Monday, January 4, 2021

Ten random thoughts: - A look back at 2020 and a look ahead to 2021


2020 was quite the year for sports. First, a global pandemic effectively shut down sports around the world for several months (baseball returned at the end of July). Second, racism and the black lives movement became front and center yet again with the police shootings of several victims of color. This time, athletes took a stand and boycotted games. In the MLB, most teams opted to participate in the boycott, but a few games did go on. The MLB and its team further showed it's support with #BLM decals on the pitching mounds and the sleeves of jerseys. On the field, the Blue Jays had a solid season with a 32-28 record, good for 3rd in the AL East and good enough to make the playoffs with expanded playoffs. Had this been a typical year with three division winners and 2 WC teams, the Blue Jays would have missed the playoffs. They were ousted in 2 games that weren't close by the eventual WS runner-ups the Tampa Bay Rays, who have been a thorn in the Blue Jays side in recent years. The Blue Jays essentially played 60 road games when the Canadian government refused to allow them to play in Toronto (they played their "home" games at their AAA affiliate in Buffalo. I'll also touch on Charlie Montoyo, who is entering the final year of his contract (although there is a club option for a 4th year), the closer role with Ken Giles not going to pitch in 2021 after late season TJ surgery and more. Here are ten random thoughts from the MLB.

1. Going into the 2020 season, the Blue Jays were looking to build on a 2019 campaign that saw them go 12-6 in their last 18 games. They had signed free agent Hyun-Jin Ryu to a 4-year deal, they had closer Ken Giles, who's pretty close to automatic with a lead, they had a few prospects (Nate Pearson, Alejandro Kirk, and Anthony Kay) on the verge of making the bigs on a full-time basis. They were looking for other young guns, such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio to build on their rookie campaigns. They needed Matt Shoemaker to successfully return from his ACL tear. Liike in any season, some players exceeded expectations, and others could have been better. Bo Bichette, who missed half the season with a  sprained knee, had a solid season with a .301 batting average, 5HR and 23RBI. Randal Grichuk led the team in RBI (35) and was second in HR (12). Teoscar Hernandez was the best slugger on the team with 16 HR and 34 RBI. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. led the team with a .308 average. The catchers were not good, offensively or defensively (Danny Jansen hit a mere .183 with 6 HR and 20RBI. He threw out 6/20 base stealers, made 2 errors, coughed up 3 passed balls and 8 wild pitches. Alejandro Kirk showed great promise with a .375 average in the 9 games he played, but he failed to throw out a base runner in 4 tries). 

In terms of pitching, Ryu lived up to expectations with a 5-2 record and a 2.69ERA in 12 starts. Ryu was the only pitcher to pitch 7 innings (unfortunately that was a few days before his playoff start and he looked terrible in that start). After him, Tanner Roark was decent going 2-3 with a 6.80 ERA (ERA can be a deceptive stat because it can look ugly after a bad start or two, but pitchers can lower it over the course of a season).  Shoemaker bounced back nicely from his ACL surgery and was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2020 season, though he missed time with shoulder inflammation). Taijuan Walker was a solid trade acquisition. He was 2-1 with a 1.37ERA in 6 starts. As a whole, there has to be concern that starters struggled to get through 5 innings, and yes I know that their spring training was disrupted and there was little time through an abbreviated summer training to build back up. Still, you generally want your starters going 6-7 innings most nights to keep the bullpen fresh. 

Speaking of the bullpen, the Blue Jays were having to get a bit creative in the final innings when closer Ken Giles went down with a forearm strain, and eventually needed Tommy John surgery that will keep him out the entire 2021 season. Giles appeared in just 4 games in 2020 before being shut down. In his absence, Anthony Bass became the de facto closer, notching seven saves, a 2-3 record and had a respectable 3.51ERA in 26 games. Rafael Dolis, who started the season on a bad note, grew into one of Montoyo's most reliable pitchers with 5 saves and went 2-2 with a solid 1.50ERA in 24 games. AJ Cole was excellent as a set-up man, going 3-0 with a 3.09ERA, 1 save in 24 games. The bullpen struggled in extra-inning games with a 5-6 record and in one of the wins, they just eked out the win. Hopefully the pitchers get a full spring training so the bullpen can be used a bit less in 2021

2. One big question heading into 2021 is who's on 1st (or rather 3rd). After the 2019 season, there was talk among the organizations bigwigs that it might be best to move highly touted prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. across the diamond to 1st base. The plan all along was to eventually move him to 1st base to save his knees and body. Like David Ortiz was in Boston, eventually Vlad will become a full-time DH. The idea to move Vlad across the diamond might have worked better if the Blue Jays played him in the field every day so he could adapt quicker and get through the learning curve. To say the least, Vlad was making 1st base look very hard to play in the beginning. He directly cost the Blue Jays a couple of wins early on with his coverage on grounders. Vlad also was making the catches on throws from infielders look exceedingly difficult due to his approach defensively. He played the hot corner in the Arizona fall league. The big question will be if he can continue to shed some of the excess pound so the Blue Jays would have the confidence to play him in the field on a daily basis, because that's the only way to get him to improve his defense.

