Monday, September 16, 2019

Ten weekly random thoughts: Week 24 -September 9-15

This week was full of highs (taking two of three from Boston and walking off the Yankees Friday) and lows (Tim Mayza injury). The week started with a huge come from behind win over the Red Sox, who had just been eliminated from AL East title contention. TJ Zeuch made his 1st career start, 2nd career appearance. It didn't start out great as his 1st pitch went over the wall for a HR. He settled down after that and gave up 2 more runs on 5 hits while walking three and striking out two. The young guns led the way with Cavan Biggio, Rowdy Tellez and Reese McGuire all smacking big HR over the wall. Biggio, Bo Bichette, and Vlad all made nice plays in the field as well. The next day, The Blue Jays got one of the best pitching performances of the year from Wilmer Font and three relievers. Trent Thornton threw 5 no-hit innings, walking just one batter and striking out 7. The Blue Jays bats provided plenty of run support scoring a combined 8 runs on 9 hits, including 2-run HR by Tellez and Teoscar Hernandez and a 2 run double by Randal Grichuk. The Red Sox took the season series finale Thursday, jumping out to a 4-0 lead after 4 innings they would not relinquish. The Blue Jays had an opportunity to tie and/or take the lead in the bottom of the 8th, but all they could manage was one tun on a bases loaded walk. Elvis Luciano was reinstated off the IL and Clayton Richard was released (more on both later. On Friday, the Blue Jays faced a more formidable opponent in the NY Yankees, who cam into this series with a two game lead for best record in the MLB and home field advantage through the World Series. Friday's game had one of the best moments of the season (huge comeback win) and one of the worst (Tim Mayza injury; more on that later). Anthony Kay got his second career start. The Blue Jays jumped out to a 3-0 lead after 4 innings, then the Yankees got to Zeuch and scored 5 runs on 5 hits and a fielder's choice (the last hit was allowed by reliever Jason Adam). The Blue Jays tied it in the 7th on a balk by Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino. The Mayza injury happened in the 10th and Bichette ended the game with a walk-off HR in the 12th. Obviously, the main concern after the game was for Mayza. On Saturday, Brett Gardner torched Blue Jays pitching, hitting a pair of home runs and a double and 5RBI. He even wounded Blue Jays reliever Jordan Romano with a come-backer off the leg. Romano had the fortitude to lob it to 2nd for the fielder's choice, but he came up limping and was eventually helped off the field by trainer Jose Minstral and Charlie Montoyo.. Luke Volt had 3 runs and 2 RBI as the Yankees battered Blue Jays pitching. James Paxton had a 1-hitter through 4 innings before the Blue Jays got to him a bit in the 5th and managed one run. In the series finale Sunday, The Blue Jays had their second come from behind win in 3 days against the best team in baseball, thanks to Randal Grichuk, who hit a huge 3-run HR in the 5th to give the Blue Jays a 3 run lead they would not relinquish. Zeuch earned his first career win by pitching 5.1 innings. The two teams meet in NY this weekend.

Looking at the week ahead, the Blue Jays head out for their final road trip of the season. After an off-day/travel day Monday, the Blue Jays kick things off in Baltimore. The Blue Jays are 6-7 in 13 meetings against the Orioles so far and have outscored the Orioles 66-53. Next week's meeting against the Yankees might be decidedly scarier with the expected returns of Giancarlos Stanton and flame thrower Luis Severino, who are both expected to return next week. Here are ten random thoughts from week 24 of the MLB.

