Two months into the Major League season and those Canadian vaccine border restrictions haven’t quite proven to be the home-field advantage many anticipated.
The Minnesota Twins sure made out OK this weekend, taking two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays despite placing right-fielder Max Kepler and relievers Emilio Pagan, Caleb Thielbar and Trevor Megill on the restricted list. Pretty solid, considering they were also without Carlos Correa, who was on the Covid IL.
Now, it’s true: the immediate-term impact of not being at full strength sometimes outweighs the short-term impact – the Boston Red Sox, for example, were thrown off balance in the bullpen for days when their most effective reliever, Garrett Whitlock, was required to make a start in Toronto in place of the unvaccinated Tanner Houck in a series in which the Blue Jays took three of four games. Did the lack of Drew Steckenrider explain why the Seattle Mariners lost two of three games to the Blue Jays and fell into a 2-8 funk? Probably not. The Chicago White Sox, meanwhile, were a mess before the Blue Jays swept them without reliever Kendell Graveman.
Really, the air was kind of taken out of the whole home-field thing when the New York Yankees, who were questioned time and again about the vaccination status of core players such as Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo, showed up fully-jabbed and in full force.
Lurking in the background all along is the impact the restrictions have had and will have in general manager Ross Atkins’ ability to make trades.
It’s clear by now that the Blue Jays need more swing and miss in the back end of the bullpen (a great deal more, in my opinion) in addition to the kind of impact left-handed bat and balance for which they’ve been searching since the signing of free-agent Michael Brantley fell through two winters ago. I’m not as bothered about adding another starting pitcher at this time. Whatever, Atkins needs to go about his business knowing that the federal border restrictions constitute for some players an effective “no-trade clause,” to Toronto – a clause that can only be removed if the feds either do away with the restrictions or allow some type of waiver.
The MLB trade deadline is 6 p.m. E.T. on Aug. 2. So there’s time.
Atkins doesn’t like to get into the weeds when it comes to answering questions about the logistics of making deals with the border restrictions in place, citing medical privacy issues. Remember: this isn’t only a Blue Jays issue, since teams jockeying for post-season play no doubt realize that they might need to cross the border for the post-season, never mind a key series in Toronto in September.
It’s not determining who is or isn’t vaccinated. All you have to do is ask. But I bounced this theoretical scenario off of one MLB G.M.: What if the Blue Jays have their eyes on a player on your team who is unvaccinated and have a compelling offer on the table that you want to take – an offer that would require you to go to the player and ask him to get vaccinated? I mean, talk about making it obvious to a player that you have an offer for him. And what if the player says ‘Nah, I’m good?’
“It would have to be a case by case thing,” the G.M. said. “I mean, you can’t force a guy to get vaxxed, and if he hasn’t already done so, you’d have to think he’s not likely to get the shot now. And if his family isn’t vaxxed … well, what about them? I guess it would come down to your relationship with the player and his agent, and maybe your ability as a salesman.”
For now, though, the emphasis will remain on teams coming to Toronto. To that end, it was interesting hearing Twins vice-president and general manager Thad Levine talk to us on Blair & Barker ahead of the Twins series about whether vaccination status is a clubhouse issue. Every clubhouse contains all manners of political leaning. Believe me, you don’t really want to know your favourite players politics. I mean … trust me on that.
“Keep in mind that we’ve always built clubhouses with good chemistry in mind – good morale and good teamwork,” he said. “There has always been an undercurrent of people with different values and principles and different ideas. It’s just probably never been as publicized as in recent years with the issues our country has faced. But it’s the same throughout sports.
“Our team is similar in that our players respect each others personal opinions.
Now, that being said, when you walk into an environment that is as talent rich as the Blue Jays with a fanbase that already gives it a bonafide home-field advantage, you don’t want to give them an additional advantage. But what we did is view it as a chance for other guys to rise to the occasion.”
Levine said that for the Twins and every other professional team, the discussion around vaccines remains “nuanced.” That’s the perfect word for it.
