Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Ten random thoughts at the All-star break and the (unofficial) midway point of the 2021 MLB season


Here we are, the unofficial halfway point of the 2021 MLB season. Time for a look back and a look ahead to the rest of the season and the trade deadline. Expectations were high after the Blue Jays squeaked into the extended playoffs as the final Wild card team. There was much excitement over the signing of George Springer, who was expected to be the first legit leadoff hitter since Jose Reyes was the man at the top of the batting order. The rotation was a bit deeper with the addition of lefty Steven Matz. Marcus Semien was an interesting addition to the infield. Kurby Yates was expected to anchor the bullpen and close. Then reality hit and a slew of injuries to the bullpen that forced Charlie Montoyo to use pitchers in roles they weren't ideal for. Springer suffered an oblique injury in spring training and a quad injury that would keep him out of the lineup essentially until June. Yates barely threw a pitch before requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. Virtually every reliever, except Tim Mayza either spent time on the IL or was demoted to the Alt squad or AAA-ball. The Blue Jays made critical errors defensively that would cost them several games. The Blue Jays even had a crisis at the catcher position when Danny Jansen went down with a strained hamstring, leaving Reese McGuire and Riley Adams as the healthy catching options. Here are ten random thoughts at the midway point of the 2021 season.

1. Let's kick things off by looking at the off-season acquisitions and players who went elsewhere. The big acquisition was the signing of free agent George Springer, who was expected to bat leadoff and play CF. Unfortunately, he spent the first 2 months of the season on the IL with an oblique injury that was expected to keep him out the first couple of weeks of the season. Then Springer strained a quad running the bases as he neared a return from the oblique strain. He came back for 4 games as DH, getting three hits including a pair of HR against the Braves May 1. He tweaked the quad again and missed the next 6 weeks before finally returning June 22. Springer missed playing against his former team and will now have to wait until 2022 to face the Astros. He has played 20 games, half as DH and half in the field. Hopefully he can play more games in the field in the second half.

Kirby Yates was supposed to be the closer who replaced Ken Giles, who had Tommy John surgery himself in September 2020 and signed with Seattle in the off-season. Ironically, Yates would barely throw a pitch before needing TJ surgery himself. Jordan Romano has done a great job as closer, with 7 saves and a sparkling 1.93ERA in 33 games. Rafael Dolis has also contributed with 3 saves, but he must give Charlie Montoyo heartburn trying to get three outs. 

Tommy Millone was inked to be a fifth-starter/long reliever. Unfortunately, he went down May 27 with left shoulder inflammation. He is on a rehab assignment so he could be a recall option soon. In 6 games, Millone is 1-0 with a 6.43ERA. 

Marcus Semien has been among the greatest successes this season. He is the undisputed leadoff hitter and has been steady defensively, mostly at SS. In 87 games, Semien is batting .277 with 22HR and 56 RBI.

Tyler Chatwood, currently on the 10-day-IL, has been a disappointment. The hope was he could regain the form that made him an effective pitcher earlier in his career. Chatwood is 1-2 with an ugly 5.46 ERA in 30 games with 20 walks. Worse, he's reacted badly a couple of times when Montoyo  came to remove him from games, appearing to show up his manager. Hopefully the recent acquisitions and future acquisitions at the trade deadline push Chatwood to a lesser role. At this point, I wouldn't put Chatwood on a potential playoff roster.

Turning to the 2020 players now playing elsewhere, we begin with corner infielder Travis Shaw, who played the corner infield positions during his time with the Blue Jays. The biggest impact his departure has been defensively. Cavan Biggio has played the bulk of the games at the hot corner, along with Joe Panik, who was recently traded to Miami for Adam Cimber, Combined, Espinal, Panik and Biggio have committed 18 errors this season. You can't give teams extra ABs

Acquired at the trade deadline last season, Jonathan Villar split time playing 2B and SS over 22 games. He batted .188 and drove in 6 runs. I would say Semien has been a more than adequate replacement. Villar signed on with the Mets and is batting .235 with 1 HR and 9RBI over 68 gsames. He's committed 6 errors.

One player the Blue Jays are probably wishing they had resigned is righty Taijuan Walker. The ex-Mariners draft pick is heading to the all-star game and has been one of the bright spots for the Mets. Walker is 7-3 with a 2.50ERA over 16 starts. Certainly he might have pitched deeper into games and perhaps the Blue Jays don't go to the bullpen as soon a couple of starts. 