1. Let's start with the news that's going to impact not only the rest of this season, but all of next season too. On Friday, Tim Mayza came on in the 10th inning looking to keep the game knotted at 5. He threw 8 pitches, 5 2-seam fastballs and 3 sliders. His velocity seemed OK (he hit 94MPH on 4 of the fastballs). On the 8th pitch, something went horribly wrong. First, the pitch went way wide right. Second, the velocity on the fastball was significantly lower (89.7MPH). Mayza immediately fell to the ground in obvious pain and you knew right away that it was a serious injury. MRI results confirmed that Mayza will need TJ surgery to prepare a torn UCL. This surgery usually has an 18-month recovery time and with two weeks left in the season, Mayza will almost certainly be targeting a return in 2021. He was one of the go-to pitchers for Montoyo, so now the Blue Jays could target a lefty reliever in the off-season or turn to Thomas Pannone and/or Buddy Boshers. The Blue Jays might also want to be more selective and target starting pitchers to limit the use of the bullpen so much next year. Mayza finished the year 1-3 with a 4.91ERA in 68 appearances, throwing 51.1 innings.

2. To add insult to injury, the Blue Jays lost righty Jordan Romano less than 24 hrs. later on an awkward catch on a comebacker. He had the fortitude to get the out at second but came up limping and was eventually helped off the field. With just 2 weeks left in the season, the Blue Jays could opt to shut the reliever down. Romano is 0-2 with a 5.23ERA in 12 appearances this season, including Saturday.

3.  The Blue Jays got three pieces of good news this week with the reinstatement of Luciano, Gurriel Jr. and Luke Maile from the IL. The timing of Luciano's return is a bit more critical because he was acquired via the rule 5 draft and must be on the MLB active roster for 90 days or the Blue Jays would have to return him to the KC Royals at season's end. Luciano badly sprained his pitching elbow and hadn't pitched since June 12 before Saturday's appearance. Luciano was 1-0 with a 6.51ERA in 20 appearances prior to the injury.. On Saturday, he threw a scoreless inning, giving up two hits and getting a bit lucky on a DP.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. played his first game in a month with a quad strain suffered hustling to 1st base. He last played August 8th before Saturday. Gurriel Jr. has had a bit of a coming out season since converting from the infield to LF. He has 9 outfield assists and was batting .279 with 19 HR and 47RBI prior to the injury On Saturday, Gurriel had a pair of hits and was hit by a pitch between the hits before being lifted for a pinch runner in the blowout loss. Gurriel Jr. was DH'ing Saturday to ease him back to playing.

Backup catcher Luke Maile was also reinstated Saturday after pulling himself from a scheduled start July 27 after straining an oblique during batting practice. Thankfully nothing happened to Danny Jansen during the game and Reese McGuire arrived in time to catch the final inning of the extra-innings loss. Maile's days as a Blue Jay may be numbered with the emergence of McGuire, who has performed like a veteran since the emergency recall. McGuire is batting .306 with 5HR and 9RBI. He's thrown out 5/17 base runners trying to steal a base and has just the 1 error. Pitchers have thrown 9 wild pitches with him behind the plate (one was the Mayza pitch that sailed way wide left.) Maile is batting .153 with 2HR and 9RBI in 41 games this season. The Blue Jays should give him a few starts to showcase him to other teams.

4. To make room on the roster for Luciano, the Blue Jays released lefty Clayton Richard. Signed as a free agent in the off-season, Clayton Richard missed the bulk of the season with separate knee and lat injuries. The 35-year-old was 1-5 with a 5.96ERA in 10 starts. He adds to the list of failed experiments for a #5 starters, joining Jaime Garcia 3-6 with a 5.93ERA in 25 appearances (13 starts in 2018), Francisco Liriano (6-5 with a 5.88ERA in 18 starts in 2017), and RA Dickey (10-15 with a 4.46ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts) in 2016). The options are limited for starters when you are in the secondary market, and it's tough to draw a stud like Garrett Cole when you're not expected to contend for a few years. Nonetheless, the Blue Jays must be more selective this time around, otherwise more relievers will get hurt.

