Blue Jays Takeaways: T.J. Zeuch’s MLB debut something to build on

T.J. Zeuch allowed two runs in his MLB debut as the Atlanta Braves beat the Toronto Blue Jays 7-2.

In going 21-20 with a plus-39 run differential from Canada Day through Aug. 16, the Toronto Blue Jays were playing much better baseball than they had over the season’s first half and making progress towards finishing the season as merely a bad team rather than one of MLB’s worst.

But then the schedule became more challenging, and this young, developing club began running into established, playoff-bound teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Tuesday’s opponent, the Atlanta Braves, who pumped the Blue Jays, 7-2.

It was Toronto’s third loss in a row, fifth in its last six, and 12th in 15 games since that strong mid-season run came to a sudden halt. Now 55-85 on the year, the Blue Jays have resumed tumbling downhill — the club’s on pace to finish 64-98 — towards one of the worst records in franchise history.

That’s good for positioning and bonus pool allotment in next June’s draft, but not much else. Not good for the diehard fans who have gutted this grim season out. Not good for a young, developing clubhouse that has suffered a lot of defeats over the last two-and-a-half weeks. And not good for a front office that can clearly see its promising young talent isn’t yet good enough, or well-supported enough, to compete with MLB’s best.

But onwards they go. The Blue Jays now head to St. Petersburg, Fla., where they’ll hope to dodge Hurricane Dorian before playing four games against the AL Wild Card leading Tampa Bay Rays. Then it’s back home to face one of MLB’s best offences, the Boston Red Sox, and a 91-win team, the New York Yankees. Things aren’t getting any easier. And the losses are piling up.

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Give Zeuch the start

Toronto’s first-round pick in 2016, T.J. Zeuch, made his MLB debut Tuesday, becoming the 37th pitcher the club has used this season — a franchise high. It’s good to see young, homegrown talent getting these opportunities rather than veteran journeymen and mercenaries. But the Blue Jays could have done their 24-year-old right-hander a favour and not messed around with his routine.

Rather than allowing Zeuch to start, as he has been all season, the Blue Jays opted to have him pitch behind opener Wilmer Font. It was a questionable decision, and one that nearly blew up in the club’s face.

The Braves were all over Font, who allowed base hits to the first four batters he faced, giving up a couple runs in the process. Matt Joyce was up next and shot a 96-m.p.h. liner to the right side. But it was hit directly into the glove of first baseman Rowdy Tellez, who quickly doubled off Josh Donaldson at first. Dansby Swanson then struck out on three pitches to get Font out of the inning, and Zeuch took over to start the second.

To be fair, the Blue Jays have had success using Font ahead of its starters — he entered Tuesday’s outing with a 1.56 ERA and 27:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 17.1 innings as an opener this season. And the club clearly feels it’s putting young pitchers in the best position to be successful by allowing them to start their outing against the bottom of the order rather than the top. (And, it must be mentioned, potentially limiting their future earning potential through arbitration, as well).

But this was still an odd spot for an opener. Zeuch worked exclusively as a starter throughout the minor-league season and was making his MLB debut. Wouldn’t you want to keep his routine as consistent as possible? Warming up to enter in the second inning had to be a foreign feeling on a day that was already filled with nerves and anxiety. And then he had to begin his outing with a two-run deficit.

This team’s not in a playoff race, so chasing marginal gains in win probability ought not to take precedent over letting Zeuch feel comfortable. And even if things were to go pear shaped, Toronto had 10 relievers to call on from its bullpen. Zeuch’s not going to pitch behind an opener for his entire career — at least Toronto should hope not. He’ll have to get good hitters out multiple times if he’s going to stick as a starter in the big leagues. Why not give him the opportunity to prove he can do it right away?

