TORONTO – The only measure that truly matters in this trying rebuild season for the Toronto Blue Jays is in the development of their key young players, the kids being counted on to one day form the core of a contender.
In that vein, the most important points of progress with the all-star break nigh after a long, trying first half:
• Danny Jansen opened the season as the primary catcher and did enough as a defender to ride out a cold spell at the plate to eventually get right;
• Lourdes Gurriel Jr., opened the season as the starting second baseman, was sent down, and returned as a monster-mashing left-fielder;
• Vladimir Guerrero Jr., broke through to great fanfare and while he hasn’t set the world on fire, he’s more than held his own, even through a recent dry spell;
• Cavan Biggio has looked like he belongs almost from the moment he arrived;
• Trent Thornton has the stuff to be a part of this.
Teoscar Hernandez, Rowdy Tellez and Brandon Drury have, thus far, been less consistent. Ryan Borucki, meanwhile, has been injured, although GM Ross Atkins said Saturday that he could be another rehab start or two from returning.
For all of them, 2½ months remain to either cement gains, or alter trajectories, as the jockeying for a place on the 2020 team, and spots on the projected rosters beyond is the ultimate point of this type of season.
All of which makes the eventual arrival of Bo Bichette and the start of his transition into the majors one of the top priorities, if not the most important remaining task for the Blue Jays. Certainly maximizing the returns for trade chips Marcus Stroman and Ken Giles ahead of the July 31 trade deadline is pivotal, but if this rebuild is going to succeed, Bichette will need to be one of the dudes leading the way.
Given that, each passing game he’s not called up for is a big-league rep he’s not getting.
"Bo’s been incredible," Atkins said during a pre-break chat with reporters Saturday. "He has absolutely performed at a level that deserves that question and we’re having it ourselves. We’re talking about what is the right timing for him and for this team, and as you know, it’s a balance with what what’s best for him what’s best for the team, what’s the opportunity cost, what does it mean for others. We’re having that discussion as often as you’re thinking about it."
For clarity, we’ll run that through the sports-executive-to-English translator for you. When Bichette comes up, he’ll be playing every day. Currently, Freddy Galvis is the team’s shortstop and is on pace to easily deliver his most productive season as measured by WAR. The same goes for Eric Sogard while primarily playing second base. But the Blue Jays want Biggio to play second base as often as possible and for Guerrero to do the same at third, which is what all that balance stuff is all about.
No biggie, you say, why not just trade Galvis and/or Sogard and problem solved? Fair, but Galvis has value beyond his production, along with a club option for 2020, so that’s an asset you don’t just give away. Finding a taker for a position player at the trade deadline can be challenging because it’s need-specific. Every team can find room on the roster for a pitching upgrade, but not necessarily a middle-infielder.
Now, the elimination of August waiver deals may change the dynamic, making it possible a contender wants him, or someone like him or Sogard, on the roster as injury insurance or a bench option. Whether that happens or not, the Blue Jays have to proceed as if one or both will be on the roster when factoring in Bichette’s arrival, something Atkins insists the Blue Jays "absolutely can" do.
"There will be someone that potentially has to go to triple-A or someone that has to play a little bit less," he said. "That’s where you have to prioritize and work through that but that’s what we’re talking about."
And a trade?
"I don’t see that as something that’s imminent or a part of the equation," he said. "And we don’t have complete control over that."
Who gets optioned out under such a scenario is an interesting question, but it’s a credit to Bichette that he’s forcing the Blue Jays into some tough decisions. In recent seasons, he’s worked to upgrade his running, his fielding and his throwing and the primary hurdle left is inconsistency.
That will come through reps. The sooner they come at the big-league level, the better.
So, yeah, making sure the Blue Jays bolster the farm system with some impact arms acquired in trades of Stroman and Giles is crucial, even if Atkins is being understandably coy on that front.
Asked if he planned to move Stroman, the GM replied:
"I would say this: Marcus has put himself in an incredible position throughout his career, not just over the last four months. He has been durable. He has performed at an exceptionally high rate. He’s been one of the better pitchers in baseball over the last three years and because of that he is in a great position for his future with the Toronto Blue Jays and there are 29 other teams that are thinking the same way, that they would love to have someone that has been durable and has been productive. We’ll see. With another year of control for us, that’s attractive to us, that’s extremely attractive to other teams, as well. He’s put himself in a remarkable spot and earned all of that respect."
You’ll notice the word "No," wasn’t in there, and the reality is everyone knows what’s up. The left pectoral cramp that’s preventing Stroman from pitching in the all-star game has tentatively pushed back his return to pitch to the third game out of the break, Sunday against the New York Yankees, but with a limited number of impact starters available, the Blue Jays should have a strong market for him.
The same goes for Giles, and probably Daniel Hudson, too. Whether one develops for Galvis, Sogard or Justin Smoak is another question, and in that regard, the Blue Jays will need to wrestle with asset-acquisition versus roster optimization.
After all, this is a season about providing opportunity for young players. Bichette’s earned a promotion and there’s little sense in letting someone not part of the big picture take games away from the kids who are.