It has been an exciting, promising, yet somehow wholly unsatisfactory first half for the Toronto Blue Jays. Their 43-39 record compares favourably to the 2015 and 2016 playoff teams. Their division, alas, not so much.
You could call it an exhilarating sense of opportunity lost, if you believed or believe that this is a team capable of landing a playoff spot after 162 games the way it did in 2020’s 60-game pandemiseason.
The Blue Jays will finish off the pre-All-Star Break portion of their schedule with three games against the Baltimore Orioles and three against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, as they do, resurrected all sorts of ghosts Sunday with a 5-1 sweep-avoiding win over the Blue Jays that saw Robbie Ray again hit a wall the third time through the order and Bo Bichette bobble and throw away a game while getting picked off first base for good measure.
That, plus erratic relief pitching from Rafael Dolis, pretty much demonstrated the Blue Jays at their worst through 81 games. It’s how they seem to roll when they get rolled, and in the process the Blue Jays not only lost a chance to sweep the Rays for the first time since Sept. 2015, they lost a chance for their first sweep of any American League club this season.
Bottom line? The Blue Jays' record in the American League East is 19-19. The division-leading Boston Red Sox are 21-10; the second-place Rays are 22-13. Fangraphs lists the Blue Jays' playoff odds at a tick under 33 per cent. Thank goodness for that 13-2 inter-league record.
And while it’s dangerous to point to any part of a season as a tipping point, well after these three games against the Rays, the Blue Jays will come out of the All-Star Break playing seven of their first 13 games against the Red Sox; three of the other six are against the New York Mets. This dovetails nicely with the trade deadline – wouldn’t you know? – and if nothing else it will determine whether the Blue Jays look for a rental piece or two, or focus on adding pitching that will provide a short and long-term return.
This has been a frustrating first half because the Blue Jays' need has been obvious for two months: the bullpen. It’s been frustrating because while the organization has been rolling out its halt and lame pen, the New York Yankees have imploded and look like an organization on the verge of panic. And the Rays have shown just enough loose threads to whet the appetite – a parade of pitching injuries. While the Orioles stink as badly as anticipated. The Red Sox are rolling, yet somehow it’s tough to buy into them pulling away from the division.
So, I get that there is a sense of opportunity being lost.
The record is close to the team's last two playoff appearances – the Blue Jays were 42-40 in 2015 and 43-39 in 2016; we’ll leave aside the pandemic shortened 2020 berth – and the lineup has been remarkable, indeed historic, despite not having George Springer for six weeks. Three Blue Jays will start the All-Star Game, a fourth is a reserve, and while the whole process is an online beauty contest, it’s telling that nobody much begrudges the selection of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien or Teoscar Hernandez as starters.
Guerrero Jr., well, what can be said?
Without Shohei Ohtani’s unicorn act, Guerrero Jr. would be running away with the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Imagine winning a triple crown and not winning MVP? Plus, unless I’ve missed something, we’ve all stopped wondering about how the Blue Jays would play defence for him late in games.
There have been the usual transitory issues: sloppy infield defence, particularly at third and shortstop, cost the Blue Jays some early games as well as Sunday’s; uncertainty out of the back end of the rotation contributed to a few more, and even this lineup had games where a big hit would have spun a different tale. Hyun-Jin Ryu had the worst month of his career in June. But those were corrected either by hard work (Bichette’s defence; Ross Stripling’s in-season adoption of a windup) or a timely arrival from the minor leagues (Alek Manoah) or, simply, the evening out of percentages that occur over 162 games.
Water finds its level. And in the case of the Blue Jays bullpen, it’s drowned the team: 19 losses, tied for third-most in the majors behind the Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers. They’re in the middle or just into the bottom third of many categories – due to a stronger than expected start that saw Jays relievers post the fourth-best ERA over the course of the first five weeks.
The timing of the bullpen losses has been excruciating: 11 against the AL East, five of them between May 20-24 against the Red Sox and Rays that took them from 1 ½ games back to 4 ½. It’s been a slog since then.
It can’t be said any more clearly: the bullpen is the reason that the Blue Jays are not currently tucked into a wild-card spot. While this is an organization that has made a habit of taking advantage of found money when it comes to relievers, it has made two glaring miscalculations: paying out $5.5 million to sign Kirby Yates knowing his health was a gamble and signing Tyler Chatwood for $3 million.
Those are hardly onerous commitments given the financial backing ownership has given this front office – indeed, in the old days we’d say it’s how clubs with money acted – but considering the element of risk the Blue Jays were already carrying with injury magnet Julian Merryweather and Ryan Borucki, it’s left manager Charlie Montoyo with a ton of Plan Cs and no Plan A or B. Seriously: it’s taken Adam Cimber five days to become the most reliable bullpen arm.
And so he we are: ten games against the Rays and Red Sox before the trade deadline wrapped around the All-Star Break. The question for general manager Ross Atkins is: does he do something else to strengthen his team's hand, or wait for the games to tell him something? In the meantime, hey, that’s almost a whole Blue Jays column without the mention of Nate Pearson. That, too, might tell you something.
Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan