Blue Jays report card: Marks slip after rough month

Stephen Brunt joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to offer his view on whether the Blue Jays should stand firm or have a fire sale at the deadline.

After a blazing month of May that fuelled an 18-10 record, the Toronto Blue Jays crashed back to earth in June. They went just 11-15 last month, allowing 33 more runs than they scored. They’re 0-9 in attempts to get back to .500; but hey, now that they’re seven games below .500, they won’t have to worry about that for at least a little while.

Though the margin isn’t huge in the chase for a wild-card spot, having to run down seven teams to get there is a challenging task. A final four-game series before the All-Star break against the best-in-baseball Houston Astros makes that task even more daunting.

It’s against that difficult backdrop that we dive into another Jays report card. Here’s how every member of the Jays fared in the month of June.

INFIELD

C Russell Martin, C-
Martin’s big numbers in May (.277/.414/.426), combined with Kevin Pillar’s performance tanking after his May suspension, prompted manager John Gibbons to shake up the lineup, with Martin moving to the No. 2 spot. One problem: Martin didn’t hit in June. Yes, the Jays like Martin’s on-base skills, and the veteran catcher has maintained a .342 OBP this month. But he’s also batting .172 and slugging .328.

The No. 2 spot is a pivotal role in any lineup, more important even than No. 3. Martin draws a ton of walks, but it’s a stretch to say he’s one of the two or three best hitters the Jays have.

C Luke Maile, F
Didn’t hit a lick and now he’s gone, replaced by a catcher who got kicked off his (defending World Series championship-winning) team for throwing his pitchers under the bus. Tough racket.

1B Justin Smoak, A+
Hit .333/.406/.677 with 10 home runs in June, raising his 2017 season from great surprise to All-Star starter — something not even the biggest Justin Smoak optimist in the world would have expected. It’s very, very difficult to be as spectacularly wrong as I was when I knocked the Jays for giving Smoak a two-year, $8.5-million extension last summer; at the moment, that looks like the steal of the century.

2B Devon Travis, Incomplete
He played his last game of the month, and maybe his last game of the season, on June 4. Travis’ absence perfectly encapsulates the Blue Jays’ broader dilemma: Should they trade for win-now veterans to fill roster holes (like the one at second base) in a long-shot push for the right to play in a one-game playoff? Trade away key veterans and try to reload with a younger core? Or (mostly) stand pat and hope to catch a few breaks? As they slide further below .500, that scenario is becoming the most likely one.

3B Josh Donaldson, C
Not a particularly strong showing for Donaldson, who’s yet to recapture his MVP form during a season marred by a calf injury. In fact, his struggles are getting worse, as an 0-fer Tuesday against the Yankees dropped him to one for his last 26. If you’re a Donaldson fan hoping the Jays don’t trade him as they potentially look to retool the roster, do you actually root for Donaldson to…keep whiffing?

SS Troy Tulowitzki, D+
He can still pick it at short, but Tulowitzki’s bat has gone missing all year long, netting a poor .215/.277/.355 line in June. Tulo’s striking out less often than ever before, but he’s also showing signs of reduced bat speed, hitting the ball with less force and generally not doing much when he does make contact. Whether the Jays try to jump back in the race, or decide to reload amid a losing record and the oldest group of position players in the majors, getting Tulo back to roping extra-base hits all over the ballpark ranks right at the top of the to-do list.

IF Ryan Goins, D
IF Darwin Barney, D

The timeshare from Sadville. Goins and Barney both can’t hit, and the stellar glovework that once justified their roster spots is starting to erode too. If the Jays were truly in the race, this replacement-level platoon wouldn’t make it past the weekend.

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Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Stephen Brunt: Don't expect Jays brass to do anything radical
Originally aired July 06 2017

OUTFIELD

LF Steve Pearce, A-
An absolute offensive monster when he played (.500/.552/.731 in June), but the injury-prone Pearce saw just 26 at-bats all month and remained a defensive liability. No one’s complaining about Justin Smoak’s massive breakout, of course. But Pearce playing anywhere on the diamond except 1B or DH hurts a Jays defence that’s been shaky this year. When Pearce plays the outfield, best to avert your eyes completely.

CF Kevin Pillar, D-
Kevin Pillar since returning from his mid-May suspension: .192/.242/.311. So much for his hot start.

RF Jose Bautista, D
Jose Bautista, April: .178/.309/.244
Jose Bautista, May: .317/.412/.644
Jose Bautista, June: .200/.298/.340

So hey, maybe he hits 70 homers in July!

