitch before he releases the ball, has limited Eastern League lefthanded hitters to a .171 average this year. Just as the club decided to bring first Sanchez, and then Osuna up to the majors in a relief role, this may be the perfect niche for Boyd.
4. Stay the Course
While this may alienate many fans, this is the likeliest course of action. The only place to go for the starting rotation, it would seem, would be upward. Reyes and Bautista will eventually get back to full health.
If the season doesn’t turn around, however, it almost guarantees a huge overhaul of both on field and off field personnel at season’s end.