Given roller-coaster restart, Blue Jays’ exploits shouldn’t be overlooked

Randal-Grichuk

Toronto Blue Jays Randal Grichuk ,left, celebrates his three-run home run with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., center, and Teoscar Hernandez during the seventh inning of the team's baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / AP)

It can still go pear-shaped. Depending on the virulence and timing of the second wave of COVID-19, the chance remains that positive tests could throw the post-season picture into disarray, but thinking back to how this whole thing restarted, is anybody else surprised we’ve made it this far?

Major League Baseball restarted its season following an embarrassing public labour battle, spitballing notions of playing games at spring training sites in Arizona and Florida or simply not playing at all, hampered more than any other sport by a calendar and prevailing public health wisdom that made it seem impossible to imagine the idea of all its teams playing a regular season and post-season and move groups of players and coaches from city to city, something no other sport was even bothering to attempt. The start was excruciating: whole series being cancelled because of positive tests, allegations of strip-joint visits and sloppy testing, and a general lack of adherence to the point where teams were, effectively, forced to carry hall monitors to keep players and their, um, “appetites” in check. The Cleveland Indians punished pitchers Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger for a night on the town – eventually trading Clevinger to the San Diego Padres.

I know: moving from Cleveland to San Diego isn’t the harshest of punishments. In fact, it’s one helluva upgrade. Still, there was eventually a whole “scarlet letter” thing to the idea of failing your COVID test. Suddenly, the positive tests stopped. Nobody keeled over on the field. Guys spit, high-fived and talked to each other, comfortable in the idea that everybody on the field was being regularly tested – as happened in the most successful, non-bubbled return by a sport, the European soccer leagues.

Which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays, who in this most improbable of seasons, have managed to pull a post-season berth out of their suitcases. Forced to play their home games in Buffalo due to border restrictions imposed by the Canadian government, and with a roster that had almost been turned over by half — a roster that, as of this morning, has 10 pitchers who weren’t with the organization last season — the Blue Jays turned a shotgun marriage with Sahlen Field into a 32-28 record that exceeded Vegas’ expectations by five games.

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First, a caveat: so much of what we find out about the guts of a team comes from anecdotes and observations made from time around the clubhouse and batting cage. That evidence has been unavailable this season because of COVID-19 restrictions. So we’re left with wishing for the best: that when we see a couple of players laughing it up on the bench it’s all positive, and not at the expense of, say, this jackass coach or that jackass pitcher. But this much we do know: this collection of strangers and young, single guys – the Blue Jays weighted average age of 25.9 years is the youngest in the majors — did not turn in a positive COVID-19 test. They kept their wits about them absent the comforts of home, and that required a considerable amount of self-policing.

As for the team? C’mon: Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are just fine, thanks. The former managed to successfully rehabilitate from an in-season injury – a lesson you’d rather not have to learn – and after some early indications that his defensive clock was a little off-kilter, all’s fine. Biggio? You and I might never think he will be the best hitter on this team, but his career numbers are eerily similar to the early days of his father’s Hall of Fame career and he looks like the type of player who is better on a really good team. Is Teoscar Hernandez really one of the game’s best power-hitters? Is Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., ever going to be a .300 hitter again? Is a healthy Jordan Romano really found money as a homegrown, under-the-radar closer? Is Rowdy Tellez the middle-of-the-order lefty-hitter that truly completes this lineup? Through 60 games? Mostly, yes. Will that hold up through 162?

I don’t know. But I’m willing to give it a go again, aren’t you? And I wouldn’t have said that this spring or even after the restart.

And what about Vlady? Yes, we need to talk about Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Yes, we need to talk about how he has issues with elite velocity and how he is not a polished first baseman. But … damn. After all the focus on his weight, give the 21-year-old guy credit for the fact that he quietly pared down the pounds after the restart, at one point 10-15 pounds. And while all of us fussed and whined about how manager Charlie Montoyo would use him at designated hitter, well, a guy whose conditioning was always a talking point stayed off the injured list, played in all 62 regular-season games — more than any other player on the team — and finished the season with the second-most plate appearances. He went 12-for-28 with three doubles, a triple and two home runs in the final homestand, dragging his average from .237 to .262. He struck out once. Small sample size and all … but, still. On balance? I’ll take it. Who knows … maybe Vlady is just a slow starter?

There are concerns. Nate Pearson, as it turns out, was not ready for the Major Leagues despite all the crying that keeping him at Triple-A to manage his service time was unfair. It wasn’t until he came off the injured list and made a relief stint that he hit 101 m.p.h. If the system is in place in 2021, he has to start at Triple-A. Danny Jansen’s role as the No. 1 catcher must certainly be called into question going into 2021. It’s not panic stations, yet, and the organization does have some depth at the position, but a better bridge might be needed. Defence and what my friend and Baseball Central co-host Kevin Barker refers to as “court awareness” is an issue that always seems just below the surface with this group. Considering the callowness of so many Blue Jays, I’m OK with the idea that it’s the vicissitudes of youth. Credit especially the outfield of Gurriel, Hernandez and Randal Grichuk. One week into the season they were such a mess defensively, that in addition to writing off the 2020 season, most of us couldn’t envision starting 2021 with the trio intact. They’re still sloppy and their underlying defensive numbers are not good, so an upgrade will likely be necessary at some point but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather spend the winter focussing on catching, pitching and third base.