OF Ezequiel Carrera, A-
Hit .281/.410/.469 in June, though with his usual subpar defence. Mind you, if Carrera got on base this frequently every month, the Jays would probably be fine with him patrolling left field from a rocking chair.

DH Kendrys Morales, C-
The Blue Jays, with a roster that looks pretty similar to the big, bad, bashing version of 2015 and 2016…rank dead last in the American League in runs scored. Some of that’s due to the decision to let Edwin Encarnacion walk and sign Kendrys Morales instead. Morales can’t run and can’t play the field, so his .257/.307/.459 line (.257/.286/.446 in June) while playing his home games in a hitter’s park doesn’t cut it, and he’s unlikely to get better as he ages through the final two years of his contract. Still, some perspective is in order. If Donaldson, Tulo, Bautista and company were healthy and productive all year long, Morales going cold while Edwing rakes would be seen as a minor annoyance, and nothing more.

PITCHERS

SP Marco Estrada, D-
Like Pillar, Estrada appeared on his way to a huge breakout season before hitting a wall in June. The high fastball/changeup combination that pumped his strikeout rate to career-high levels has suddenly deserted him, with Estrada posting a 9.11 and allowing an unfathomable 60 baserunners in 27 ⅔ innings in June. He lasted just 4 ⅓ innings in his first July start, walking seven batters. A mediocre-velocity pitcher who relies heavily on command is going to get hammered when he loses his command.

SP Marcus Stroman, B
First thing’s first: Stroman is right that Major League Baseball has changed the balls, altering both the seams and the liveliness of the balls’ core. Whether or not that’s the reason for Stroman suddenly suffering through blister problems (and Aaron Sanchez dealing with blisters all season long) can’t be definitively proven one way or another, at least not yet. What can be proven is that Stroman was pretty good in June. He struck out 28 batters and walked just five while averaging a healthy 6 ⅓ innings per start, a big improvement after displaying some shaky control in May.

SP J.A. Happ, A
Allowing just two home runs in 31 innings is a great way to announce yourself after a weeks-long trip to the disabled list. Happ fired six strong innings in his first July start too. If the Jays opt to keep Donaldson, the veteran lefty starter likely becomes their most valuable trade chip.

SP Francisco Liriano, C-
Whether the Jays or some other team signs him this winter, Liriano won’t see another deal anywhere close to the three-year, $39 million pact he’s finishing out ever again.

SP Aaron Sanchez, Incomplete
He’ll return to the rotation Friday night…and face the beastly Astros lineup after a long absence. We’ll know pretty damn quick whether his blisters have healed fully.

SP/RP Joe Biagini, D-
Getting a chance to experiment with Biagini in the rotation has been a small silver lining in an otherwise ugly season for the Jays. Granted, the 27-year-old right-hander has grown progressively worse every month, and might not be a good candidate to start on a team with playoff aspirations. But an effective starter almost always offers more value to a team than does an effective reliever. At least now with Biagini, they know…

RP Roberto Osuna, A+
…now they just need to try the same thing with Osuna, the live-armed 22-year-old star who’s being completely wasted in a low-leverage role that managers blindly continue to deploy because some cranky sportswriter invented a junk stat 58 years ago.

RP Joe Smith, C
A shoulder injury has derailed a breakthrough season for the side-arming soft-tosser who suddenly started striking out the world this year. When the Jays meet after the season to discuss their needs for 2018 and beyond, an exorcist should move right to the top of the list.

RP Ryan Tepera, B
Jason Grilli pitching his way off the team, combined with Joe Smith’s injury, opened the door for Tepera, who was unhittable in May and still very good in June. You probably aren’t hanging any banners if he’s your top setup man all season long, though.

RP Danny Barnes, B+
Another young(ish) right-hander thrust into high-leverage work who’s answered the bell, Barnes’ season-long line of 44 strikeouts and just 23 hits allowed in 37 ⅓ innings will play anywhere.

RP Dominic Leone, A
RP Jeff Beliveau, B-

Leone punched out 17 batters in 13 innings last month, allowing just seven hits and one home run. Beliveau’s been passable, with gusts up to pretty good, as a makeshift lefty option following the off-season departure of Brett Cecil.

As poorly as things have gone for the Jays, the bullpen’s ability to withstand multiple injuries, thrust modest-pedigree guys into big roles and have them flourish (or at least compete) has saved this season from getting considerably worse.

RP Jason Grilli, F
After becoming a folk hero in Toronto, Grilli unfortunately ran out of good tidings.

Still, we will miss him. Godspeed, Grill Cheese.