By all means, go nuts for Julian Merryweather. The last time the Toronto Blue Jays started their season at Yankee Stadium was 2015 and rookie Roberto Osuna struck out four in two appearances over two innings, asking for the baseball after retiring Alex Rodriguez, who would later seek out Osuna and tell him he could be the next Mariano Rivera. Not quite… but Osuna did seize the closers job and became a mainstay of two playoff teams.
So I’m on board with today’s forecast: merry weather, with temperatures hovering around 100 -- as in miles per hour. But in another aspect, I’d like us to treat Monday as “under-reaction” as opposed to “over-reaction” despite the local flannel taking two out of three from the Yankees in the Bronx.
People, we are going to tie ourselves up in knots if we live and die with every throw from Bo Bichette to Vladimr Guerrero, Jr., or Cavan Biggio to Vlady. I know I did this weekend; the way Bichette seemed to be hoping his throws made it to first base on Saturday, which of course put under the microscope Guerrero, Jr.’s, deftness at first base. That was followed up by Sunday’s display -- the inning-ending double play turned, the cat-quick reaction on Jay Bruce’s bouncer up the middle on a hard infield. A reminder again: this infield is composed of a newish third baseman, a callow first baseman, a second baseman who turned himself into an MVP candidate at shortstop after it appeared his glove would keep him out of the Majors, yet who agreed to move to second this season… and Bichette, who made two errors in the Blue Jays' final playoff game and who sought out infield coach Luis Rivera for extra help last season because he knew his defensive game was not up to snuff.
I mean, I’m all in on this kid and if he and his father, Blue Jays consultant Dante Bichette, tell me that he’s made becoming a shortstop a priority then I’ll go with it; go with the Flo, as it were. Still, my Baseball Central colleague Kevin Barker thinks Bichette might ultimately be better served with a move to second base and that’s a legitimate discussion for the future.
It won’t happen this year, but keep in mind that the Blue Jays have strong organizational depth at the position and have expressed interest in the likes of Didi Gregorius and Francisco Lindor in recent off-seasons, and while the players are on different levels -- Gregorius is a nice, veteran player; Lindor is a game and franchise-changer -- there seems to have been an understanding between Bichette and the organization that a change in position is not out of the question if the player coming in is an elite shortstop. This is one reason that general manager Ross Atkins has gone out of his way the past two off-seasons to keep Bichette and Biggio informed about any possible additions, as was the case this season when they signed free agent Marcus Semien.
Semien signed knowing he was playing second base after surviving a gruelling transition from third to shortstop when he was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Oakland Athletics after the 2014 season. He made 56 errors in two seasons but under the tutelage of A’s coach Ron Washington he progressed to the point that his 2018 SABR Defensive Index of 11.6 was the third-best in baseball at any position; his 8.3 UZR rating was third-best among MLB shortstops.
Semien will of course be at shortstop this year only in a pinch; or if Bichette needs a day. But this winter will present a bounty of free-agent shortstops, names such as Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Corey Seager and Trevor Story. Baez and Seager may not reach the market, but you have to wonder whether the Blue Jays won’t be in on the action given the fact they’ve signalled intentions to add to the team -- they told George Springer the spigot wouldn’t be turned off, and a lie isn’t how you start a six-year relationship -- and whether or not that will necessitate a move for Bichette. But for now, it’s enough to accept that Bichette, like Guerrero, Jr., will often need his bat to make up for his work in the field in 2021.
FAIR OR FOUL
• Fair: Saluting Major League Baseball for pulling the All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a result of the Georgia GOP’s voter suppression measures. But let’s not go overboard with the altruism stuff. Commissioner Rob Manfred made a smart business decision backed by sponsors, that was given cover by President Joe Biden, and took the most important part of his product -- the players -- out of the line of fire. No questions about why or why not so and so is or isn’t boycotting the game; no potential clubhouse votes that might fracture along political lines (note to baseball fans who tilt to the left politically: you really don’t want to know whether your favourite player is a Democrat or Republican). Manfred understands something his predecessor, Bud Selig, knew but was never given credit for realizing: you can hammer the MLB Players Association publicly or personalize a labour dispute with its leadership, but salting the earth by turning players against fans is a losing proposition. Strike or lockout it’s the players who bring the fans back.
