Blue Jays need young hitters to take lead in clubhouse

The Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 handing the Jays their fifth shutout loss of the season.

TORONTO – Just for fun, let’s take a look back at what the Toronto Blue Jays were up to a year ago today.

At the time, they were 27-35 with visions of re-entering the playoff race. A 5-1 win over the Orioles helped on that front, but that’s not the point here. Take a look at John Gibbons’ starting lineup from last June 8:

Curtis Granderson, DH 

Kendrys Morales, PH

Yangervis Solarte, 3B

Teoscar Hernandez, LF

Justin Smoak, 1B

Kevin Pillar, CF

Russell Martin, C

Randal Grichuk, RF

Aledmys Diaz, SS

Devon Travis, 2B

J.A. Happ, P

Feels like a long time ago, right? Six of the players who started that day have since been traded, Solarte was non-tendered and Travis remains sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury. One year later, just three of those players remain in the Blue Jays’ lineup: Grichuk, Hernandez and Smoak.

"Last year was definitely different for me," Smoak said. "The last couple of months I’m looking around like, ‘I’m only 32, man, I’m like the oldest guy here.’ Going into this year I knew what to expect."

A rebuild. Young players who could be part of the future now outnumber veterans like Smoak. At this point, they’re just not hitting nearly enough to compete consistently, and a 6-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Saturday reinforced that point. They collected just five hits while getting shut out for the fifth time this year. To contend again, the Blue Jays will need that to change.

With that said, this recent roster turnover took place because the Blue Jays wanted to create playing time for their emerging core of young players. This time last year, many of them were in the minors, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Brandon Drury, Cavan Biggio and Rowdy Tellez, all of whom started Saturday.

While that doesn’t excuse this team’s slow start at the plate, it does help explain it. These guys were facing double-A and triple-A pitching a year ago. Now they’re facing Zack Greinke. That adjustment requires some patience.

Case in point, Guerrero Jr. collected two hits Saturday but didn’t advance past first on a ball he hit off the wall because he thought it was gone and didn’t run at full speed. Later, he fielded a routine grounder too slowly, leading to an infield hit.

"He’s got to learn from that," manager Charlie Montoyo said.

At times the losses can blur together, creating the illusion that it’s the same old story. To an extent that’s understandable. Losses are losses, and there’s no guarantee of future success for the Blue Jays, despite their highly-ranked farm system. But don’t let the sameness of the results overshadow how much this team has changed in the last year.

As that transition continues in Toronto, the Blue Jays want their young players to emerge as leaders regardless of how they happen to be hitting. With that in mind, Montoyo pulled Biggio and Jansen aside ahead of Saturday’s game and urged them to feel free to speak up at times.

"I heard you guys were leaders in the minor-leagues," Montoyo told them. "Just do it. Don’t worry about your averages, you’re actually having good at-bats."

While Blue Jays rookies lead baseball in hits (143) and homers (23), Biggio (.614 OPS) and Jansen (.496 OPS) have both struggled.

"Just be yourself. Be a leader. Be who you are," Montoyo continued. "Because you were a leader in the minor-leagues, you can be a leader here. You guys are going to be here for a long time. Start now."

That message shows confidence that Biggio and Jansen will be here for a long time. The same can’t necessarily be said for Aaron Sanchez, who’s sure to intrigue contending teams as the July 31 deadline approaches.

The right-hander allowed five runs over six innings Saturday as his season ERA climbed to 4.25. Still, he continues to provide innings despite ongoing finger issues.

"I thought I threw the ball well and made pitches when I needed to," Sanchez said. "If you go back and look at the hits, the situations where I gave up those runs, things just fell. They put the bat on the ball and found holes. It is what it is."

This time next year, there’s a real chance Sanchez will be gone. There will of course be further turnover on the position player side too, but it won’t have to be as drastic as it was over the last 12 months. Rather than another wholesale change in personnel, the Blue Jays need the potential of their young hitters to start translating to results.

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