Hit and Run
• There is a Canadian connection to a long-standing New York Yankees record that Nestor Cortes could equal in his next start, Wednesday against the Twins. Cortes has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 19 consecutive starts, just one away from the club record set in 1910-1911 by Russ Ford, a native of Brandon, Man., who moved to Minneapolis as a youngster. Ford set American League rookie records that still stand for wins (26) and shutouts (8) in 1910, later admitting he had used a hidden emery board to scuff up balls.
• Trea Turner is going to get paid as a free agent. On Saturday, he had his Major League season-high hitting streak snapped at 26 games. Turner has had two hitting streaks of 20-plus games in the 107 games he’s played with the Los Angeles Dodgers, including a 27-game streak. He’s also had a 16-game streak … and since the start of the 2021 season no other Dodgers player has had a streak as long as 15 games.
• At this point, it almost seems as if the Cleveland Guardians Jose Ramirez is just trolling Blue Jays fans. Ramirez, the apple of many an off-season eye in these parts, is, according to friend Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, fiddling with some history with an average of 11.4 at bats per strikeout while being on pace for you-don’t-want-to-know RBIs. As Castrovince notes, since World War II only three players have managed to go 10 at bats between strikeouts and drive in 150 runs: Joe DiMaggio in 1948, Ted Williams in 1949 and – hands up if you nailed this one – Tommy Davis of the 1962 Dodgers.
• No, I don’t know how a guy doesn’t put on sun-glasses to take right-field at the Rogers Centre on a day like Sunday. The Blue Jays looked like a team that was unprepared right from the jump, what with botched flyballs and popups, a failure to cover second base and a near-collision that saw Bo Bichette deliver a much-needed message to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. But right-fielder Teoscar Hernandez did pick up a pair of outfield assists, the fourth time he has had multiple-assist games. If you’re wondering, the Blue Jays all-time record is eight, held by Bob Bailor. Jesse Barfield had seven multiple-assist games, Jose Bautista had five.
• More from Levine, the Twins G.M., on keeping Byron Buxton healthy. “We’ve talked to him about how a double off the wall is better than him crashing into the wall and getting a concussion.” Levine says it’s a fine line between keeping players such as Buxton – and George Springer – healthy while not taking away the thing that makes them special. “They feel they owe the pitching staff when the ball is in the air. They owe it to them to get to it.” I still think the Blue Jays will end up moving Springer to right field, sooner than later if Hernandez doesn’t get a long-term deal. Load management is a thing with Springer, who has only started 80 games in centre field twice in his career, last in 2018.
Liam Hendriks has come around on the whole Pitchcom thing. Initially he wasn’t a fan of the on-field communication device because having to insert the receiver into the band of his cap while he was standing on the mound didn’t help with “the façade I’m trying to put out there of being a bad-ass.” So now he puts it on in the bullpen before coming into the game.
Hendriks said he has also customized his so that the only commands he gets are in/out/up/slider/curveball.
“It’s really simplified,” he said. “I like to think I’m an intelligent guy but I overthink everything and when I do I become stupid.”
Hendriks, of course, toyed with the notion of signing with the Blue Jays as a free agent after the 2020 season, even visiting the team's minor league complex. To say he’d be the answer to 90 per cent of this team's bullpen issues is an understatement, but the two sides clearly couldn’t agree on a valuation. Hendriks instead signed with the Chicago White Sox.
“I talked to other teams and they said: ‘We will protect you,’” said Hendriks. “I don’t want to be protected. Tony (La Russa, the White Sox’s manager) is willing to throw you out there any time. If you are good to go he will use you.”
It’s been interesting watching pitchers and players gradually come around on Pitchcom, and I wonder if that comfort level isn’t a way of the commissioner’s office getting guys used to an eventual move toward the pitch clock. Shrewd, if that is indeed the case.
Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker from 10-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and Sportsnet 360. Subscribe wherever you get your favourite podcasts.