TORONTO – J.A. Happ used to read it all, take notes and keep score, finding motivation in the doubts of others to use on the pitching mound. Over time, though, the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander learned the best thing for him was to just let all that stuff go.
“Early in my career that stuff fuelled me, maybe some of the negativity, feeling like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder,” Happ said this week in response to a question about finding validation in being named an all-star at age 35. “I started to understand the best way to be constantly motivated is the inner drive which I’ve always had, so I’ve used that more than trying to get back at people, trying to remember who wrote this about me.
“It’s all nonsense, right? That’s all noise that doesn’t matter.”
Those words are worth keeping in mind as the 43-52 Blue Jays resume play Friday at home against the putrid Baltimore Orioles, who were 28-69 with Manny Machado and now must finish the season without the superstar after he was rescued by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With the post-season out of reach and a sell-off imminent, the Blue Jays need to block out all the noise that’s here and coming, and use the remaining two-and-a-half months of the 2018 campaign to develop their roster and correct some issues that will sink 2019 before it starts if not fixed.
Front and centre in that regard is Marcus Stroman, who triggered a tempest in a teapot over the break by unleashing an off-camera but public expletive-laden rant at Sportsnet reporter Arash Madani because of a question he didn’t like Sunday in Boston.
The right-hander, grinding through a trying campaign sent off-kilter by a shoulder issue in the spring and askew ever since, and his actions have been polarizing talking points in the city ever since, but that’s all irrelevant sideshow.
What actually matters is not the state of Stroman’s relationship with the media, but rather his standing with his teammates, and he’ll probably have some smoothing over to do with anyone rubbed the wrong way by his unflattering critique of the club’s play during his rant.
Beyond that, the priority at minimum is, identifying, if not fixing, the problems that have led to his inconsistency on the mound this year. If Stroman can’t regain the front-of-the-rotation steadiness he showed during consecutive 200-inning seasons out of the break, at least having ideas on what adjustments to make over the winter offers a head start on 2019.
Here are some other priorities for the Blue Jays in what remains of the season:
J.A. Happ deserved better than spending two days being asked constantly about getting traded after finally making an all-star game, but that’s where things are at. The classy lefty is the best chip GM Ross Atkins has to play and his trade is one the front office can’t afford to screw up.
The Blue Jays did well last year in getting Teoscar Hernandez back from the Houston Astros for Francisco Liriano, and they should be able to get better value in return for Happ, who can actually be a difference-maker for a contender. Adding to the pressure on this deal is that Josh Donaldson, who might have fetched a Machado-like five-player return had he been healthy and performing, remains on the disabled list, although he’s inching closer to a return.
Marco Estrada is also on the DL and he’ll have to look healthy in his two scheduled outings before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline for the Blue Jays to be able to move him, while relievers Suenghwan Oh, John Axford and Tyler Clippard and outfielder Curtis Granderson could all fetch lottery-ticket prospects. If the Blue Jays can turn that group into a piece or two that can help in 2019 or soon after, the deadline will have been a success.
While Stroman is priority one, Aaron Sanchez is right behind him. The electric-armed righty has been out nearly a month with swelling in his index finger, the freak injury truncating his progress just as it seemed he was turning the corner following a year off. The Blue Jays are a different team when Sanchez and Stroman are pitching like the aces they can be, and the outlook for 2019 is drastically different if they’re healthy and performing.
Beyond Sanchez, Donaldson, and Estrada, the Blue Jays’ injury list includes Kevin Pillar (collarbone), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (concussion) and Danny Barnes (knee).
PLAY BETTER DEFENCE
The eight errors the Blue Jays made during the four-game series at Boston last weekend highlighted an issue not talked about often enough, but the reality is they’ve been playing poor defence for a long time, a problem that continually undermines their pitching. Their only players with positive Defensive Runs Saved ratings (a metric that measures how many plays a defender makes above or below average relative to his peers) are Pillar in centre field, Randal Grichuk in right field, Justin Smoak at first base and catching duo of Russell Martin and Luke Maile.
That leaves a lot of fertile ground for balls to find holes or touch green, and too often makeable plays aren’t made. Injuries have been part of the problem, overexposing certain players like Yangervis Solarte and forcing others like Gurriel into roles they’re not ready for, like regular shortstop.
GET THE KIDS MORE PLAYING TIME
While Gurriel’s position is uncertain, his need to play once recovered from his concussion is clear because the dude can hit and he’s part of the future. Once July 31 hits and the marketing period for players has passed, the Blue Jays need to make sure the majority of their playing time is going to those who have a chance to be a part of things in 2019 and beyond. That means Dwight Smith Jr., and Thomas Pannone, and Sean Reid-Foley, and perhaps Anthony Alford as well as Grichuk, Hernandez and Ryan Borucki. To some degree, Devon Travis is in that group, too, and the Blue Jays need to figure out if he’s capable of being an .800-OPS player again.
KEEP GETTING AFTER IT
Even though the Blue Jays repeatedly shot themselves in the foot last weekend and dropped three of four at Fenway Park, their level of engagement and determination was undeniable. Simply put, they’re decisively undermanned versus the Red Sox and Yankees, against whom they’re a combined 7-19 in contrast to 36-33 versus the rest of the baseball. But to their credit, the players, manager John Gibbons and the coaching staff have all maintained their fight, and they can’t let up as the looming bleakness of their situation arrives so some good can be carried over into 2019.
“You’re looking for improvement and you’re looking for consistency and those are sort of hard to get at the same time,” Happ said of what the Blue Jays should hope to accomplish in the final stretch. “You want the players who you think are going to be part of your future to continue to get better, to visibly see that, and work to improve. Yeah everything is about winning and it’s easier when you win, but you’re hoping you can put together a solid second half. Whether you think you’re going to catch the Red Sox and Yankees is one thing, but having a solid second half can go a long way.”