I’ll just come out and say it: I don’t know what the hell is taking Ross Atkins so long in addressing his team’s pitching issues — and you get the sense that there’s a lot of that sentiment in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, too.
That’s dangerous, because we’re at a point with this team where it’s going to be painfully easy to read into every gesture or statement. It’s not even the all-star break and the Blue Jays have held two players-only meetings and it sure seems as if we’ve reached the ‘something doesn’t feel’ right; stage, which usually precedes the ‘somebody needs to pay’ stage. I mean, it sure looked to me like Bo Bichette wanted no part of the home run jacket Sunday …
There was much less at stake in 2021 when Atkins, the Blue Jays general manager, moved to acquire relievers Adam Cimber on June 29 and Trevor Richards on July 6 — two trades that steadied a bullpen that was slowly sucking the life out of things. The Blue Jays finished a game out of the playoffs, but it was kind of OK: they’d ended their COVID road odyssey and had reclaimed home field. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., was runner-up as Most Valuable Player, Robbie Ray had a Cy Young Award but president Mark Shapiro made clear that he expected Atkins to deliver a few more extra wins.
It didn’t matter that Ray, Marcus Semien and Steven Matz were likely going to leave as free agents. Atkins, who in 2021 was given a five-year extension to take him through 2026, was expected to do the fWAR math, dammit, and make up the difference. Kevin Gausman arrived as a free agent, Jose Berrios signed a big extension and Yusei Kikiuchi …
Eh. You get the point. Vegas loved the Blue Jays — just as it did in 2013 when they finished last in the American League East after that blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins and the signing of R.A. Dickey. The Blue Jays were pre-season favorites this year — and while everybody agreed that the AL East was going to be brutally tough, did many of us think that four teams from the division would advance to Major League Baseball’s new expanded playoffs? That still might happen, but few expected to see the New York Yankees with a double-digit lead on the 4th of July — or the Baltimore Orioles rattling off eight consecutive wins to pull within one game of .500 a week before the all-star break.
And I damned sure guarantee you that nobody in these parts thought the Blue Jays would be closer to fifth place than second on July 11. Yet here we are: the Blue Jays are two — two! — games up on the stinking Orioles and 2.5 back of the second-place Boston Red Sox.
Now, the usual caveats need to be employed here: your minor-league prospects or even players on your major-league roster are only as valuable as they are seen by your potential trade partner. It matters naught where they’re ranked by somebody on some website. It also takes two to trade and with expanded playoffs … well, ask the Orioles if they’re ready to back up the truck to the degree they were two weeks ago. Or, for that matter, the Seattle Mariners. Then, too, there’s the fact that the draft has been moved back to the all-star break from June … and we all know how much band-width the draft occupies.
Meanwhile, Atkins has a ton of pitching money sitting on the IL in Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yusei Kikuchi. Can he still bring on money in a deal? Does he need to send some out? These are all complicating factors.
Sometimes the Blue Jays pitch well (at least, the starters). Sometimes the lineup hits well. Seldom, it seems, has it happened at the same time in 2022 but let’s be honest: it’s unlikely that Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and George Springer all finish the year under-performing offensively. So there should be some room for internal improvement, even if Alejandro Kirk comes back to earth.
You’d like some balance in the lineup, to be sure, and I have to believe the Blue Jays will address the issue. It’s why they tried to sign Michael Brantley two winters ago. It was at least part of the reason they pursued a trade for Jose Ramirez.
But those are off-season moves. In-season, what are we talking about? A platoon outfielder? There are few at bats available in the designated hitter spot as long as the Blue Jays don’t feel the need to get Springer, Guerrero or Kirk “off their feet” as frequently as they do.
Pitching needs to be Atkins’ focus. Kikuchi’s first half is a continuation of his ineffective second half in 2021 that saw the Mariners dump him on the market. Gausman, remember, had a scuffling second half with the San Francisco Giants in 2021 (pitch-tipping was identified as the issue, then,) and Alek Manoah hasn’t been this far down the road before.
