TORONTO – Ross Atkins describes watching the Toronto Blue Jays leave so many wins on the table in recent weeks as “difficult” and “tough.” He knows the frustration of fans demanding action to bolster the relief corps primarily responsible for those trying times. But as GM, he must balance the impulse to act immediately, price be damned, against the dispassionate analysis inherent to modern-day sports management. He’s trying to walk the line.
“My rational and emotional brains, I don't know if anyone can consciously disconnect those two things,” Atkins said Sunday before his team beat the Baltimore Orioles 7-4, securing its first series win since the beginning of the month. “But we're thinking about improving the organization and right now, the bulk of that focus is on run prevention and how we can complement that pitching staff, thinking about defensive improvements as well, internally, potentially externally. We’re confident that this group is going to get turned around and playing much better and much more consistently, with wins on the way.”
Patience, of course, even after Saturday’s steadying 10-7, comeback win and Sunday’s solid follow-up, behind a resurgent Hyun-Jin Ryu and a string of timely hits from the heart of the lineup in a pivotal four-run fifth, is a tough ask. The urgency and clarity around the current need, in combination with the corrosive damage of bullpen struggles, creates an imperative to act, even if this is an atypical point of the season to make trades.
Atkins said dialogue with other clubs has picked up of late. While the market for starting pitching is expected to be sparse, he expects there to be opportunity to add relief help. If that’s the case, why not force the issue, and pay extra to make a seller act now?
“It's not as simple as just hitting go,” he replied. “You want to make sure that you feel good about the alternatives, not only that you may have today, but that could present themselves in the future and understanding the market and the cost. That's the only thing that ultimately would stop you.”
For now, that leaves the Blue Jays in a holding pattern, expecting some correction and improvement in a bullpen now among the youngest in the American League as injuries have stripped away its veteran components, while seeking gains in every way possible.
Saturday’s acquisition of right-hander Jacob Barnes is one way to accomplish that, while the potential returns Ryan Borucki (expected to throw a side in the coming days), Julian Merryweather (due to throw off a mound this week) and Rafael Dolis (threw a side Saturday and still has mild symptoms of numbness but isn’t expected to miss long) appear to be on the horizon. Moving one of Nate Pearson or Thomas Hatch from the triple-A Buffalo rotation into a relief role is a possibility later down the line, especially if the Blue Jays starting staff remains stable.
Star centre-fielder George Springer could rejoin the club as soon as Tuesday in Miami for the start of a two-game set against the Marlins – “We are very fortunately at the point now where we have a decision with him to make, it's do we continue that rehab progression or do we have him join the team,” said Atkins – which combined with a softer schedule should help paper the gap.
A pair of wins that moved the Blue Jays back to .500 at 35-35 eased some of the recent stress.
“The team atmosphere has been really good right now and all of our players have been competing out there to try to win every game possible,” Ryu, who allowed a run over seven innings of three-hit ball despite still struggling with his changeup, said through interpreter J.S. Park. “Obviously, there's going to be those games where we could have won previously. But that is what it is and the comeback from (Saturday) carried on to today, hopefully it carries on into the next week and we have better outings next time.”
There’s some leap of faith needed with that approach, but this Blue Jays front office won’t go all YOLO with its prospect capital, believing this is the first year of an extended window of opportunity, as opposed to a last-ditch attempt with declining players.
Still, Kevin Smith, Zach Logue, Hobie Harris, Samad Taylor (tearing things up double-A New Hampshire), Chavez Young and Maximo Castillo give the front office a stable of Rule 5 eligible players from which to deal. They won’t have room for all of them on the 40-man roster this fall and using them at the deadline would follow the model employed by the San Diego Padres last summer, allowing them to preserve their top prospects while adding from system depth.
But waiting will mean more anxious moments, even on days like Sunday, when the Blue Jays scored twice in the eighth and led 6-1 with six outs to go. Trent Thornton frittered away a low-leverage finish by giving up a solo shot to Pedro Severino and a two-run homer to Trey Mancini three batters later.
Reese McGuire’s fourth hit of the day, an RBI single in the top of the ninth, extended the advantage to 7-4 and Tyler Chatwood locked things down in the ninth after a four-pitch walk to start the frame.
The late add-on runs “are huge, always,” said McGuire, “not just because you feel like you might give up one or two, more so just to put the pedal down. Sometimes when you're on the other side of that, you feel like you're still within reach within a run or two, and all of a sudden they put up one more, two more up there, you kind of deflate a little bit. That's more what it's about, putting the throttle down and trying to put them away before they even get their last at-bat.”
Manager Charlie Montoyo has worn a lot of the criticism for the implosions, but Atkins took the heat off his manager, saying he’s “exceptionally encouraged by how he's handled everything and continues to.”
“He has really done an incredible job,” Atkins continued. “If you think about the start of the season, how well he managed the pitching and worked through it, and then our injuries have just been really too much to overcome in the short term, but we’ll work to improve that.”
Continued improvements from Chatwood and Tim Mayza along with the return of some injured players will ease that pressure. But each shaky finish, each missed opportunity will only turn it back up.
“Obviously it’s been difficult,” Atkins said of watching of the late-game implosions. “At the same time, we have played some good baseball. We've had a really tough schedule. We have been playing in not Toronto the entire time. We have the youngest offensive team in baseball that has been extremely productive. We can be better defensively. In the run prevention area, we need we need to improve. So, yeah, it's been tough. But I will say this: It's so easy to clean the slate each day because of the morale in our clubhouse, the energy and the confidence that they have, the positivity they have.”
That’s a good start. But reinforcing the roster so the Blue Jays can keep building on the slate, rather than cleaning it, would be even better.