Derek Fisher’s obvious potential on display in Blue Jays win

Derek Fisher hit his first home run as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in their win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Not a bad road trip for the Toronto Blue Jays, who finished a 10-game swing with a 7-3 record Wednesday after edging the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3. It was Toronto’s first series victory at Tropicana Field — which they visit three times a year — since May 2017.

The Blue Jays are now 47-70, which puts them on a 65-97 pace for the season. Of course, 60 per cent of Toronto’s remaining games come against the Rays, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves — playoff teams, all of them. So, 100 losses is still very much in the realm of possibility.

But that’s neither here nor there. Wednesday, the Blue Jays won. And here are your takeaways.

Pitching, the good
Wilmer Font opened the game, throwing 2 1/3 scoreless innings against his former team. Font struck out five while flashing 97-m.p.h. stuff that helped him generate 10 swinging strikes on only 41 pitches.

The Blue Jays believed Font was tipping his pitches when they acquired him from the New York Mets for cash last month, and the fact he’s allowed only six hits and a run over his last 9 1/3 innings suggests they may have been onto something. Since joining Toronto, Font’s put up an 11.6 K/9 and 0.7 BB/9.

Brock Stewart — making his Blue Jays debut — took over from there and spun four stellar frames, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out three. Stewart doesn’t possess Font’s overwhelming velocity, but he does a nice job mixing and matching with fastballs, sliders, and change-ups to keep hitters guessing and generate weak contact.

While some Blue Jays fans were displeased with the lack of a top-100 prospect return in the club’s trade of Marcus Stroman last month, Stewart serves as a telling example of how fleeting that top prospect status can be for pitchers across the game.

After the 2016 season, FanGraphs had Stewart as the Dodgers seventh-best prospect with a 45 future value, and it was only two off-seasons ago that the Dodgers “steadfastly refused” to include the right-hander in a proposed trade package for Brian Dozier.

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But after pitching to a 5.46 ERA over his first 36 major-league appearances, Stewart wound up on waivers, where the Blue Jays claimed him last week. Now, he’s pitching behind an opener on a rebuilding club.

(Another example on the position player side is Alen Hanson, who was part of the return in April’s Kevin Pillar deal and ended up flat out released by the Blue Jays last week. He appeared on top-100 prospect lists across the industry after putting up a .909 OPS playing A-ball in 2012. MLB.com ranked him as high as No. 54, and kept Hanson on its top-100 list for three consecutive seasons).

Justin Shafer retired all four batters he faced in relief of Stewart, continuing a strong run that’s seen him allow only two runs over 13 1/3 innings since he was recalled from triple-A Buffalo nearly a month ago. Shafer now has a 1.99 ERA across 22 2/3 innings this season.

Pitching, the not so good
Taking over with two out in the eighth to face the left-handed hitting Austin Meadows, Tim Mayza surrendered a loud double off the top of the centre field wall on the second pitch he threw. Two pitches later, Avisail Garcia sent a single into left to score Tampa Bay’s first run.

Mayza escaped the inning, but Ken Giles had his own struggles in the ninth as Mike Zunino crushed a 96-m.p.h. fastball 446-feet over the batter’s eye in dead centre to pull the Rays within one. And that tying run quickly reached base, as Willy Adames sent Giles’s next pitch back up the middle for a single.

Credit to Giles, who rallied to strike out a pair and earn his 15th save of the season. But he didn’t have his best stuff on the day, missing badly with a few sliders, and sitting 96-97 m.p.h. with a fastball that was up to 98-99 — sometimes 100 — earlier this season.

Giles was nearly traded at last week’s deadline and will no doubt be the subject of discussions again come winter. For that reason, his stuff and effectiveness will be heavily scrutinized over the remainder of the season as he continues to try to put July’s bout of elbow inflammation behind him.

Fisher goes yard
Still sporting the black eye he suffered after catching a misjudged flyball with his orbital bone last weekend, Derek Fisher stepped in against Rays left-hander Colin Poche in the sixth inning and…

Crack. You can quibble with the acquisition price, you can scoff at his underwhelming MLB performance to this point, but you can’t deny the sound of that bat and the all-fields power Fisher possesses. That’s what the Blue Jays see in him, and the bet is that with an extended major-league opportunity — and less pressure to immediately perform for a team with playoff expectations — Fisher could put it all together and start to get the most out of his undeniable tools.

Whether or not it works, we’ll find out. But the potential is obvious. That was Toronto’s hardest-hit ball of the game at 106-m.p.h. and it easily cleared the opposite field wall. It came against a left-hander, too, continuing an interesting reverse-splits trend in Fisher’s brief career. Coming into Wednesday’s game, he had a .594 OPS over 250 plate appearances against right-handed pitching and an .800 OPS over 70 plate appearances against lefties.