I’m guessing Jose Berrios will be better. I have faith in the person and the athlete. Great … that’s improvement once every fifth day. Ross Stripling is five-and fly. Down at Triple-A, there’s a whole lot of Thomas Hatching and Casey Lawrencing going on. Woof. And the bullpen is shredded, with pixie dust absent from Richards and Tim Mayza, Jordan Romano oddly absent for great stretches of games and the group as a whole soft-tossing their way to bottom third ratings in overall velocity and fastball velocity (24th after 81 games.)
It almost makes you think that the Blue Jays were waiting for Nate Pearson to save them, which begs the question: Why? Based on what track record, exactly?
So far, Atkins’ answer has been to bring in Sergio Romo off the waiver wire and buy Anthony Banda. Hence, the Clueless in Seattle series: Banda opening a game, Lawrence entering and getting shelled. Max Castillo logging 7 1/3 innings with two days of rest in-between. I mean, what the hell? Yes, the Blue Jays were 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position on Friday. Yes, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., shot-putted a ball over the fence for a Mariners home run and, yes, Vladdy’s glove exploded for the second time this year but make no mistake: it’s the thinness of the pitching that provides the backdrop to everything.
Look: Atkins has done nice work at the deadline. Taijuan Walker. Robbie Ray and — I’ll die on this hill, folks — Berrios. Maybe he can pull off a Luis Castillo or (dream scenario, here, folks) Pablo Lopez deal. Surely, he can find some relievers who can throw upper 90s because it seems as if they’ve fallen out of the trees for everybody else. He might want to start thinking about whether it’s time to put together a wider deal focused on one of his right-hand hitting corner outfielders, especially since the organization has failed to lock up Hernandez.
Because the sense here is it’s time to re-consider some of the assumptions made about the 2022 Blue Jays. Long past time.
HIT AND RUN
• Josh Donaldson took the 0-fer Sunday night in the Yankees’ 11-6 loss to the Boston Red Sox and ended a streak of 17 games reaching base at Fenway Park, the third-longest streak since 2013, trailing only teammate D.J. LeMahieu (whose 23-game streak ended Friday) and Nick Markakis’ 19-game streak. Donaldson has 33 runs, eight doubles, two triples, nine homers, 27 runs batted in and 28 walks in 41 career games at Fenway.
• The Houston Astros placed Yordan Alvarez on the IL with right hand inflammation, which means he won’t play in Tuesday’s All-Star Game and won’t get a chance to challenge Lance Berkman’s Astros record of 29 home runs before the all-star break, set in 2002. Alvarez has played in 75 games and hit 26 dingers, behind the 27 hit by Springer in 2017 and Jeff Bagwell’s 27 in 1994 and 28 in 1999. Alvarez would be runner-up to Aaron Judge for my first half AL MVP.
• The Los Angeles Dodgers are 7-0 against the Chicago Cubs after Sunday’s 11-9 win gave them a sweep of their four-game series at Dodger Stadium.. The Dodgers swept a four-game set against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 2013 but the last time they took four of four at Chavez Ravine was July 15-18, 1965, when Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen and Howie Reed were the pitchers of record.
• Speaking of Springer, I have to think that he’ll pass on attending the All-Star Game to rest up after a first half of load management and an assortment of aches and pains. Plus, given his association with the trash-can banging Astros, I’m not certain he needs the grief of media day or playing at Dodger Stadium, where he will not be warmly greeted. Take a pass, George …
• Albert Pujols’ homer off the Philadelphia Phillies’ Christopher Sanchez was Pujols’ 684th of his career. Sanchez was the 445th different pitcher to yield a dinger to the future Hall of Famer — four back of the record 449 pitchers victimized by Barry Bonds en route to his career HR total of 762.
Unlike the Blue Jays, the Red Sox can expect to receive an internal pitching boost in the second half. Chris Sale will make his first start of the season Tuesday in Tampa against the Rays. Nathan Eovaldi (hip inflammation) could be activated as soon as next weekend for the Red Sox’s series against the Yankees in the Bronx. When the starting rotation is in place, Garrett Whitlock (hip inflammation) is expected to move back into the bullpen … and that’s before GM Chaim Bloom makes any moves ….
Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker fron 10 A.M.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/Fan and Sportsnet 360.