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In the meantime? I’m going to watch some post-season baseball. Not much feels the way it should in 2020 and, yeah, this best-of-three wild-card set is a bit off-putting. But like the 2020 Blue Jays and all the discourse surrounding them? I’ll take it.

POP-UPS

Asterisks away, folks. Asterisks away …

• The New York Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu (.364) and Luke Voit (23 home runs) are the first pair of teammates to lead the Major Leagues in average and homers since Hank Aaron (.355) and Eddie Matthews (46 home runs) of the 1959 Braves. Hard to believe that the last Yankees player to lead the Major Leagues in average was Mickey Mantle (.353) in 1956 …

• Boston Red Sox’s chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is rubbishing suggestions he fired Ron Roenicke as manager simply to rehire Alex Cora once his year-long suspension is over for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. My question is why he protests so much? He’d be silly not to bring back Cora. He’s done his time. So has A.J. Hinch of the Astros. With all that’s gone on this season, the game has moved on …

• Sandy Alomar, Jr., probably holds the record for being interviewed for managerial jobs without getting hired, and with Indians GM Chris Antonetti confirming that Terry Francona won’t manage the Indians in the post-season – he’s been out since Aug. 16 with gastrointestinal and blood-clotting issues – there are a lot of us pulling for the long-time coach whose time is way past due …

• The Atlanta Braves’ Alex Anthopoulos gave Josh Donaldson a one-year lifeline in 2019, and that was parlayed into a four-year, $92-million contract and a fifth option year with the Minnesota Twins. Our man A.A. has likely done the same for Marcell Ozuna, who signed a one-year, $18-million deal with the Braves and will go into free agency having led the NL in homers (18) and averaged .338. The Toronto Raptors’ Fred Van Vleet isn’t the only “Mr. Bet On Yourself” …

• Our Buck Martinez on the Jays’ well-documented inability to handle elite velocity: “They’re trying to cover breaking balls and, as a result, they are late getting to fastballs. That will resolve itself. The coaches are trying to build a good foundation, first.” Martinez sees the transition in Hernandez as being the prototype …

• David Schoenfeld of ESPN dug into the youth of the Blue Jays and Padres and came up with this nugget: the last team to win the World Series with a lineup as young in terms of weighted playing time as the Blue Jays (25.9 years) and Padres (26.6 years) was the 1969 New York Mets, with an average age of 26 years.

• the Angels; GM vacancy is going to be a fascinating watch: Billy Eppler’s replacement will be joining a team that has a high-profile manager (Joe Maddon) under contract for two more years, the generation’s best player (Mike Trout) and an owner who spends. Would the Angels make a trade to free up Theo Epstein from the final year of his deal with the Chicago Cubs? Would they bring in disgraced former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow? David Dombrowski is available, too …

THE ENDGAME

The idea of putting an asterisk beside whichever team wins the World Series, Larry O’Brien Trophy or Stanley Cup is draft, considering no generation of athletes in any of these sports has had to put up with the interruption and uncertainty we’ve seen in 2020. Your life has to be pretty damned perfect to flip up an asterisk. But when it comes to individual awards and marks? Yeah. I’m OK with making a notification that in baseballs case at least it was only 62 games. Thank goodness nobody hit .400 or had a 56-game hitting streak or challenge any of the games other weighty totals …

With that in mind, here are my individual awards picks along with my pre-season selections:

• AL MVP: Jose Ramirez, Indians. In this shortest of seasons, he decided to hit .350 in the final month.

• AL Cy Young: Shane Bieber, Indians. Just look at the numbers. He’s a major reason the Yankees are going down in the wild-card round.

• AL Rookie of the Year: Ramirez won the MVP award in September; Luis Robert lost this award to the Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Lewis in September.

• AL Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash, Rays. Every year.

• NL MVP: Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers. The beginning of a lo-o-o-o-n-g happy relationship.

• NL Cy Young: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati Reds. True, with the exception of the Chicago White Sox, every team he’s faced has been in the bottom third of Major League offence. Not his fault.

• NL Rookie of the Year: Jake Cronenworth, Padres. You’ll hear more from him in the next few weeks.

• NL Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly, Miami Marlins. If you had the Marlins doing this, you’re a liar.

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central from 2-3 p.m. and Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p.m. ET. He also co-hosts A Kick In The Grass, Canada’s only national soccer show, with Dan Riccio on Monday evenings across the Sportsnet Radio Network

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