Anyway, pitching to Beau Taylor, who caught the no-hitter he threw a couple weeks ago with the Buffalo Bisons, Zeuch allowed two runs on three hits over four innings, striking out four and walking a pair. The damage was done in Zeuch’s final inning, when he lost the strike zone and walked a pair. He came within a strike of escaping the jam, but left a full-count slider on the plate to Josh Donaldson, who drive it to left, scoring both runners.

Zeuch will probably wish he had better command on the night, as he left far too many sliders like the one to Donaldson up and on the plate. But he worked some good sinkers down in the zone — his fastball velocity fluctuated from 90-94-m.p.h. — which helped him generate five groundballs.

Not a dominant debut. But something to build on.

September call-ups arrive

Apologies for this reminder, but September is here. Unfortunate news for most, but not MLB teams which now enjoy the privilege of carrying as many players from their 40-man rosters as they so please.

Of course, expanding rosters from 25 to 40 during the season’s most critical month is ridiculous, which is why this is the final year it will occur. Beginning next season, active rosters will be increased to 26 from opening day through Aug. 31, and be capped at 28 come September.

But for a club like these Blue Jays, which hasn’t operated with a full rotation since sometime in early June, the added flexibility is welcome. Taylor and Ryan Tepera were added on the first day of the month, Thomas Pannone and Clayton Richard arrived Monday, and a large wave followed Tuesday including Zeuch, Richard Urena, Jonathan Davis, and Anthony Alford.

Expect Richard and Pannone to make appearances during the club’s upcoming series against the Rays. Urena will provide infield cover, while Davis will no doubt be used as a pinch runner and could see some outfield time here and there.

Left-hander Anthony Kay, one half of the return in July’s Marcus Stroman trade, is also expected the join the club in St. Petersburg later this week to make his MLB debut. Sean Reid-Foley, Brock Stewart, and Justin Shafer are also all on the 40-man roster, and could be called up in the coming weeks if the Blue Jays are in need of arms.

How does Alford fit in?

Alford’s usage will be fascinating to watch, as the 25-year-old will be out of options next spring, forcing the Blue Jays to either bring him north or expose him to waivers at the end of spring training, assuming he sticks with the club through the off-season.

Alford was a consensus top-100 prospect — in some cases top-50 — three years running from 2016 through 2018. But injuries and underperformance have removed much of that shine, and Alford finished his 2019 triple-A campaign — his second year at the level — batting .259/.343/.411 over 76 games.

Alford’s .754 OPS isn’t exactly poor, but it isn’t particularly impressive either considering triple-A offensive numbers were off the charts this season after the introduction of the turbocharged MLB baseball at the level. But Alford still possesses all the same raw tools that made him such a highly touted prospect only a couple seasons ago, and he’s shown how high his ceiling could be in flashes — he was hitting .361/.451/.525 with 22 hits through 17 games this June before suffering an injury and missing five weeks.

The last thing the Blue Jays will want is for Alford to finally put it all together with another organization. But a decision looms and the amount of playing time he receives down the stretch could be telling.

Of course, there’s only so much playing time to go around. Randal Grichuk — and the $52-million extension he signed this April — is due to see the bulk of playing time in right field. Teoscar Hernandez has an .847 OPS since he returned from a minor-league sabbatical on June 5 and will be Toronto’s centre fielder more often than not. And the club will want to continue evaluating Derek Fisher, who Toronto liked enough to trade three players for in July and will be out of options next spring.

Plus, don’t forget Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who could rejoin the team as soon as Thursday after missing nearly a month with a quad injury. Over 66 games as the club’s every day left fielder before he went down, Gurriell was hitting .295/.344/.591 with 35 extra-base hits.

That’s four names who ought to see regular playing time and we haven’t even mentioned Billy McKinney or Davis yet. Alford currently sits behind all those players on Toronto’s outfield depth chart and, barring injury, likely won’t have much opportunity to fight his way up it in the coming weeks.

Alford may be limited to the odd pinch-hitting opportunity, like the one he saw in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s game. He struck out on five pitches.

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