5. Moving on, attention to detail is important in the game of baseball. You can't give good teams extra at-bats by walking batters or committing errors in the field. Take Thursday vs. the Red Sox for example, the Blue Jays outfielders made three costly errors that led to three runs and that was literally the difference in the game. On Friday, Jonathan Davis made a throwing error on a Client Frazier double, allowing the Yankees to score a run and Frazier scored shortly thereafter.. On Saturday, Brett Gardner reached on a fielding error, but didn't score. I know it's almost the end of the season, but you still have to show up and play everyday. Sure your team might not make the playoffs, but you're playing for your job next year. Guys like Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher are out of options and must make the team next year. Montoyo has enough players with the final 40 man roster expansion that he can sit players who keep making unforced errors.

6. Speaking of players that should be playing for next year, Rowdy Tellez was benched after the 6th inning Friday after failing to hustle down to 1st base on a ground out. Montoyo sent him a message by moving Billy McKinney from the outfield to 1B to start the 7th. Tellez did not play Saturday or Sunday either. Like Davis, Fisher, and Alford, Tellez is out of options next year and must make the team. He has a golden opportunity with the contract of Justin Smoak expiring and the Blue Jays not expected to re-sign the veteran. Tellez is batting .222 with 19HR and 49RBI in 100 games.

7. We'll end things off this week with a look at the three outfield positions present and future. Three weeks ago, I started this series looking  at the starting pitchers (see point 9 here). Two weeks ago, I analyzed the relievers, catchers and first basemen (see points 6-8 here). Last week, I analyzed the remaining infield positions, 2B, SS, and 3B (see points 6-8 here). This week, I will break down the three outfield positions, LF, CF, and RF. Because pretty much everyone who has played in the outfield this year has played multiple positions, I'm going to break down each player at their PRIMARY position (the one they've played most this season. For example, Randal Grichuk has played both CF and RF this season, but he's played more games in right, so I'll discuss him in point 9). Socrates Brito and Alen Hanson both played a handful of games in the outfield, but both have since been released so I won't break their performances down.

Outfield is a unique position in baseball that presents unique challenges with different dimensions and shapes ballpark to ballpark. Roger's Center where the Blue Jays play is a more traditional round shape. You go to Fenway park and you deal with the infamous Green Monster if you're in left field and obscure angles in RF and CF. Progressive Field in Cleveland and Minute Maid park in Houston also have high walls in left field, though not as tall as Fenway Park. You go to Oakland and the bullpens are in the field of play. Irregardless of the unique challenges outfielders face in each stadium, there are still fundamental skills (footwork and being able to catch the ball being key) that apply anywhere. It's these fundamentals that the Blue Jays outfielders have been lacking.

All right, let's get into looking at the left fielders. Let's start with one of the Blue Jays biggest success stories of the season. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. started the year as an infielder looking to rebound after a tough season defensively. He played the first 9 games of the season at 2B, but made 2 costly errors at the position and his offence was taking a hit. The team sent him down mid-April to Buffalo to work on his swing and get some regular playing time. While there, the decision was made to convert him to the outfield. I was skeptical of the move at first because Chuck Knoblauch also tried a similar conversion and ended up retiring early. Luckily this has not been the case at all for Gurriel Jr., who has seen his season turn completely after the position change. Gurriel Jr. has 9 outfield assists, 0 errors and has been part of 1 DP in 62 games in LF. Offensively, he is batting .283 with 19 HR and 47RBI over 80 games this season. I'll analyze Teoscar Hernandez when I get to the CF, but defensively, he has 5 assists, has committed 3 errors and been part of 2 DP in 38 games (35 starts) in LF this season. Eric Sogard played one game in LF and did not make a play (no ball was hit to him that day). In 25  games (23 starts) in LF, Billy McKinney has 1 assist and committed 1 error. Acquired in the July 31st trade that sent Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini to the Astros, Derek Fisher has been an adventure defensively. His first game as a Blue Jay resulted in him missing a routine fly ball completely and taking it off the face. He sported a black eye for several games and sat out a game or two as well. In 21 games (20 starts) in LF, Fisher has 1 assist, 2 errors and been part of 1DP. Even when he makes a play, Fisher makes it look way harder than it has to be due to poor footwork. He has good speed, which you want in an outfielder, but he sure doesn't use it effectively. Fisher has been benched the past 2 games after 2 critical errors in Friday's win that never should have happened. Offence has also been a struggle for Fisher since joining the Blue Jays. He's batting .158 with 5 HR and 10RBI in 31 games as a Blue Jay. He's struck out 33 times in 76AB. The remainder of the year and Spring training next year will be critical for Fisher because he is out of options and must make the team next year. Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey and Jonathan Davis face the same situation. Davis had 3PO in the 1 game he played in LF this season. Richard Urena played 3 innings in LF and had 1PO. Finally, Anthony Alford has played 2 games in LF and has 2 PO. Brandun Drury has played 8 games in LF and has 15PO.