The Blue Jays made the right decision to let Matt Shoemaker go. He's having a terrible season in Minnesota with a 3-8 record and a brutal 8.06ERA.

2. September 29, 2019. That is the last day the Blue Jays played an MLB game in Toronto. A little global pandemic forced the Blue Jays to play out of Buffalo for 2020 and since June 1st this season (they played the first two months out of Dunedin). For the most part, the Blue Jays have done well in their temporary homes, going 17-9 and outscoring opponents 159-136 in 2020 and 19-20 while outscoring opponents 223-194. There were no fans allowed in the stands so there was no such thing as home field advantage, other than having last AB. Often times in 2021 however, home games have looked and sounded like away games with the opponents seeming to have more fans. The border being closed to nonessential traffic hasn't helped, meaning the Blue Jays had to rely on snowbirds who flew down south anyway. At this time, July 30 is the target date for the Blue Jays returning to Toronto, that will largely be dependent on the border being reopened. Don't be surprised if that date is pushed back to September 1st with vaccination rates being a key factor.

3. Three Blue Jays who have impressed:

  • Marcus Semien - Signed to 1 year $18 million dollar contract, Semien was expected to bat lower in the lineup with George Springer in the leadoff spot. That all changed when Springer pulleed his oblique. Semien has been in the leadoff spot and done a solid job, batting .277 with 22HR and 56RBI. He's gotten on base .345% of the time. Semien is the first Blue Jays SS to make the all-star team since Tony Fernandez in 1989 (Fernandez made the All-star game as a Blue Jay a decade later, but as a 3B).
  • Vladimir Guerrero Jr. - At the beginning of the season, one of the MLB reporters predicted that Vlad would win the MVP award this season. Signed as a free agent amateur in 2015, Guerrero Jr. has mirrored his father of the same name who is a hall-of-famer. Both Guerrero's hit 50HR in 258 games. If you look at their swings, they look remarkably similar. Vlad goes into the all-star break leading the league in average (.332), RBI (73), on-base% (.430), times on base (161), runs created (89),is 2nd in HR (28) and total bases (208) and 3rd in extra-base hits (46). Defensively, he is 5th in the league with an impressive .993 fielding%. Oh, and Vlad lead the league in number of all-star votes.
  • Reese McGuire - This was a tough choice between a catcher who looked like his career with the Blue Jays was over after an awful 2020 campaign at the plate and a trade acquisition in Robbie Ray, who has blossomed into the Blue Jays best pitcher. Ray took a no-hitter into the 7th inning on Sunday so he gets an honorable mention. Reese McGuire gets the nod here though. Acquired in a 2016 trade with Pittsburgh, along with Francisco Liriano and Harold Ramirez for Drew Hutchison, McGuire started 2020 as backup to Danny Jansen. He had a brutal year at the plate with just 3 hits in 41 AB over 19 games. He was gifted another opportunity in the majors when Alejandro Kirk went down with a hip flexor injury that would keep Kirk out until the all-star break (Kirk was recently activated off the 60-day IL but is being kept in AAA ball for more playing time). McGuire took full advantage of the opportunity, batting .278 with 1 HR and 6RBI over 41 games. His place on the roster likely hinges on his bat continuing to be productive because Kirk and #6 prospect Gabriel Moreno are knocking on the door.

