It's coming home? Plus: Sunday's disaster, Saturday's win, talkin' trades, the week ahead, and more!

The Jays could have pulled off a sweep of the Rays on Sunday after Saturday’s victory. Naturally they did not. So let’s talk about ‘em both — and more!

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Sunday (Rays 5 - Jays 1)

There’s no faking it in a sport that last 162 games. Especially one in which playoff-bound teams lose upwards of 40% of the time. Flaws get exposed. And in the case of the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays they’ve been exposed so often that there’s no mistaking what they are. The bullpen has too often been a tire fire and the team’s defence is subpar, particularly at third base, in the corner outfield spots, and a little too often for most fans’ taste at shortstop. When those flaws come together with an unusually quiet night at the plate to spoil a strong starting pitching performance and lose a winnable game, as they did in Sunday’s series finale against the Rays, it’s pretty nauseating.

The job of an MLB front office and coaching staff over the course of a season is to minimize those flaws, yet for the Blue Jays the bullpen has been a gaping wound for two months now, and the defence for even longer. However, thinking long-term, as front offices do, even just within this season it’s easy to see where progress is being made. Defensively, the number of good games to bad ones that Bo Bichette has continues to grow. Joe Panik is no longer here. Corey Dickerson will eventually help. Teoscar Hernández had a noticeable and crucial misplay on Sunday, but those mistakes are rarer than ever. And in the bullpen, while Rafael Dolis put in another forgettable performance of his own on Sunday, he’s at least healthy again — he can at least start the process of trying to get straightened out, though ideally he’d be asked to do so in less important spots — with Ryan Borucki and Julian Merryweather not far behind him. Adam Cimber is here. John Axford throwing bowling balls in Buffalo, and might be able to help. Trades are going to happen.

Unfortunately, that kind of stuff tends to happen at a glacial pace. The Blue Jays urgently — in so much as any 1/162nd of a baseball season requires urgency — needed their defence to be better on Sunday. They urgently needed Dolis to either pitch like it was 2020, or to not be deployed as though he’s still pitching as well as he was in 2020.

Having your worst flaws so fully on display at the end of a tight game against your most irritating division rival takes a lot of the fun out of what was otherwise a very good series by the club. And it’s not particularly soothing to understand that in time — though maybe not in enough time, or by enough of a degree, to make this a playoff season — things will get better. It’s silly to overreact to what only might be a slow-moving train wreck of a season, and it’s undoubtedly true that flaws get magnified in the extreme when one of a team’s strongest and most unassailable components — the lineup, in Sunday’s case — fails to do its job, but Blue Jays fans aren’t wrong if they’re thinking that could be what they’re looking at here. We can’t know yet how far down these flaws are going to pull this team, and that’s a helpless feeling. It would be a damn shame if they missed out on the potential for glory and the immense fun of a playoff run because Charlie pulled the wrong string just a little too often, or too many of their relievers fell apart (both literally and figuratively). Or because they took the long view on Bichette at shortstop instead of putting Marcus Semien there sooner, or because they did the same thing with Biggio at third, or were too attached to certain right-handed corner outfielders who fall short of being championship calibre all-around players. But the Blue Jays don’t quite appear to be good enough to separate themselves from the rest of their division and the American League at large, so there’s a significant chance we’re going to end the season with a lot of what-ifs.

In a way it’s nice that the team has reached that level of expectation. And, really, that’s just the way that baseball seasons work. Yes, even for good teams, which are never without flaws and never incapable of making mistakes (see: these very Rays literally a day before this one). This isn’t a crisis so much as it is kind of just the sport we all watch and enjoy — a game that can be pretty tough to take sometimes, maybe never more so than when devoting your afternoon to watching your team lose in such a predictable and infuriating way to a flagging rival it would have been extremely fun and meaningful to sweep. I don’t have it in me to angrily shout “THIS FLAWED BASEBALL TEAM IS FLAWED!” after four of every ten games, but your mileage may vary. After three months of this team, I don’t particularly have it in me to angrily should “THERE’S PLENTY OF SEASON LEFT AND IT WILL GET BETTER” either. Especially because both things are true.

The Jays are just a little bit too much in the mushy middle, and which way their season breaks is going to depend on the internal and external improvements they can eventually make. Their 43-39 record right now makes clear that they’re just not quite good enough as configured, but they’re awfully close. That seems, to me, to be just about accurate. There really is no faking it.

Saturday (Blue Jays 6 - Rays 3)

This one was fun enough that instead of three up, three down, I’m going to give it the full six up treatment…

▲ Ross Stripling

The Rays managed just two hits over 5 2/3 innings off of the new Stripling, picking up three walks and scoring their lone run off him on Manuel Margot's solo home run. That takes Stripling down to a 2.35 ERA over the eight outings (seven starts) since he made some significant changes to his delivery after getting shelled by the Red Sox on May 19th.