• Foul: The way the Blue Jays' only two left-handed hitters of consequence were manhandled in the Yankees series. How often will the Blue Jays win a three-game series with Cavan Biggio and Rowdy Tellez going a combined 1-for-20? Michael Brantley would look hella good in this lineup, wouldn’t he?
• Fair: Liking the Chicago White Sox’s chances of quickly recovering from being Shohei Ohtani road-kill: their next two games against the Seattle Mariners -- Monday and Tuesday -- are against left-handed starters Justus Sheffield and James Paxton, respectively, and the White Sox have won 15 consecutive games against southpaws after going 14-0 in 2020. A win moves them out of a third-place tie with the 1939 New York Yankees.
• Foul: Crushing those of us who picked the Philadelphia Phillies to make the playoffs in 2021. The Phillies missed the playoffs by one game last season despite the fact that their bullpen was historically bad: a 7.06 ERA that was the second-worst in baseball history (behind the 1930 Phillies) with more blown saves (12) than saves earned (11) and 42 home runs and 146 earned runs allowed over 186 innings.
In their three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves this weekend, Phillies relievers recorded two wins and a save (albeit a wobbly one by Hector Neris) and didn’t allow an earned run over 7 1/3 innings, striking out 11 and walking four. The ‘pen was the toughest job facing new President of Baseball Operations David Dombrowski, who has had his career defined in some ways by bullpens: cobbling together under-the-radar groups with the Boston Red Sox and on the flip side often failing with the Detroit Tigers, whose bullpens ranked in the bottom fifth and third of the Majors during the team's run of four successive division titles that yielded just one World Series appearance: a sweep by the San Francisco Giants in 2012. Dombrowski says his philosophy became more analytically-oriented during his time with the Red Sox but he still loves big power arms at the end: and when Jose Alvarado hit 100 m.p.h twice in the opener it doubled the number of 100 m.p.h pitches thrown by the Phillies in 2019-2020. The last Phillies pitcher to hit the century mark was Seranthony Dominguez in April of 2019.
• Fair: Cheering for Aaron Sanchez, who on Tuesday is scheduled to make his first Major League start since a 2 1/3-inning outing for the Houston Astros on Aug. 20, 2019. Sanchez, whose Blue Jays career ended unhappily under a cloud created by a finger injury that seemed to defy diagnosis (let alone treatment) has won the fifth starter's job with the San Francisco Giants despite pitching just 5 2/3 innings this spring, and will be matched up against the San Diego Padres' Yu Darvish.
Sanchez signed a $4-million deal with the Giants after sitting out last season, a contract that is very much a product of the analytical age: while sitting 93.5 m.p.h this spring and hitting 95 in a workout for teams, it was his high-spin curveball (ranked in the 91st percentile by Statscast in every season in which he’s pitched) that grabbed the Giants' attention. He used five of them in a row to strike out Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers in a Cactus League game.
You will notice that there will be some 40,000 fans in the stands Monday at Globe Life Field when the Blue Jays play the Texas Rangers and I’m ready for all the smug takes about super-spreader events and stupid Americans congregating in the middle of a pandemic and what hicks Texans are and look at how few of them are wearing masks properly.
Yet here’s the thing: many of those folks can get vaccinated. Most of us can’t. And I don’t know about you but the outbreak of the COVID-19 variant that has hit the Vancouver Canucks and their families has kind of put the lie to the notion that we’re all safe and snug up here in the Scotia North Division, you know? Something you might want to keep in mind while tsk-tsking our neighbours to the south, along with this little nugget: what if things get so bad up here it’s the Americans who don’t want the border opened … or the Blue Jays end up deciding it’s safer to stay in an area with fewer vaccine issues? Might want to check that smugness, folks.
Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. Join Blair and Barker Monday for a special two-hour edition of the show leading up to first pitch between the Blue Jays and Rangers, a game you can listen to on Sportsnet 590 The Fan or watch on Sportsnet and SN Now beginning at 4:05 p.m. ET.