Monday, July 10, 2023

Ten random thoughts all star edition


We have now reached the all star break and it is now time for a look back at the first half of baseball for the Blue Jays. There was a baby boom with Chris Bassitt,  Adam Cimber and George Springer all taking time off to welcome offspring into the world. Kevin Gausman (1500K) and Trevor Richards (500K) both reached milestone in strikeouts. There were highs (Yusei Kikuchi resurrection, Bichette having another solid season) and lows    (record VS AL East,  Alek Manoah imploding). All examine all that and more in this special all star edition of my ten random thoughts. I'll catch you all Friday when play resumes against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

1. As per usual, we'll kick off this random thoughts post looking at the injuries from the first half of the season. The Blue jays have largely avoided an injury to a major core player, other than Vlad missing a day here and there and DH'ing with a sore wrist. That wrist injury could certainly have been a factor in Vlad's offensive numbers being down, especially home runs, where he is on pace for his worst home run total since his rookie year in 2019, where he managed 15HR. the bullpen has also dealt with injuries,  notably to Adam Cimber who has had two stints on the IL, currently with a right shoulder impingement and he missed a month in April with a rhomboid strain. Cimber has had a rough season and has been hit hard this season and is 0-2 with a 7.40 ERA in 22 appearances this season. Another struggling reliever Yimi Garcia, avoidedan IL stint, but missed a few days with a sore knee. Garcia has actually been pitching better of late, pitching out of a jam Tim Mayza created on July 2nd and throwing a scoreless inning in a Canada day loss. Zach Pop has also experienced a lengthy lL stint with a hamstring strain suffered way back on May 4th. He is currently on a rehab assignment in Buffalo and has been hit hard in three appearances. Mitch White missed the first two months of the season with right shoulder fatigue. His performance in his rehab changed the Blue Jays mind about his role. The organization now considers him a bulk reliever and not a starter.

The Blue Jays have a pair of pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery. Reliever Chad Green has been facing live batters and is expected to soon begin a rehab assignment. The Blue Jays will want him to be able to handle pitching a couple of days in a row. He'll likely be a 7th or 8th inning guy. Starter Hyun-Jin Ryu made his first then appearance July 4th. His velocity is close to where he needs it to be and his rehab has been going well. With Alek Manoah trying to figure things out,  the Blue Jays could certainly use Ryu in the rotation. Ryu will surely have a lot of motivation to pitch well with his contract expiring at the end of the season. Both catchers have had brief stints in the IL. Danny Jansen missed a couple of weeks with a groin strain suffered running to 1st base in a may 24 game. Alejandro Kirk also required a 10 day stint on the IL after suffering a laceration to his hand in a hit by pitch. The Blue jays got a bit scare towards the end of that time when Tyler Heineman, recalled to replace the injured Kirk, strained his back on an awkward swing in the 8th inning June 25th. At the time, BOTH catchers in triple A were injured. The Blue Jays lost some catching depth when they traded top prospect Gabriel Moreno to Arizona in the off season. In a pinch, Daulton Varsho has experience as a catcher. Perhaps next year, the Blue Jays will give him a few more reps behind the plate during spring training. Thankfully, Jansen and Kirk are pretty durable and the Blue Jays do a good job of rotating the two catchers so one doesn't get too fatigued. A couple of Blue Jays suffered hamstring strains running the bases. Brandon Belt missed a couple of weeks after pulling a hammy scoring a run. His absence didn't have too much impact on the roster since he has been a DH and the backup 1st baseman for Vlad (cavan Biggio can also play 1st base). Santiago Espinal missed a couple of weeks with an injury to his right hamstring suffered in a steal attempt May 24th. Espinal is a utility infielder that can play 2B, SS or 3B. He's not an everyday player so his lineup impact wasn't too great. In a nutshell, the Blue Jays have to be concerned about Cimber, who has had two different injuries.  They also need to be careful with the catching rotation with the lack of depth in the minors. Vlad, Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman and George Springer are the four most important position players on the roster and the Blue Jays do not want to see any of them miss significant time. Springer and Guerrero Jr have injury histories that the Blue Jays need to be mindful of and those are the two players who will get half days off as DH and even occasional full days of to make sure they are fresh and healthy for the games that will matter in September as the Blue Jays try to secure a playoff spot and a deep run. 

2. One really concerning trend this season is the Blue Jays record against the AL East.  They are 7-20 against the AL East.  The Blue Jays have yet to win a game against the AL East basement dwellers Boston Red Sox. They have just one win against the Baltimore Orioles, who are finally looking like a team to avoid in a playoff series after years of being the laughingstock of the MLB with multiple 100+ loss seasons.  The Blue Jays have managed to win three of seven against both the Rays and Yankees. Tampa Bay actually had their loss of of the season and first series loss of the season at the hands of the Blue  Jay in St Petersburg a month later. The Blue Jays also won their first series against the Yankees,  only to have the Yankees win three of four againthe Blue Jays in Toronto to start a tough 2-8 stretch against AL East opponents, including being swept by the Orioles.  Are the Blue Jays taking the Red Sox and Orioles lightly? Last season, the Blue Jays won 16 of 19 games against Boston and outscored the Red Sox 125-55. Thankfully,  the Blue Jays won't face an AL East opponent until Baltimore comes to town starting July 31. However,  the Blue Jays end the season with 15 straight games against AL East opponents,  including 6 each against the Yankees and Rays. That stretch of games could determine whether the Blue Jays even make the playoffs or if they do which wild card spot they will get. In all likelihood, the Blue Jays would face an AL East opponent in a wild card series. 