Those numbers will likely look less stark in either direction as Fisher’s major-league sample increases. But it’s certainly encouraging that he’s had such quick success against what should be the more challenging side of the platoon.

Blue Jays add arms
With Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, David Phelps, Daniel Hudson and Joe Biagini all departed in trades, Ryan Borucki making a foreboding visit to Dr. James Andrews for an opinion on his left elbow discomfort, and the club’s pitching staff having existed in a perpetual state of flux since the third week of the season, the Blue Jays could really use some pitching. So, they’ve added a couple pitchers.

Tuesday, the club signed well-travelled reliever Neil Ramirez to a minor-league deal. The 30-year-old right-hander began the season in Cleveland’s bullpen but was designated for assignment in May after posting a 5.40 ERA over 16 appearances. Ramirez accepted an outright assignment to triple-A, where his struggles continued with a 4.91 ERA over 25 appearances, before he was released earlier this month.

Toronto will be Ramirez’s eighth organization since 2016, which says one thing about his poor MLB results (he’s pitched to a 5.70 ERA over 113 2/3 innings in that time) and another about the encouraging aspects of his game that lead clubs to continue taking chances on him.

Ramirez has posted a 10.8 K/9 over the last four seasons, and features a 95-m.p.h. fastball with an 89th percentile spin rate. If he finds a way to better harness his stuff — Ramirez’s 2.2 HR/9 and 5.2 BB/9 over the last four seasons are both high — he could have a chance at being more effective. He worked a clean inning for the Dunedin Blue Jays Wednesday, and could join the major-league club in short order.

Meanwhile, Wednesday brought a bounce back play, as the Blue Jays plucked Zack Godley off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Only two seasons ago, Godley was among the 10 best starters in the National League, finishing 2017 with a 3.40 ERA over 153 1/3 innings. He was worth 3.3 wins above replacement that season and finished third in the NL with a 55.2 per cent groundball rate.

But he took a significant step back in 2018, putting up a 4.74 ERA over 178 1/3 innings as his velocity decreased and his walks climbed. And 2019 has been a disaster, as Godley lost his starting job after working to a 7.58 ERA over his first six outings of the season, continued to struggle in a low-leverage, multi-inning relief role, and was ultimately designated for assignment. He joins Toronto with a 6.39 ERA on the season and peripheral numbers — 6.9 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 43 per cent groundball rate — that don’t paint a pretty picture.

Still, with the only cost of acquisition being the remaining third of Godley’s meager 2019 salary ($609,000), this is the kind of move the Blue Jays ought to be making on the off chance the 29-year-old turns things around. Godley is arbitration eligible this off-season, and the club could bring him back for 2020 at an extremely affordable rate if it likes what it sees or simply non-tender him this winter and send him on his way if it doesn’t.

Toronto’s first task? Determining whether Godley can regain some of his lost velocity which has declined steadily since his strong 2017. It did nudge in the right direction when Godley was shifted from the rotation to the bullpen in May. But he’s still far from where he was when at his best, and his results since — not to mention below-average spin rates on his fastball and curve — suggest he’s missing those extra ticks on the radar gun.

Odds and ends
Another day, another record for Bo Bichette. With a line drive to left in the third inning, the 21-year-old set a franchise mark for most consecutive games with a double at eight, passing Carlos Delgado’s previous mark of seven. That’s also the longest doubles streak across the majors since Yadier Molina had an eight-game run in 2016. Bichette had already set franchise marks for longest hit streak to begin a career, highest OPS through a player’s first nine career games, and most hits in a player’s first 10 career games.

With a 411-foot blast in the fourth inning, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., became the fastest Blue Jay to reach 30 home runs in franchise history. The 25-year-old needed 143 games, which edged out the 147 contests it took Fred McGriff.

Simeon Woods Richardson — one half of the Blue Jays return for Marcus Stroman — pitched his second outing with the Dunedin Blue Jays Wednesday, allowing three runs on four hits while striking out eight over five innings. He’s now struck out 13 over his first 8 2/3 innings with Dunedin, an impressive start considering the 18-year-old Woods Richardson is five years younger than the average high-A player.

Randal Grichuk continued his recent tear, going deep in the sixth for his 19th homer of the season and eighth hit in his last four games. And he deserved better than the flyout he ended up with at the end of a 13-pitch battle with Rays right-hander Oliver Drake in the eighth, in which Grichuk fouled off eight pitches before working the count full.

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