Those changes are pretty dramatically seen below, and were detailed especially well a couple weeks ago by Paul Berthelot at Blue Jays Nation.

Stripling now keeps his hands tucked in more, lowered his leg kick, and has moved toward the third base side of the rubber. Stripling has long been a better than average MLB pitcher, so his success shouldn’t be too surprising. Yet he was so putrid over the first six weeks of the season that it really feels like this changes have been a bit of magic.

The reality, however, seems to have been amazingly simple. Stripling has pitched well throughout the season against left-handed batters, holding them to a .194/.237/.333 line prior to the change, and a .169/.279/.322 line since. Right-handers, however, were having much too easy a time picking up the ball — to the point where in that Red Sox game he may have been tipping his pitches. In fact, that may have been the case even before Boston destroyed him. Heading into that game right-handers had slashed .371/.420/.661 against him.

Since the changes, which have made it considerably more difficult for right-handers, in particular, to pick up the ball, that slash line has come down to .181/.223/.305.

His .200 BABIP since the changes is surely unsustainable, but even with some regression there he can be a really, really useful piece for this rotation going forward. Pretty good!

▲ Springer dinger!

With the announcement on Sunday that Bo Bichette will be playing in next week’s All-Star game, the Jays now have four players who will be in Colorado. If you had told me that would be the case before the season started, and that George Springer would not be among them, I would have been pretty shocked. But, of course, Springer lost nearly three months to a quad injury. It doesn't quite yet feel like he's fully locked in yet, as he has just nine hits from 47 plate appearances since his most recent return from the IL. Three of those hits have been home runs, however, including the one in the second inning on Saturday — his second since being moved up to the cleanup spot on Friday. And with a double and nine walks to go along with it, his .237 batting average belies some surprisingly tremendous production. Over these last 11 games his wRC+ is 142, as his full slash line reads: .237/.383/.500.

Imagine once he really starts to hit his stride.

▲ Santiago Espinal

One way the Jays could improve their infield defence would be to play Santiago Espinal at third base more — a thing they did to much success on Saturday, as the 26-year-old, who is slashing a very respectable .304/.355/.402 (108 wRC+) over 110 PA, had a nice day in the field and managed to his his first big league home run.

Espinal, as evidenced by the reaction of his teammates, is obviously a popular figure in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. Starter Ross Stripling made that clear after the game, too.

Now, some of that may have to do with what we might be willing to assume is Stripling’s pleasure with seeing the back side of Joe Panik — the former San Francisco Giant who Stripling, a former Los Angeles Dodger, directed an on-field outburst toward after a misplay a few weeks back. But there doesn’t need to be personal animosity at play to be happy to see Espinal in a bigger role. He’s not the help from the left side of the plate that the Jays need, but he’s help. And a fun guy to cheer for.

▲ The Rays kicking it around

Wait. Hold on. I’m sorry, I thought that the best teams never make defensive mistakes when it matters most.

The Jays took the lead in this one in the bottom of the sixth, after Rays third baseman Joey Wendle was unable to get Teoscar Hernández on a slow roller at first, which loaded the bases, then made an errant throw home when the next batter, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., hit an even slower roller to third. Tampa unravelled from there.

Now, don’t mistake what I’m saying here. The Jays do this sort of thing more often than the Rays do. Overall, Tampa is an excellent defensive team and the Jays are not and need to be better. But if your standard is perfection you’re just not really paying attention to the reality of the sport. This stuff happens. Even to the team that leads MLB with a +58 DRS, leads the American League with +17.4 UZR, and has the second fewest errors in baseball at 38.

▲ Jordan Romano’s timing

Closer Jordan Romano had a rare stinker in this one, giving up a pair of walks to start the ninth, then a two-out single that cost him two runs. Unlike the vast, vast majority of his Blue Jays bullpen brethren this season, his timing was impeccable. When he entered the ballgame the Jays were up 6-1, so the runs mattered not. Would be nice if some of his teammates could save their blowups for blowouts more often!

(Worth noting here that, believe it or not, the situation Rafael Dolis was brought into on Sunday was classified as low leverage. Though it certainly felt like a bigger moment at the time, the leverage index when he entered the game was 0.72. Per FanGraphs: "An average (or neutral) LI is 1. High leverage is 2.0 and above, and low leverage is below 0.85. 10% of all real game situations have a LI greater than 2, while 60% have a LI less than 1."

Leverage index is based off of potential swings in win expectancy, and the Rays' win expectancy was already quite high when Dolis entered, being up a run in the ninth inning.)

