TORONTO — The time for bigger-picture evaluations is looming for the Toronto Blue Jays and at the tail end of the season’s second month, they are trending the wrong way.
Drawing conclusions from a team’s best or worst stretches is always a risky venture because small samples can distort perceptions. The 1-6 homestand capped by Thursday’s 8-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, a run of games which included two dispiriting bullpen implosions, certainly qualifies among the latter and showcased some of the Blue Jays’ more worrying troubles.
Bad weeks happen, even for the best of clubs.
“We’re not putting complete games together,” said star third baseman Josh Donaldson. “That’s a recipe for not having success.”
But taking a step further back, it’s reasonable to start wondering whether April or May is the better barometer of where this team is headed, the kind of judgments front offices will begin making more definitively once the June 4-6 draft is completed.
The Blue Jays, now 23-27 overall, are 10-21 since they were last a season-best seven games over .500 on April 20, following an 8-5 win over the Yankees. They’re 7-15 in May. Their rotation has yet to collectively be the foundational strength it was supposed to be, and is missing a pillar until Marcus Stroman returns from the disabled list. The lineup isn’t deep enough to out-hit those struggles. A handful of position player injuries have left them exposed and as a result, remarkably, they aren’t carrying a natural shortstop on the roster.
Save for Teoscar Hernandez, they haven’t gotten the kind of internal boost they’ve needed from the prospects to see some big-league time.
“We were really swinging the bats in April, the bullpen was lights out in April and some things corrected a little bit like you figured it was going to,” said manager John Gibbons. “We haven’t had the consistency of starting pitching we expect and eventually will have. Lump them all together, that’s what happens sometimes.”
Even more troubling is that after dropping two of three to the Angels, the Blue Jays are a cumulative 9-14 so far against the Halos, Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners and Cleveland, all American League clubs considered post-season contenders. The Blue Jays have a winning record against just one of those teams — 2-1 versus Cleveland — and they’ve yet to face the stacked Astros, who may be even better than they were a year ago when they won the World Series.
It’s-still-early caveats aside, there’s a developing gap in the standings.
“We have to try to stay as positive as possible,” said Donaldson. “At the same time, we have to look in the mirror at the end of the night and say, ‘What do I have to do to get better?’ I know everyone in here is working their tail off and we’re going to try to address the issues as much as possible and try to go out there and do a better job.”
There’s no time to waste, which is why the coming stretch — starting with a nine-game road trip to Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit that opens Friday against the Phillies — really matters for the Blue Jays.
If the players emerge from their current rut and look more like the April group than the May group, they can earn more run, at least to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline if not longer, and merit consideration for augmentation.
“We’re better than this, we really are,” said Marco Estrada, who allowed four runs on seven hits and two walks over 4.1 innings in the finale. “Whether people believe it or not, I don’t really care because I know we are better.
“I know I’m much better. I’m not pitching like it right now. And I will get better.”
If he and others don’t, however — and dates with the Yankees, Orioles, Nationals, Braves, Angels, Astros and Tigers follow the road trip — it behooves the Blue Jays to get a jump on exploring the trade market for ways to retool a rotation set only to return Stroman and Aaron Sanchez for 2019.
Jaime Garcia, who’ll come off the disabled list to start Saturday in Philadelphia, has a $10-million club option that at the moment looks unappealing. There are also no sure-fire prospects in the system that at the moment could be confidently pencilled into next season’s staff.
Ryan Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley (promoted to triple-A on Thursday and rocked for eight runs on eight hits and two walks over 2.1 innings in his debut) are the likeliest options at Buffalo, while Canadian Jordan Romano and 2016 first-rounder T.J. Zeuch are at double-A New Hampshire and could make rapid progress.
Still, that’s a tough way to fill out three fifths of the starting rotation and with the Blue Jays down 319,937 fans from 2017 through their first 28 home dates, you’d logically think they’ll have less payroll to work with next year, unless things change.
That’s one reason why the Joe Biagini starter experiment has gotten so much run, why someone like Sam Gaviglio is more than just a depth piece and someone like the currently-suspended Thomas Pannone matters.
And it’s also why the Blue Jays need to be decisive in June if they don’t get on a real run and don’t believe in the group they have.
There are reasons to think the club can improve, particularly since Donaldson, Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales and Russell Martin, to name a few players, are capable of so much more at the plate, and the rotation should be far better than it’s shown.
As Donaldson put it: “It’s not that we can’t be, we just need to be better. We’re not doing it as a collective group right now. We have the capability to do it — if we didn’t have the capability it would be one thing — but we have the capability to do it, we just have to go out there and do it.”
On the flip side, if the front office doesn’t envision a sufficient correction — they’d need to play .600 baseball (67-45) the rest of the way to finish with 90 wins — it’s better to try turning pending free-agent assets like Donaldson, Estrada, J.A. Happ, Curtis Granderson and their relievers into some legitimate rotation options for next year.
Dealing them earlier could, potentially, allow them to charge a bit of a premium for an extended period of control, something Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro did with CC Sabathia in Cleveland, sending him to Milwaukee on July 7, 2008 for a package that included Michael Brantley.
Such a sell-off would hurt, badly, but to this point many of the assumptions made about what would lead to 2018 success haven’t happened for the Blue Jays. Time remains for them to rally and factor into the wild-card chase, but if they don’t show something very soon, the team may ultimately be better off jump-starting a reset that’s long lurked in the background.