Has end of Guerrero Jr., Bichette era arrived earlier than expected for Blue Jays?

Blue Jays Central analyst Caleb Joseph joins Jays Talk+ to talk about the team's demoralizing loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday and how much of a pendulum it could become for the team's momentum and morale moving forward.

Quarter, half, three quarters. We’re always doing the mathematics of the regular-season schedule to invent checkpoints, to pick times when we can take stock.

And I’m sure we’ll hear and read more of those things today, which is Memorial Day in the U.S. and a traditional signpost along a 162-game schedule. It used to be the first day when we’d really check the standings.

But on this Memorial Day, the least memorable one in some time for the Toronto Blue Jays, peeking at the standings has already become pointless. Just… don’t bother. Trust me. Unless somebody makes some kind of remarkable intervention or something providential happens, time appears to have caught up to the Blue Jays like George Springer missing a 93 m.p.h. middle/middle fastball.

It feels as if the end of the Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette era has arrived a year early, doesn’t it? More and more, the dialogue now is whether a front office whose spokesman — general manager Ross Atkins — really thinks this lineup has enough talent… that has left its manager with half a functioning bullpen for a couple of weeks after mistakenly deciding to “run it back”… whether it is up to making the franchise’s biggest calls since the late 1990s. That is what’s at stake. Figuring out what to do with these final 18 months or so of Vladdy and Bo supersedes any other strategic baseball decision this organization has had to make since Roger Clemens or maybe letting Carlos Delgado walk as a free agent without compensation.

And it comes at a time when there has never been less public faith in Atkins and president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro. The Rogers Centre renos are done. The payroll is at an all-time high of $246 million, according to Spotrac. Attendance has softened… and there’s a whole, great whack of summer TV to be filled by a competitive and entertaining product. This was supposed to be the third glorious Blue Jays epoch: Back-to-back World Series in 1992-93 after years of coming oh so close. The swaggering, bat-flipping, Renaissance Jays of 2015 and 2016… and this. Whatever this was supposed to be.

Since we knew we were closing in on Memorial Day, we took advantage of having Atlanta Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos on Blair & Barker to ask him how he goes about making a realistic judgment on his team’s potential to improve its place in the standings. Anthopoulos has had to make two big calls in the past in that regard: 2015 with the Blue Jays and 2021 when the Braves went on to win the World Series. Were we prescient? Sunday, a few days after he joined us, Anthopoulos saw his team’s best player, Ronald Acuña, Jr., tear his left knee ACL. The reigning National League Most Valuable Player is done for the year… just as he was in 2021 when he tore his right knee ACL.

“I would tell you it’s not one thing, but a big thing is run differential,” Anthopoulos said. “There could be four or five teams ahead of us, but if I look at our run differential and see it’s better than the majority of them, I would feel comfortable it would turn around before the end of the season.

“I’ll give you an example. In 2015, we had 11 games left against the (New York) Yankees with five days before the trade deadline. I knew we could make some headway against them; our run differential was the best in the American League at that time. Well ahead of the Yankees.

“Yes, we were eight games back of them. But I felt that if we could improve our defence, we would be in great shape.”

Anthopoulos’ team hits Memorial Day six games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and five up in the wild-card standings with a run differential of plus-47 that is 46 back of the Phillies but still good enough for third in the National League. Health will be a determining factor for them, you’d have to think, but Anthopoulos is already tinkering at the edges.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays’ run differential is fourth-worst in the AL, even with their recent offensive outbursts. They’re already minus-130 in run differential compared to the AL East-leading New York Yankees, But the decisions staring us all in the face have to do with matters deeper than run differential and the like. I was prepared for this day, as I’m sure a lot of you were. But not in 2024. Not yet. And I just don’t know what to make of where we’re going from here …

Crossing Jordan

After being acquired in a trade deadline deal with the St. Louis Cardinals last season, Jordan Hicks told Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker he viewed his long-term future as being a starting pitcher, not a reliever. That made it easier for the Blue Jays to let him walk as a free agent, and there was a great deal of skepticism in the industry about whether that pre-condition might cut into his market. Huh. The San Francisco Giants signed Hicks to a four-year, $44-million deal. And they’d do it again: Hicks is 4-1 (2.33) with a split-fingered fastball that he throws 23 per cent of the time after using it all of 45 times previously. Opponents are hitting just .077 off it and his dialled-back fastball — which used to sit over 100 miles per hour but is now closer to 95 — was identified by ESPN’s Jeff Passan as one of the 12 most dominant ‘new pitches’ in the Majors in 2023.

The Cardinals, who forced Hicks to move from a starter to a reliever thinking his 101 m.p.h. fastball would be better utilized at the end of games, received Sem Robberse and Adam Kloffenstein from the Blue Jays in return for Hicks but they’ll need to come good for the Hicks deal to not go down as another in a series of Cardinals misplays.

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The Yankees …

Are filthy good right now. Friday night, they ripped into the San Diego Padres’ Yu Darvish in the first inning, snapping his scoreless streak at 25 innings by roughing him up for seven runs, including four home runs — two more than he’d allowed all season and the first he’d allowed since April 14.

Earlier in the week, Darvish collected his 200th career win (MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball combined) joining Hiroki Kuroda (203) and Hideo Nomo (201) as the only pitchers with 200-plus wins combined. Darvish, however, is the only one of the three to win all those games as a starter. The Chicago Cubs’ Shota Imanaga and Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yoshinobu Yamamoto were expected to vie for the NL Rookie of the Year Award and Imanaga has staked an early claim to the NL Cy Young, too. Bobby Valentine, currently a Los Angeles Angels TV analyst and a long-time manager in Japan as well as the Major Leagues, touched on an interesting aspect of Japanese baseball on Blair & Barker last week. He believes the fact that there are relatively few avenues for pitchers to progress from high school to the pro level in Japan means there is even greater currency placed on work ethic, feel and understanding the nuance of the art.

What if the next labour war is owners vs. owners?

Perhaps it was simply Hal Steinbrenner laying down a marker with Juan Soto’s agent Scott Boras, when the New York Yankees owner said that the team would not be increasing its payroll for 2025. But it could also be a further sign that larger market owners are beginning to chafe under the constraints of the luxury tax — which could set up an internal conflict ahead of the next round of collective bargaining. It’s tough not to see their point of view: there are large-market owners willing to spend money on players, just not on luxury-tax penalties, which they view, in effect, as dead money or simply welfare payments to teams not willing to pony up.

They’ll cut a cheque for $30 million for a middle-of-the-order bat, but they sure won’t to pay a “competitive balance tax.” And newsflash: the days are gone when it was just the Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers flirting with the luxury tax. In 2023, eight teams combined to pay a record $209 million in luxury taxes — including the Blue Jays. That was a record that is expected to be matched this season. There have been fissures among ownership before, but with stresses such as the implosion of the regional TV market in the U.S., expansion on the horizon and analytics being weaponized economically in a game that is already skewing younger, I wonder if more owners are wondering whether the tax even needed.

Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker from 2-4 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and Sportsnet. Blair & Barker also host Blue Jays Talk following Blue Jays weekday games.

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