▲ The rest of the bullpen

Hard to remember, because people got so mad about Dolis on Sunday, but Adam Cimber and Tim Mayza were pretty good in this one! Cimber battled through an inning of work (particularly his 12-pitch face-off with Wendle, which resulted in a double), and Tim Mayza went an inning-and-a-third to get the ball in Romano’s hands.

Mayza has been fantastic of late, and Cimber appears to have come as advertised. They are both extremely important for this team right now.

It’s coming home?

According to a report Sunday night from Shi Davidi of Sportsnet, the Blue Jays have submitted a proposal to the federal government that would see the team return to play at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on July 30th, and I've got to tell you: those are some pretty incredibly awesome words to type.

The feds' response is still unclear as yet, but it has already received provincial approval, and with the NHL and FIBA recently getting travel exemptions to bring players into the country (and clearance to have fans in the stands), this week’s easing of border restrictions, and Canada's vaccine effort working wonders to bring down COVID case rates, it's hard not to feel incredibly optimistic that the club will at the very least make it back by their second targeted date, August 20th (the start of another lengthy home stand). But July 30th would be even goddamn better, wouldn’t it?

The team isn’t in the clear just yet. MLB’s vaccination rates aren’t 100%, so they’ll be asking the government to allow unvaccinated people into the country (albeit, presumably, after being cleared by testing). They’ll potentially also have to ask those players to abide certain stricter protocols than their vaccinated teammates, which could cause a hiccup with the players association.

Clearly there are still some moving parts here, and since we’re talking about coordination between the Jays, the league, the government, and the union, I don’t think anyone should be kidding themselves that it’s going to be easy, or simply rubberstamped. But one seriously hopes they will find a way to get it together. It’s… uh… it’s been a while…

Yes, the situation in the United States is different, but it’s tough to watch everyone else’s stadium being opened up to full capacity while the Jays are still enduring the longest road trip of their lives. Maybe I’m being naïve about the threat of variants and not paying enough attention to variants and what’s happening in, say, England, for example. But it’s just so nice to be optimistic here. The Jays haven’t played in Toronto since Justin Smoak and Ryan Tepera were on the team. The vaccines are pulling us out of this. It’s time.

The Week Ahead

The Jays are off here on Mondsy, then go back to Baltimore once again, with a chance to beat up on the hapless Orioles. After that it's three games at the Trop in St. Petersburg against the Rays. Considering that next week is the All-Star break, with the team being off from the end of Sunday's game until Friday night, let's hope to hell they don't leave us with an awful taste in our mouths after that series too. Sadly, it is the Trop, so I can't claim to be hopeful that they will.

Pitching matchups:

Tuesday: TBD vs. TBD
Wednesday: TBD vs. Matt Harvey (3-9, 7.34 ERA, 58 K/25 BB/72 1/3 IP)
Thursday: TBD vs. Keegan Akin (0-4, 7.46 ERA, 38 K/16 BB/41 IP)

Things worth knowing:

• Who is actually going to be taking the ball in these games for the Blue Jays would be a good start! Based on where they are in the rotation, I’d assume it’s Matz, Ryu, Manoah.

• Nothing weird time-wise in these ones, like there was last week. Nor is there anything weird broadcast-wise either. Three straight games at 7:05 PM ET from Tuesday to Thursday in Baltimore, then 7:10 PM ET on Friday night in Tampa, and a pair of one o’clock games on Saturday and Sunday.

• Coming out of the All-Star break the Jays will host the Rangers and then the Red Sox in what is hopefully their last series in Buffalo. Fingers crossed!

Links!

• There has been a bunch of good stuff written on the trade front lately, so we’ll start here with a couple of standouts. First we have Tammy Rainey of Blue Jays Nation, who does a deep and, importantly, realistic dive on the players that the Jays will be willing to move. No silly Grichuk or Gurriel talk here. This is the good stuff: a real look at players who have some value but are on their way toward being squeezed out of the organization anyway. The shoe was once on the other foot for the Jays, back when they were less focused on their MLB roster and more on rebuilding their farm system. Deals like Bryan Baker, Forrest Wall, and Chad Spanberger for Seunghwan Oh, or Thomas Pannone and Samad Taylor for Joe Smith happen a lot more than some of the pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff fans talk about, and the focus in this piece in on those kinds of names — though there are some bigger ones in there too.

• The other must-read comes from my Blue Jays Happy Hour co-host, Nick Ashbourne, who — like I was just doing — looks into the Blue Jays’ past for clues as to what realistically the Jays could do this month. Who will be the next Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Joaquin Benoit, Jonathan Villar, Ross Stripling, etc.? Answers within!

