TORONTO – As things currently stand, there are relatively straightforward and realistic solutions to some of the many problems facing the Toronto Blue Jays for 2018. Holes in the starting rotation could be easily patched by re-signing Marco Estrada and/or Brett Anderson, or sticking with Joe Biagini as a starter. A farm system lacking in upper-level talent this year that led to so many uninspiring replacement players seeing big-league time will through the natural maturation process infuse triple-A Buffalo with young, upside players, both on the pitching staff and around the diamond, that should contribute more.
The area where the path to progress is worryingly muddled is the offence, which since last September has been the American League’s least productive in terms of scoring runs. Save for pending free agent Jose Bautista, all the regulars this year will be back next season, although health issues create uncertainty around Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis. The left-field platoon of Steve Pearce and Ezequiel Carrera is far from carved in stone, but no one else is easily replaced without creating a redundancy.
Barring a full season from Travis, there’s no real upside among the incumbents, either, which is why the type of September that Teoscar Hernandez delivers is so important for the front office. The 24-year-old outfielder offers the mix of speed/contact/power/athleticism the Blue Jays so desperately need, with all his tools on display during Sunday’s 8-2 win over the Detroit Tigers.
Hernandez struck out chasing with the bases loaded to end the first, but his two-run homer to straightaway centre in the fourth opened up a 3-0 lead, while in the fifth his opposite field, three-run shot made it a 7-2 game. Then in the seventh he singled, went first-to-third on a Darwin Barney base hit and then raced home on a passed ball.
The hitting won’t always be as good as it was off Anibal Sanchez on Sunday, but such multidimensional impact has been rare for the Blue Jays this year.
“I didn’t think he had as much pop as he showed today – he went dead centre and then he went to the opposite field,” said manager John Gibbons. “But you could see there’s life in his bat. Early on, the first couple of games I saw him, real aggressive at the plate, chasing a lot of balls out of the zone. If he just narrows it down and gets some strikes to hit, everything is there.”
Also rare for the Blue Jays is the type of speed fellow rookie Richard Urena showed off in the first, when he was running on the pitch and scored all the way from first base as Kendrys Morales laced a base hit to left-centre to open the scoring.
Not exactly a play that’s been part of the Blue Jays tool-kit in recent years.
“That was awesome to see,” said J.A. Happ, who struck out nine over six innings of two-run ball. “As an opposing pitcher and you know that speed is on the bases, you’re that much more hyper-focused on what you’re doing and maybe that much more likely to make a mistake. You might be trying too hard. Speed is a threat, we know that, and it’s nice to see it be on our side.”
Urena is likely to be the starting shortstop at Buffalo next year but the Blue Jays really want Hernandez – acquired from Houston in the Francisco Liriano deal – to not just simply make the ’18 team but be a big part of it.
Whether he is or not, general manager Ross Atkins will need creativity to build a better lineup next year. Josh Donaldson is an MVP-calibre player, Justin Smoak is an all-star and Kendrys Morales delivers the occasional big blow around a spate of empty at-bats. Beyond them? Tulowitzki and Russell Martin both fought injury amid down years at the plate, Kevin Pillar endured a long period of struggle while Pearce/Carrera were fine as secondary pieces but aren’t likely to spearhead a turnaround.
An upgrade over the Ryan Goins/Darwin Barney combo at second base would help in the event Travis isn’t available is one way to improve, as is a stronger option in left field. Further changes would require more heavy lifting because it would mean replacing someone already locked in.
Hernandez could very well help turn things over, but it can’t and likely won’t be him alone.