MILWAUKEE, WISC. — A year and two days ago, Rowdy Tellez was called into his manager’s office to learn he was being optioned to triple-A.
He was scuffling — sitting on a .209/.272/.338 line with a 62 wRC+. He was playing inconsistently — sometimes as a designated hitter, sometimes as a first baseman, most often as a late-game pinch-hitter off the bench. And the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t have room for him — they were activating George Springer from the IL and anticipating the veteran outfielder needing his fair share of DH days going forward.
Tellez saw what the rest of us did. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was entrenched as Toronto’s first baseman and well on his way to finishing second in American League MVP voting. He wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was Springer, who was in the first year of a $150-million deal. Tellez believed he could play in the majors if given the opportunity; that he could realize his potential if he saw consistent playing time. And that he had nothing left to prove at triple-A.
So, he told the Blue Jays that if they could find a team willing to trade for him, he’d be open to the possibility.
“Me and [Blue Jays GM] Ross [Atkins] talked when I got optioned and I told him, 'Hey, I love my organization, I love my team, I love everything about it here. But at some point I want to further my career,' " Tellez says. “I didn't specifically say, 'Hey, Ross, I want to be traded.' I did not say that. But I said, 'If there's a chance, I believe in myself more than being in triple-A."
Tellez recalled that story Friday while sitting in the home dugout at American Family Field in Milwaukee, where he’s found the opportunity he sought. The Brewers traded reliever Trevor Richards and right-handed pitching prospect Bowden Francis to the Blue Jays for him early last July in a deal that addressed shortcomings for both sides. The Blue Jays needed immediate bullpen help. And the Brewers needed a replacement for first baseman Daniel Vogelbach, who was staring at an extended absence with a strained hamstring.
And they didn’t only get a replacement — they got an upgrade. Tellez hit .272/.333/.481 the rest of the way for Milwaukee, thriving with everyday playing time. He started three of the four games in Milwaukee’s divisional series with the Atlanta Braves, homering twice. And he’s picked up right where he left off in 2022, entering Friday entrenched as Milwaukee’s everyday first baseman, batting .249/.323/.459 with a 115 wRC+ in the heart of a division leader’s order.
That’s why Tellez had a hard time finding the words to describe the feeling of playing his old team this weekend. He spent the first nine years of his professional career with the Blue Jays. He was two completely different versions of himself when he entered the organization at 18 and exited it at 26; he made lifetime friendships with teammates like Danny Jansen, whose off-season wedding he officiated, and Cavan Biggio, who used to crash at his spring-training house. But he’s in a better place now.
“I wouldn't call it bittersweet — but I've definitely had a smile on my face all day today. I get to see all the guys I came up with, coaching staff that I dealt with. I spent a lot of time with the major-league staff even before I got to the big leagues. It's just good to see everybody again,” Tellez said. “As soon as I walked out there [on the field,] everybody was wearing me out. Nothing new. It's just really good to see the guys.”
That’s about where the good vibes ended for Tellez Friday, as Alek Manoah and Toronto’s deep offence rolled over his Brewers, 9-4. Manoah had another ho-hum, what-else-is-new, solid outing, holding Milwaukee to a two runs over 6.2 innings, striking out six.
And Alejandro Kirk had another ho-hum, what-else-is-new night at the plate, going 4-for-4 with a two-run shot. Kirk’s now homered in three straight games and four of his last six. He’s hitting .321/.406/.513 on the season with a 161 wRC+ and more walks than strikeouts, which aren’t only spectacular numbers for a catcher, but for any hitter period.
"It's unbelievable, man. He comes in, works hard every day. Puts his head down, doesn't ever get too big, doesn't ever get too down on himself. He just stays super consistent," Manoah said. “He's as calm and as cool as you can be. You try and poke the bear and get a smile out of him. Even tonight, he's four-for-four and he's still not even smiling. He's got the jacket on and he's just like, 'OK.' He's pretty awesome.”
The entire Blue Jays universe was dealt a scare in the seventh inning when Kirk’s left hand was clipped by a Jonathan Davis backswing. Kirk remained in the game momentarily but left soon after for precautionary X-Rays, which returned negative. He was dealing with some soreness and inhibited range of motion after the game, but was optimistic he’d feel better on Saturday after receiving treatment.
The depth of Toronto’s lineup beyond Kirk shone through Friday, as well. Matt Chapman plated three with a bases-loaded double from the seven-hole, Lourdes Gurriel Jr had a pair of hits batting eighth, and Cavan Biggio had two of his own — plus a couple walks — from the very bottom of the order, including a late solo shot. After a tough start to the season, Biggio’s found his groove at the plate this month and dragged his wRC+ all the way up to 123.
“Biggio had some great at-bats,” Montoyo said. “It's huge because it stretches the lineup and gives the guys at the top a chance again.”
For Manoah, Friday’s performance wasn’t a ceiling showing, as he generated only eight whiffs, left plenty of pitches up over the plate, and worked around baserunners in all but one inning, allowing the leadoff man to reach in five of them. But it turns out Manoah’s floor is pretty good, too. And whenever he needed a groundball with traffic behind him, he was able to find it.
“He battled. He battled hard. He was in trouble a couple of times. But you can always count on him to get out of trouble,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He gets bigger when the moment gets tougher.”