• I called some of the recent Grichuk and Gurriel trade talk I’ve heard (read: seen on Twitter) “silly” above, but I actually do think it’s possible Gurriel could be moved in some kind of a blockbuster. Grichuk, though? We need to stop talking about that one.

Three reasons: One) he’s pretty good for what he is, and the Jays are not better without him. Two) A recent Miami Herald report says that the Marlins are have made Starling Marte a three-year, $30 million contract offer. Now, Marte (32) is older than Grichuk (29), and that $30 million is pretty silly, but I think it underlines the fact that teams are not going to look at the $18.7 million owed to Grichuk in 2022 and ‘23, plus the approximately $4.7 million he’s owed for the remainder of this year, as something they should have to give up anything of value to take off the Blue Jays’ hands. Could the Jays eat money in a deal to get something better? I suppose, but why? Good teams tend not to make the major league rosters worse at this time of the year — something Tammy’s piece got right.

Three) I think we saw that exactly with the Dickerson/Cimber trade, when the Blue Jays were able to get Cimber largely by taking a bunch of Dickerson’s money off Miami’s hands. According to Cot’s, Joe Panik had about $500,000 more remaining on his contract for this season than Cimber does, while Dickerson had $4.4 million remaining, which the Marlins sent $2.65 million to cover. If my math is right, the Marlins saved about $1.25 million in the transaction, in addition to getting a prospect no one had ever heard of but they must like, plus whatever they think they can get for Panik at the deadline. The Marlins may be uniquely cheap in the industry — and that reported offer to Marte doesn’t make me think that they aren’t — but that’s really not a ton of savings to be giving up a useful reliever like Cimber for (though the fact that Cimber was a Super Two, meaning he has three more increasingly expensive passes through arbitration left before hitting free agency, means there are some future cost savings here for the Marlins, too). Considering all that, I absolutely cannot see how Grichuk’s contract is anything but a non-starter for other teams in trade talks.

Gurriel — who will make $4.929 million next season, $5.829 million in 2023, and then will have another arbitration year after that before free agency — is a different story.

• Moving on, some fun stuff featuring a couple of former Blue Jays came out of NBC Sports Chicago over the weekend, when the feud between the Twins’ Josh Donaldson and the Chicago White Sox escalated. The 2015 MVP’s former Jays teammate, Liam Hendriks, who is now with the White Sox, wasn’t exactly glowing in his review of the third baseman behind closed door.

"Playing with Donaldson,” Hendriks said. “I am not a Donaldson fan. On the field, one of the greatest. You want him on the team behind you. But I saw behind the curtain too much, and I'm not a fan.”

I try not to make a habit of posting my own tweets, but I’ll just leave this one here:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: too much Dr. Pepper, Josh. Oh, and also: I don’t think Shapiro, Atkins, and company especially wanted Marcus Stroman to be the loudest, highest paid voice in the room either.

• The Jays announced here on Monday that relievers Travis Bergen and Jeremy Beasley have both cleared waivers and been outrighted to Buffalo. This made me wonder about a piece I wrote back in May, wherein I looked at the Jays’ upcoming 40- man crunch — lol, because everyone was going to get healthy soon! — and wondered aloud which players would last on the roster until September. I wasn’t bullish on either Beasley or Bergen, so that was at least right. Big swings and misses on Ty Tice (I somehow thought he’d stay), Tim Mayza (in my defence, back when he was awful), and Reese McGuire (who still could cool enough with the bat to lose his job at some point, given the catching talent in the system, though that seems unlikely for now).

• Former Oakland pitching great Dave Stewart was an important part of the 1993 Blue Jays team that won the World Series — a feat he pulled off two other times in his career, with the A’s in 1989 and with the Dodgers in 1981. It’s the 40th anniversary of that Dodgers team this year, but Stewart, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, isn't going to have anything to do with it. The reason? Trevor Bauer, the sexual assault allegations that have seen him placed on administrative leave by MLB, and the fact that the Dodgers appeared to be going to let him pitch over the weekend before MLB stepped in.

“The Dodgers organization that I grew up in under the O’Malley family would never stand for that. The Dodgers should have stepped up in that situation, and they didn’t. You’ve got to have character standards," he said.

From USA Today:

“I know they owe him a lot of money, but the right thing is to distance yourself from that guy," Stewart said. "I don’t want him in my clubhouse. If you’re a teammate, you can’t support him. And if you’re a teammate supporting him, what are you standing for?

“If it wasn’t for his contract, he’d be gone. But even with the money they owe him, you can’t allow him to perform for you and act like nothing happened. You just can’t."

Hell yes, Dave Stewart.

Top image: "Rogers Centre, Toronto, Ontario" by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0