8. Moving onto the toughest of the three outfield positions to play because it requires a ton of running and those playing the position need to cover a lot of ground, including backing up the corner outfielders sometimes. It was a year of transition for the Blue Jays triggered by an early season trade of Kevin Pillar, who had been the Blue Jays starting CF for the past 6 seasons (2013-2019). He played just 4 games this season in CF before the April 2 trade to SF that sent reliever Derek Law to the Blue Jays. Since then, playing time in CF has been pretty evenly split between Grichuk, Hernandez and Davis. Grichuk is a lock to make the team, as he is inked through the 2023 season. In 60 games (54 starts) in CF this season, Grichuk has 3 assists, 1 error and been part of 1 DP. Hernandez has gotten the bulk of the starts in CF (71 games, 65 starts) and has 2 assists. His defense is much improved over last year where he committed 8 errors in 119 games. It appears that Hernandez is more of a natural fit as a center fielder than in either corner position. To be sure, he looks more comfortable when handling fly balls in CF. Hernandez is still struggling at the plate, batting .219 with 22HR and 55RBI. He has struck out 140 times. Davis has 24 games (19 starts) in CF, including the 9th inning of Sunday's game. He has committed 1 error. Like Pompey, Fisher and, Alford, Davis must make the team next year as he is out of minor league options. He needs to improve offensively if he wants to make the team next year. He's batting .155 with 1HR and 3RBI in 25 games and 71AB this season. He has struck out 20 times. In 3 games in CF, Fisher has 8PO. Alford has played 1 game in CF and has 4PO

9. Finally, let's turn our attention to RF where the situation appears to be most stable. This season, playing time has mainly been split between Grichuk and McKinney. Grichuk, who is currently the highest paid Blue Jay after signing a 5 year $52 million extension that kicked in this season, has been the primary RF this season, playing 83 games  (75 starts). He has 3 outfield assists, 1 error and been part of 1DP. He has also had to pick up the slack from the Pillar trade and has a further 60 games in CF. He appears equally suited for either position, but his durability has been a blessing, especially since the Blue Jays have had essentially 2 bench players all year due to the thin pitching. Grichuk is batting .235 with 26HR and 67RBI in 140 games this season. McKinney, who has the next most games in RF with 38 games (33 starts) has been bouncing between the minors and majors for much of the season. He has one more option year left, so expect more of the same treatment next year. McKinney has 1 assist and has committed 2 errors in RF. He is batting .211 with 9HR and 23RBI in 73 games this season. Drury, who has played 6 of the 9 baseball positions this season (catcher, pitcher and center field are the only positions he hasn't played this season), has played 18 games (15 starts) in RF and has 29PO. He's batting .223 with 14HR and 40RBI in 115 games this season, including Sunday. Sogard played 6 games (5 starts) in RF before the trade to the Rays and had 15PO.

10. Blue Jay of the week: Grichuk, who extended his hitting streak to 8 games with a pair of hits Sunday. He was THE reason the Blue Jays won Sunday. With the game tied at 3 in the 5th, Grichuk hit a mammoth 3-run bomb to the second deck in left off Yankees reliever Nestor Cortes Jr. He also had a second HR earlier in the game to knot the game at 3.