3. Manager Charlie Montoyo is entering an important year, with his contract set to expire, unless the Blue Jays exercise the option year in his deal, at the end of 2021. Montoyo's first season at the helm wasn't great with the team finishing 67-95, 4th in the AL East (then again, there were no expectations of playoffs). There were some successes to hang his hat on (Vlad, Bo and Cavan made the bigs permanently to varying successes), Ken Giles pitched lights out when the game was on the line). His second year, the team exceeded expectation under extraordinary circumstances (they weren't allowed to play in Toronto) and made the playoffs in the last week of the season. Some of the critiques of Montoyo include, his management of the pitching staff and pulling starters too soon, his strategy offensively with regards to bunting and his lineups. Do the Blue Jays need to make the playoffs for him to earn an extension? Should the Blue Jays move on from him after this season? If so, who do you replace Montoyo with?

4. Another area of question in 2021 is who will close for the Blue Jays? Ken Giles won't be pitching in 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery October 1st. That surgery takes at least a year to return from. AJ Cole and Anthony Bass are both free agents and not guaranteed to be in a Blue Jays uniform. Rafael Dolis is the next best option (his option was exercised by the team so he's back in the fold), but he can be prone to wildness and off-nights. The Blue Jays could look at the free agency market, as there are some former closers still available (Wade Davis, Sean Doolittle to name a couple). The Blue Jays could also try making a trade, but who would they give up in return? The best bet might be bringing back Bass or Dolis.

5. One intriguing free agents the Blue Jays appear on the verge of signing to a hefty contract is outfielder George Springer. The one really big turnoff is that he was part of the 2018 Houston Astros team that got caught cheating by stealing signs and letting the hitters know when a breaking ball was coming by banging trash cans. Springer would be a solid addition to the Blue Jays, allowing Randal Grichuk to play in center field full time. He's a three-time all-star and won the silver slugger twice as best hitter (2017 and 2019). Springer was the MVP of the 2017 WS. Defensively, he's solid and has committed just three errors in the past 3 years.  I believe most fans would (and should) look past his transgression as a cheater.

6. It's been a slow start to the free agency season with the uncertainty as to the start of the 2021 season and an expiring CBA and a possible shutdown looming. There's several decent players still up for grabs. The Blue Jays could kick the tires on an extra starting pitcher and sign Canadian lefty James Paxton. They could also opt to solidify their catchers by bringing in JT Realmoto.. How about a reliever? Liam Hendriks is still looking for a home. Here's a list of the remaining free agents. Who would you like to see in a Blue Jays uniform? 

7. Spring training is supposed to open in just over a month with the Blue Jays first grapefruit league game slated for February 28 against the Phillies. Whether the doors open on time is really dependent on what the situation is in Florida with respect to COVID-19 and whether the players and owners have worked out a satisfactory plan to play (including testing of players/staff members, what to do in the event of a positive case, etc.) A bigger issue for the Blue Jays is where they will be playing. The Canadian/US border remains closed to non-essential travel and Canada still has a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The NHL came to an agreement to let teams play in Canada, but they formed a temporary all-Canadian division and teams are only playing within their own division. The Raptors had to start play in Orlando in December after it couldn't come to an agreement to play in Toronto. Certainly the governments (both provincial and federal) have to be concerned with what's happening in the NFL with respect to outbreaks among teams. Ontario is already having a terrible time with their daily case count in the thousands and they are in the midst of a month long province-wide lockdown. Lots to work out. Hopefully they can hash it out and play ball on time.

8. One big question in 2021 is when fans will return to watch their teams live? Another question is when players (and staff members) will get vaccinated. Let's start by tackling the issue of players getting vaccinated. This is a bit of a hornet's nest. On the one hand, baseball (and sports in general) is an important part of every day life and people enjoy watching athletes perform. On the other hand, pro athletes are probably the least likely to die or suffer severe consequences from COVID-19, given their elite fitness levels and age. If athletes kept their proper place in line, they will likely get their turn in the late summer/early fall (so well into the baseball season). There will be a ton of backlash if athletes are allowed to jump the queue and get vaccinated over, say, a paramedic. I might be ok with athletes jumping the queue a bit, provided there is sufficient vaccine for everyone that needs it.  What about the fans? When will they be allowed back in stadiums and under what circumstances will they be permitted. Will we need to prove we have gotten the vaccine and/or be made to wear a mask? Some NFL teams are already allowing limited fans in the stadium and there have been some problems with drunk fans fighting. The MLB allowed limited fans for the World series and it seemed to work pretty well. Teams should consider offering a discount on tickets or some incentives to get fans back in the stadiums when fans are allowed back in. Personally, I'd be ok attending a game, once I, and most other fans were vaccinated. I can also see there being a vaccination requirement to enter the stadium, or needing to wear a mask.

9. Finally, here's some bold predictions for 2021. You guys might spit out your morning coffee at #6, especially you Scott. As far as MVP candidates go, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio have been more worthy of consideration than Vlad. Heading into the 2019 season, Vlad was the most highly touted of the big three prospects that would go onto big league careers. In actuality, Bo has been the best of the three thus far. Blue Jays as division champs? Sorry, that's probably the Rays and the Yankees are better than the Blue Jays, at least on paper. Never mind division champs, the Blue Jays simply don't have the depth to withstand injuries. Let's see when the first pitch of the year is even thrown.

10. Blue Jay of the year (2020) - Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The 26-year old left fielder had a strong season, leading the team in batting average (.308), was tied for 3rd in RBI (33) and was 3rd in HR (11). Gurriel was also reliable in the field, committing just one error. He's signed through 2023 and won't be a free agent until 2025 (pending the new CBA  terms).