TORONTO – What. Just. Happened.
That’s certainly something the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans are asking themselves two weeks into the 2017 season, staggered – like the perpetually bewildered for whom those three words are mantra – by what’s transpired so far.
A 2-10 record. Josh Donaldson and Aaron Sanchez on the disabled list with J.A. Happ imminently to join them. Starts by two of Casey Lawrence, Mike Bolsinger and Mat Latos looming at the end of the week. An offence that’s produced 34 runs and a .592 OPS – both worst in the major leagues.
Dear lord it’s been ugly, calling to mind the old adage that a team can’t win a division in April but it certainly can lose one.
Still, there are 150 games, or 92.6 per cent of the season, remaining, so let’s not get too overdramatic about things just yet. Surrendering a season in April is asinine. But let’s not kid ourselves, either — the Blue Jays are in serious trouble, with a road ahead that is obstacle-filled and difficult to navigate.
Here’s the road map:
WHERE THEY’RE AT
As bleak as things have been, it’s worth remembering that in eight of their 10 losses the Blue Jays were either a hit or a pitch away from victory. Sunday’s 11-4 thumping by the Baltimore Orioles sure hurt, but that kind of loss is an aberration.
The primary issue to this point has been offence, and even without Donaldson, this isn’t a sub-.600 OPS lineup. Over time that should normalize, but there isn’t much time for patience now that they’ve squandered much of their margin for error, and lurking in the background are questions about just how things will correct.
With an average age of 31.5 among the position players, the Blue Jays are an old team with far more potential for decline on the roster than peak and upside. What the offence did in 2015 isn’t going to repeat, and perhaps 2016’s production may be beyond reach, too.
Donaldson, at this point, is the one hitter they have capable of carrying the team for a stretch and he’s out for an unknown period with a right calf strain. Steady production from Kendrys Morales, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista and Russell Martin is a must to help cover the gap, and the latter two in that group need to get going, stat.
That need is even more pressing now that the Blue Jays won’t have a dominant starting rotation to lean on minus Sanchez and Happ.
Sanchez needs a solution to his ongoing blister issue – his middle finger was a mess after Friday’s outing – and he could miss two or three weeks as all kinds of solutions are considered.
Happ, meanwhile, felt what he described as "a little tug" in his elbow Sunday and was scheduled for an MRI on Monday. Generally, the recommendation from doctors in that situation isn’t for a pitcher to go ahead and make his next start. A brief period of rest is the best case scenario.
The timing is especially poor with the Blue Jays set to play 33 games over the next 34 days starting Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox. They can line up Marcus Stroman, Francisco Liriano and Marco Estrada for that series, but means they need two starters for the weekend in Anaheim.
Lawrence, who was up in the first week of the season and walked in the winning run in the 11th inning on April 8, is a leading candidate. So are Bolsinger, one of the last cuts made by the team, and Latos, who hasn’t received positive reports for his stuff so far at triple-A Buffalo and will cost a pro-rated portion of $1.5 million to bring up.
Ben Cherington, the Blue Jays vice-president of baseball operations, visited the Bisons last week, so the front office has had a current look at where their options are at.
As for external options, Doug Fister, Colby Lewis and Tim Lincecum are among the free agents still out there, but they’re far more name than stuff at this point, and won’t necessarily be ready imminently, either.
So regardless of what happens, the bullpen is going to have to carry more of the load, and the offence is going to have to outhit some poor outings.
CALL FOR ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE
The Blue Jays are in desperate need of some pleasant surprises, players with pedigree and potential, to emerge and make contributions beyond expectations. That could be someone like Justin Smoak, who has been one of the team’s better contributors thus far, or the recently called up Chris Coghlan, a utilityman who as a left-handed batter with some OBP skill can help.
Incremental gains are going to matter because there’s no impact piece waiting in the wings. First base prospect Rowdy Tellez got many tongues wagging during spring training but until he shows he can hit lefties at triple-A (0-for-13 with a walk so far but 33-for-125 with an .801 OPS last year at double-A New Hampshire), the Blue Jays won’t rush him for fear of truncating his development.
An argument can be made that if he hits righties, that’s an important contribution, but given that he’s just 22, there’s no sense of cutting off his progress and pigeonholing him as a platoon player. Tellez is an important prospect, one they can’t risk with a panic call-up. He needs time to force their hand.
Same goes for Anthony Alford, the double-A centre-fielder whose athleticism and speed is exactly what the Blue Jays are missing. He’s been off to a hot start – .464/.571/.607 in eight games – but the 22-year-old remains raw and his addition may be premature.
A more sensible roll of the dice would be Dalton Pompey, but the Canadian outfielder remains in the concussion protocol. After more than a month off, he’ll need time to work his way back into shape so there’s no panacea there.
TAKE A DIFFERENT ROUTE
With about 2.5 million tickets already sold, the Blue Jays have a strong motivation to give this group every chance to rescue the season, and given the calibre of talent still in the clubhouse, the players deserve that opportunity.
Despite that, the front office must begin planning for all alternatives. As things stood, the Blue Jays have been reassessing their situation in three-month intervals knowing that a cliff loomed for their roster, be it 2018, 2019 or sooner.
Deciding that this group has indeed gone off the cliff will be a painful decision for a franchise that’s made back-to-back trips to the American League Championship Series after a 21-year post-season drought. Any step backwards risks damaging one of, if not the youngest fanbase in the majors – a passionate core the envy of most clubs in baseball.
But should the Blue Jays reach that decision – and to be clear, they haven’t yet – a strategic and well-executed sell-off of assets could ease the pain.
The most pivotal part of the decision: how deep to go with the rebuild.
Is it just pending free agents like Estrada, Liriano, Bautista, Jason Grilli and Joe Smith that get shipped out in the hopes of a quickie retool around Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin, Sanchez, Stroman and Happ for 2018? Or do president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins go full nuclear and look to move Donaldson, Happ, Tulowitzki and Martin as well?
If it is door No. 2, then the Blue Jays need to consider maximizing the return on a young asset like Roberto Osuna, especially when you consider the bounty the New York Yankees fetched for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller last summer. While he’s not as dominant as that duo, he’s inexpensive and comes with three years of club control, meaning he could fetch a hefty return.
Donaldson may not be as easy to move as it may seem, as he’s on track for a payday in excess of $20 million in his final year of arbitration next year before hitting the open market. Only a handful of teams could both handle the commitment and offer up the pieces to make it worthwhile.
Either way, the bounty of players coming back would, theoretically, help the Blue Jays farm system produce the core of the next team that makes a post-season run.
Worth keeping in mind that prospects quickly turn to suspects and for proof of that, think back to all the minor-leaguers Alex Anthopoulos dealt away from 2012 through 2015. Who other than Noah Syndergaard do the Blue Jays really regret dealing away? He’s the only impact player among the group, with the jury still out on Jeff Hoffman and Franklin Barreto.
Just like staying the course, a change of direction offers no promise of reaching the ultimate destination, either.