3. During spring training, manager John Schneider emphasized that the team would focus on attention to detail.  Lack of attention to detail has led both directly and indirectly to several losses. Case in point, on Canada day, the Blue Jays were down s run in the 9th inning with runners on 2nd and 3rd with 2 outs, Vlad hit a sharp base hit right at Alex Verdugo. George Springer trotted in and then encouraged Bo Bichette to come home behind him. Verdugo threw a perfect strike to home and Bichette was out by a mile. Matt Chapman was on deck and was already 2-3 on the day. Surely he would have stood s strong chance of hitting a game tying or game winning RBI against a tiring Kenley z Jansen, who had already thrown over 20 pitches. The next day, Bichette killed a rally getting thrown out at 2nd base after knocking in two runs to give the Blue z Jays the lead.  Same game, Vlad made an in ill advised throw across the diamond to waste a solid effort from all star Kevin Gausman. These are just two examples of why the Blue Jays are where they are in the standings (4th in the AL East and currently out of a playoff spot). Baseball is largely mental andis won by teams that play fundamentally sound baseball. The Blue Jays are dead last with runners in scoring position. 

4. Three Blue Jays who have impressed in the first half

  • Kevin Kiermaier  - Signed by the Blue Jays in the off season in an effort to improve the outfield defense and also add a left-handed bat to the lineup, Kevin Kiermaier has done everything the Blue Jays have asked. He's been excellent in the outfield, taking away a few balls that looked destined to be home runs. At the plate,  Kiermaier is batting a respectable .274 with 4 HR and 19 RBI and leads the league in triples with 5 (through Saturday's games). He is arguably GM Ross Atkins best free agent signing of the 2022-23 off-season.
  • Bo Bichette - Drafted by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 2016 amateur draft, Bo Bichette is quietly having his best season off his career.  Bichette has a solid. 320 average with 15HR and 51 RBI. Bichette leads the league in hits (122), singles (87) AB (381) (through Saturday's games. Defensively, he is still prone to errors,  but even that is tending to be better than the last 2 seasons when Bichette made over 20 errors (so far, Bichette has made 8 errors this season). Bichette will be a reserve player in the all-star game.
  • Kevin Gausman - In the 2nd year of a 5-year deal he signed with the Blue Jays,  Kevin Gausman has been one of the Blue Jays most reliable pitchers with a 7-5 record and a decent 3.03ERA in a league high 19 starts. He has a solid 153 strikeouts,  and until recently led the league in that category,  and recently reached the 1500 strikeout milestone. Unfortunately, the team has not given Gausman a whole lot of run support or he would have a few more wins. Gausman was picked to play in the all star game, but has opted out to spend time with his family. 

5. Three Blue Jays who have disappointed in the first half

  • Alek Manoah - Oh boy. It's unfathomable how far Alek Manoah has fallen from grace. In 2022, Manoah had a career year, going 16-7 with a solid 2.24ERA over 31 starts and represented the Blue Jays in the all-star game, striking out the side in the 2nd inning of that game. Manoah even finished 3rd in Cy Young voting. This year has literally been the complete opposite with a 2-7 record and a 5.91ERA in 14 starts. Perhaps his performance in the wild card series against the Seattle Mariners may have impacted him more than most observers thought (Manoah have up 4 runs in a 4-0 loss in the opening game of that series, including three in the 1st inning) Did the Blue Jays do him a disservice by naming him the opening day starter? The opening day job was going to be awarded to either Manoah or Kevin Gausman. Manoah edged out Gausman for that honor. Manoah was lit up for 5 runs on 9 hits while walking 2 and striking out 3 over 3.1 innings. The bad start looked like a one-off when he threw seven shutout innings in his next turn,  which would be the only win credited to him this season.  The next two starts,  Manoah was unable to complete even 5 innings. The Blue Jays gave him eleven more starts to try and figure things out, but their hand was forced after Manoah couldn't even get out of the 1st inning against the Astros June 5th, when he was lit up for 6 runs on 7 hits, including a grand slam. The next day,  Manoah was sent to the Florida development league to work with the pitching instructors there and use the state of the art equipment to try and reset himself. His physical conditioning has to be something the Blue Jays look to tinker. Manoah came into spring training noticeably heavier. It's also possible the pitch clock may be having a negative affect on Manoah (the Blue Jays may have to revamp his delivery so he can beat the pitch clock). I also believe not having Alejandro Kirk catching most of spring training, with Kirk in Mexico awaiting the birth of his first child, could have been a factor initially, but the two battery mates had ample time to sort things out in side sessions. The medical staff should also examine Manoah to see if there is a physical problem that could be impacting his performance. Above all, this demotion should be a humbling experience for Manoah and hopefully he comes back with a better attitude. He has frequently trash talked opposing players, who no doubt were eager to beat Manoah with base hits. This shouldn't be a quick process.  The Blue Jays need to make sure Manoah is right before he comes back to the majors or this could ruin his career. Update: Manoah made a surprisingly quick return to the majors and looked good with 6 strong innings, albeit against a weaker Tigers lineup. 
  • Adam Cimber - currently on the IL and under team control until 2025, Adam Cimber is having the worst season of his career with an 0-2 record and 7.40ERA over 22 appearances. More concerning is that Cimber has been hurt twice this season with two separate injuries (his right rhomboid in April and currently an impingement to his throwing shoulder. The sidewinder typically works the 6th or 7th inning. Hopefully one healthy, he becomes more productive and gets back to being the pitcher that eats up innings and bridges the gap to Jordan Romano. 
  • Vladimir Guerrero Jr. - Another player who has had a concerning decline is star 1st baseman/DH Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Signed as an amateur free agent in 2015, Vlad has 13 HR in 90 games. His average is similar to last season at .274, still below the standard he set in 2021. Vlad's numbs have been in decline since his career year in 2021 when he was first in the league in runs scored (123), HR (48), on base% (.401), slugging% (.601), OPS (1.002), OPS+ (167) and total bases (363). Vlad's hitting in the cleanup spot.  You're supposed to be good at driving in runners and slugging home runs in the heart of the order. While Guerrero Jr is going to be in the all star game, really his numbers don't show he deserves it