His diciest moment came in the second when he walked a pair before Willy Adames reached with two out on a rare Chapman error at third. That brought Tellez, of all people, to the plate with the bases loaded. But after missing with his first pitch, Manoah regained count leverage with a couple 96-mph fastballs before getting Tellez to dribble an elevated sinker away into the shift, ending the inning.
“Yeah, I was trying to go up. I was hoping to go maybe a little more up and in, that front hip,” Manoah said. “But I think it worked out perfectly. If it was in, he probably would've hit it pretty hard.”
Interestingly, the Blue Jays extended Manoah further than they have all season, sending him out for the seventh inning at 96 pitches with Milwaukee hitters seeing him a third time. And the risk of that decision materialized immediately as Tyron Taylor led off the inning lacing an 0-2 heater over the left-centre field wall. But Manoah retired his next two hitters before being lifted at 106 pitches and 27 batters faced. His highs on the year entering the night were 102 and 29.
Asking Manoah to go just a little bit further had something to do with the score, which was 8-1 at the beginning of the seventh. And a lot to do with Manoah’s effectiveness and durability, which are off the charts. But it also has at least a little to do with the threadbare state of Toronto’s bullpen, which lost another leverage arm to the injured list Friday in Yimi Garcia, who will miss at least 15 days with a left-back strain.
Toronto’s bullpen needed help even before Garcia joined Trevor Richards, Julian Merryweather, Tayler Saucedo, and Andrew Vasquez on the injured list. And Nate Pearson isn’t coming to help any time soon, as the 25-year-old’s rehab assignment with triple-A Buffalo came to an end last Sunday when he suffered a strained lat two pitches into an outing.
The club’s minor-league relief depth is similarly thin, with Adrian Hernandez and his screwball changeup likely the most interesting arm that could be called upon. The 22-year-old has a 1.80 ERA with Buffalo and has struck out 36.8 per cent of the batters he’s faced this season. Certainly, his opportunity will come. But there is some question as to how the 5-foot-8, 190-pounder’s low-90’s fastball will play at the big-league level. Of course, there’s only one way to find out.
All of that makes acquiring a reliever in the near to mid term a rather pressing concern for the Blue Jays. But you can’t force a trade if other clubs aren’t willing to deal. And the fact the Blue Jays let a seemingly serviceable relief arm in Roenis Elias pass through waivers untouched this week doesn’t project a sense of urgency. Veteran right-hander Sergio Romo also cleared waivers recently and was released by the Seattle Mariners. He’s only a phone call away if the Blue Jays feel there’s something left in his funky, sidewinding arm.
Of course, Tellez’s productive left-handed bat would look good in a right-handed heavy Blue Jays lineup, too. But the same issues that led to his trade persist today. Tellez can’t play anywhere other than first base, which is where Guerrero plays. And the Blue Jays need their DH spot open to get regular rest for Guerrero and Springer — the 32-year-old was out of the lineup Friday for a second consecutive game due to an elbow issue — while keeping Kirk’s prodigious bat in the lineup when he isn’t behind the plate.
There’s just nowhere to fit a player with a profile like Tellez’s in. If the Blue Jays are going to add an impact left-handed bat to their lineup ahead of the August 2 trade deadline, the cleanest way to do so would be in the outfield — ideally with someone who can play centre and spell Springer.
Andrew Benintendi is the name you’re going to hear plenty between now and the deadline, as the Royals flounder and the 27-year-old nears free agency this winter. Benintendi doesn’t barrel the ball much, but his contact-oriented approach has still produced a .295/.360/.390 line this season, good for 117 wRC+. David Peralta is another pending free agent on a team going nowhere and ought to interest a number of contenders thanks to his perennially strong exit velocities and defence. Even as he enters his mid-30’s, Peralta is still an above-average hitter and boasts a 91st percentile outs above average.
The Blue Jays had some interest in Robbie Grossman at last year’s deadline and could certainly revisit it with the 26-43 Tigers, who may look to clear playing time later this season for their glut of young outfielders. Grossman’s having a down year at the plate and striking out at a slightly alarming 30.7 per cent clip. But that performance stands in stark contrast to his track record, and getting him out of Comerica Park — one of MLB’s worst offensive environments this season — could help unlock what worked in the past.
Kole Calhoun, Ben Gamel, Ian Happ, Tyler Naquin — all candidates, as well. The work the Blue Jays are doing now is to determine who’s actually available and assign values to those players before testing the waters as to acquisition costs. All while simultaneously completing their draft preparations and considering day-to-day roster decisions. It’s a busy time, even if it doesn’t always seem like it on the transaction wire.
But last July’s Tellez deal — and the Adam Cimber acquisition the club made a week earlier — demonstrate it is possible to make moves at this time of year if you’re motivated to. As long as the Blue Jays are winning handily like they did Friday in Milwaukee, it won’t seem as pressing a concern. But next week the club hosts the Boston Red Sox for three and the Tampa Rays for five — not a typo — in what is lining up to be as critical a week as they get this early in the season.
Go look at the standings. Fewer than two games separated the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Rays entering Friday’s play. With the club’s next off day not until July 11, Toronto’s depth is about to be tested. It’s urgency, too.