TORONTO — When the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Whit Merrifield last summer, he was in the midst of his least productive offensive stretch in the big leagues. At 33, it seemed possible his best days were behind him and the price the Blue Jays paid — minor leaguers Samad Taylor and Max Castillo — reflected as much.
But rather quietly, Merrifield has been a productive offensive player ever since. He finished strong last season and is batting .313/.377/.403 with four steals and six doubles so far this year. Sixty three games into his career with the Blue Jays, his OPS in Toronto (.774) is actually higher than it was in Kansas City (.758).
“He’s doing what he’s done his whole career,” manager John Schneider said earlier this week. “Before we (acquired him) last year was a little bit of a rough stretch, but I think what we’re seeing is just an all-star player hitting his stride.”
With a 15.6 per cent strikeout rate, Merrifield’s making lots of contact. And while his sprint speed has dropped off slightly over the years, he’s still faster than the likes of Ronald Acuna Jr., Brandon Nimmo and Anthony Volpe, allowing him to turn borderline plays into hits.
Now granted, this current level of production may not last. Merrifield is 34, and his current batting average and on-base percentage would be career highs. But as long as he’s playing this well, he belongs in the starting lineup most days.
On that front, the Blue Jays appear to agree as Merrifield has yet to miss consecutive games at any point this season. Facing the Chicago White Sox earlier this week, he started all three games, the first time he’s played every game of a series this year.
There’s no need for the Blue Jays to come out and say it but he’s quietly become a starter on this team — and as long as he’s reaching base this often, that’s the way it should be.
Now, for some further notes on the Blue Jays and their rivals around MLB …
A lot of things are going right for the 2023 Blue Jays. Their big bats are producing, their starting rotation is rolling and their defence is noticeably better. This newly balanced combination has given the Blue Jays the third-best record in the American League.
So: basically what the Blue Jays would have hoped for when the season began four weeks ago. It’s potentially problematic that the Tampa Bay Rays are banking so many wins, but at least the Blue Jays are doing their part.
As Bo Bichette said: “We’re playing well. This (White Sox) series in particular, everything was clicking: offence, defence, pitching. When everything is going like that, good things are going to happen.”
Having acknowledged that, let’s get greedy and consider what else the Blue Jays would want — a Rays collapse aside. Further momentum from Alek Manoah would probably top the list, along with continued progress from Brandon Belt after his slow start.
Beyond that — and this is firmly in nice-to-have territory — it’d be ideal if an upper-minors position player like Addison Barger (.706 OPS but four hits in his last two games) or Otto Lopez (0 HR, .432 OPS) made a more serious push for big-league at-bats.
But even the top teams in baseball have wish lists, and the Blue Jays are showing they belong with the best.
PAIN AND GAIN
As the 18-8 Pittsburgh Pirates and 17-8 Baltimore Orioles gain ground in the standings, a remarkable contrast emerges between their bottom-five payrolls and their impressive records. Throw in the MLB-leading 21-5 Rays and small-market teams may be having a moment.
Tactically speaking, these front offices did well to stay disciplined and build contending teams with modest payrolls. With stars like Adley Rutschman and the recently extended Bryan Reynolds in place for years to come, the future is promising in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It’s great for the sport.
(Great for the Pirates? The eight-year, $106.75 million Reynolds deal locks in an all-star player at a modest cost.)
At the same time, let’s not forget how the Pirates and Orioles got here. Pittsburgh is coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons. The Orioles lost at least 108 games three full seasons in a row through 2021. Meanwhile, other small-market teams like the Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals have endured similar pain without notably improving their long-term prospects.
Winning with fewer resources is a real achievement. It’s no coincidence former Rays executives like Andrew Friedman, Chaim Bloom, James Click and Matt Arnold have landed GM jobs. But what’s impressive is their baseball acumen. Without it, small-market teams can be afterthoughts for years. And as the futility of the Oakland Athletics shows, even a savvy front office doesn’t suffice if ownership chooses not to support it.
BIG GAMES ONLY
On Friday, Manoah will make his sixth start of the season and it’s yet another high-profile outing for the 25-year-old.
Manoah’s first start of the year was opening day followed by the Blue Jays’ home opener. After a couple of relatively typical outings, he faced nemesis Gerrit Cole in New York and now it’s time for a rematch against Luis Castillo, who outpitched Manoah with a dominant performance in Game 1 of last year’s wild card series.
It makes for some compelling matchups, but as Schneider sees it this weekend’s series against the Mariners is about 2023, not 2022.
“Every year is different,” Schneider said. “Every team is different. We’re definitely a different team than we were last year when we played them. I know the guys are excited for the series as am I. But the expectation is (the same as) every series: trying to win.”