4. Three Blue Jays who have disappointed:

  • Nate Pearson - The Blue Jays #1 prospect cannot stay healthy. Pearson has made just one start all season and it was ugly: 3 runs on 4 hits and 5 walks  and no strikeouts over 2.1 innings. He's on the shelf with a groin injury and is in the process of seeking a third opinion. The big thing is to get him healthy, even if surgery is required. After that, he should start in AAA-ball and prove himself there before he is recalled to the big club. Pearson has been mentioned in a few trade rumors too.
  • Tyler Chatwood - Signed to a one-year deal, Chatwood has had some brutal outings this season that have cost the Blue Jays wins. His last game, Chatwood retired 2 batters, but gave up 2 runs on 2 hits and walked 2. Six days earlier, he allowed 3 hits on 1 hit and 2 walks. On May 30 vs. Cleveland, Chatwood walked five batters and gave up 2 runs and a hit. Five days later, Chatwood did not retire a batter and gave up 5 runs on 6 hits. More concerning is Chatwood has reacted poorly when Montoyo came to remove him from the game. Chatwood's on the IL with a neck strain, but when he returns he may not get many high leverage situations
  • Rafael Dolis - It's been more of the same from the former Cubs closer, who is among the slowest working pitchers. All that time collecting himself hasn't helped his pitch efficiency or walks. Dolis routinely takes 20+ pitches to get through an inning. He has also had injury concerns this season with complaints of lack of feeling in his pitching hand. He's blown 1 save this season.
5. It's a bit difficult to really compare this season to last season, so let's look at where the Blue Jays are compared to 2019, the last time there was a full 162-game season. in 2019, the Blue Jays went into the all-star break with a 34-57 record. This season, the Blue Jays are 45-42 at the break. A couple of interesting stats. The Blue Jays are 6-10 in 1-run games and 14-9 in blowouts (defined as 5+ run differential). The Blue Jays are an even 3-3 in 7-inning double-headers (the MLB kept the 2020 rule of double headers being 7 innings each). The Blue Jays are 2-5 in extra inning games. So what does all this tell us? The bullpen has been less than adquate, which is a crying shame considering the juggernaut that is the Blue Jays offense. Another key stat is the interdivisional recaord. Against teams from the AL East, the Blue Jays are 21-22. They have done the worst against the Rays (5-8) and the best against the Orioles (6-3). 

6. OK, let's take a look at the remaining schedule. As it stands, the Blue Jays are 3rd in the AL East, 8 games back of Boston for the division. They are 4.5 back of the 2nd WC spot, currently held by Oakland, who they face at home Sep 3-5. They face Seattle, currently 3.5 games back of the 2nd WC spot Aug 13-15 in Seattle. They'll take on Cleveland, who they're tied with in the WC standings Aug 2-6 at home. Coming out of the all-star break, the Blue Jays play 6 straight through July 21, then they play 16 straight through Aug 6.  The Blue Jays have 75 games left, 42 of which are at home and 34 vs. the AL East (10 each vs. Boston and Baltimore, 6 vs. TB and 8 against the Yankees). To me, the toughest stretch will be Sep 13-30 where they face the Rays (3 home 3 away) Yankees (3 home) and Twins (3 home 4 away) in a brutal 17 game in 18 day stretch. Strap yourselves in guys, the stretch drive will not be easy.

7. After the all-star game is done, the Blue Jays will be starting to think about the trade deadline. They've already made a couple of moves to shore up the bullpen, sending Rowdy Tellez to the Brewers for Trevor Richards and Joe Panik to Miamu for Adam Cimber. The bullpen and potentially an extra starting pitcher would appear to be what the Blue Jays would need. Expect the Blue Jays to be buyers, given they are reasonably close to the 2nd WC spot and still have to face the teams they are tied with and/or trailing. They could include an outfielder, such as Randal Grichuk ot Lourdes Gurriel Jr., especially since they got Corey Dickerson from Miami in the deal that sent Joe Panik the other way. The Blue Jays are also flush with catchers and may include one of Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire or Alejandro Kirk in a deal. Players they may target include Craig Kimbrel, Jose Berros or Greg Holland. The Royals, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Pirates, Rangers, and Orioles will be definite sellers. Other teams may opt to sell as well if they get off to poor second half starts.

8. The 2021 baseball draft was held yesterday and today. I profess I no ZERO about the prospects, but I will say this: this year's draft was unique in that amateur sports was largely shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that rampsged through the wotld and continues to affect so many people. It was interesting to see how teams came to their decisions with a lost year of sports. The players in the various minor league systems lost a year of development with the minor league system shut down for 2020. You have to wonder how that will affect their prospects of making the majors.

9. Finally, talk about a reversal of fortunes in the AL East. The Boston Red Sox are leading the AL East and close to getting their ace Chris Sale back from TJ surgery. At the other end of the spectrum, the NY Yankees are battling the Baltimore Orioles for the basement in the AL East. Their offemse has completely let them down with no batter hitting .300. They've also seen Gerritt Cole and Aroldis Chapmant implode since the crackdown on foreign substance use by pitchers. 

10: Blue Jay of the 1st half: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Who else could it be but Vlad, who has a chance at a triple crown. He leads the AL in RBI and average and is just 4HR back of Shohei Ohtani for the AL lead. Shy's the limit for the protogee to hall-of-famer Vladimir Guerrero, who, by the way, was going to play for the Blue Jays in 2012 but was instead released.