6. The all star infield will be chock full of Blue Jays in the second half of the game with Vlad, Whit Merrifield and Bo Bichette getting selected as reserves (Kevin Gausman was also picked but opted out to spend time with his family and get some rest). Jordan Romano was a late replacement pick and will likely close out the game.  The can voting was slightly different this year with two rounds of voting.  The first round was the traditional voting for the starting lineups for the AL and NL with a limit of 5 ballots a day May 31 to June 22. Then the top two players for each position (top 6 for the outfielders) were pitted against each other for another round of voting (this time fans got just one vote) to determine the starting lineup. Vlad, Bichette, Merrifield,  Matt Chapman and George Springer all made it past the first round of voting and all five players lost in the second round. Springer probably would have declined too since his wife just had a baby on the weekend. Bichette is having himself a season worthy of being an all star with a solid .320 average, 15HR and 52 RBI. Bichette leads the league in hits (122) and AB (381). Bichette also leads the AL in singles (87). Vlad is batting .276 with 13 HR and 58 RBI in 340 AB through Saturday's games. Merrifield is batting .284 with 5HR and 38 RBI in 296 AB through Saturday's games. Merrifield had a pair of hits Sunday. Jordan Romano notched his 26th save of the season Sunday. He has a 4-4 record with a 2.87 ERA in 33 appearances this season. 

7. Could the Blue Jays relieve a member of the coaching staff to send a message? The Blue jays were in a similar position last season and Charlie Montoyoc was fired after a bad west coast swing that saw the team win just one in 7 games. It won't manager John Schneider who is let go.  However, third base coach Luis Rivera or hitting coach Guillermo Martinez could be axed. Rivera has made decisions that have cost the Blue Jays games. The team hitting approach has been atrocious. The Blue jays are batting .237 with runners in scoring. So many opportunities to score have resulted in no runs. The Blue z Jays are not doing the little things to drive in runs (hit and run, sac bunt). You need to advance the runner and create holes by stealing bases. The Blue Jays are simply not executing enough. In all likelihood, any coaching changes will come in the off-season. Management can't be happy with where the Blue Jays are in the standings. 

8. Speaking of the trade deadline, expect the Blue Jays to target a bullpen arm,  and possibly a lefty reliever so the Blue Jays have 2 left-handed options, perhaps a starting pitcher (especially if Manoah continues to struggle the next few starts and Hyun-Jim Ryu ends up in a bulk inning relief role) and another bat in the lineup. Teams likely to be sellers at the trade deadline are Oakland A's, Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals,  St Louis Cardinals,  San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies. The Blue Jays have a relatively short competitive window with George Springer signed through 2026 and Vlad and Bo Bichette set to become free agents that year too. 

9. Looking at the schedule ahead, the Blue Jays will have a healthy dose of west coast teamswith visits from the Diamondbacks and Padres followed by a road trip with stops in Seattle and LA to take on the Dodgers.  When they get back home, they face the Angels and a pair of AL East rivals. The schedule is also heavy with a stretch of 25 games in 26 days through my birthday August 13. The boys best get plenty of rest this week. 

10. Blue Jay of the 1st half: Bo Bichette, who leads the team in batting average (.320), the league in hits (122) and AB (384) and AL in singles (87). Bichette has been steadily improving as a ball player both offensively and defensively and is the Blue Jays best player bar none. He's doing his retired father, the retired Dante Bichette, who made 4 all star appearances himself, proud. Bichette should receive some votes for AL MVP at season's end.