I’ll just come out and say it: I don’t know what Ross Atkins takes so long to deal with his team’s pitching problems — and you get the sense that there’s a lot of that sentiment in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, at.
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 had two player-only meetings and it looks like we’ve reached the ‘something doesn’t feel right’; phase, which usually precedes the ‘someone has to pay’ phase. I mean, it seemed certain to me that Bo Bichette didn’t want any part of the home run jack on Sunday…
Much less was at stake in 2021 when Atkins, the Blue Jays general manager, switched to relievers Adam Cimber on June 29 and Trevor Richards on July 6 — two trades that perpetuated a bullpen that was slowly taking life out of things. sucked. The Blue Jays finished a game outside the playoffs, but it was kind of OK: They’d ended their COVID road odyssey and reclaimed the home field. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., came in second as Most Valuable Player, Robbie Ray had a Cy Young Award, but President Mark Shapiro made it clear that he expected Atkins to take a few more wins.
It didn’t matter that Ray, Marcus Semien, and Steven Matz were likely to leave as free agents. Atkins, who got a five-year extension in 2021 to take him through 2026, would do the fWAR math, damn it, and make up for the difference. Kevin Gausman arrived as a free agent, Jose Berrios signed a big overtime and Yusei Kikiuchi…
uh. You get the point. Vegas loved the Blue Jays—just like they did in 2013 when they finished last in the American League East after that blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins and the signing of RA Dickey. The Blue Jays were this year’s favorites for the season — and while everyone agreed that the AL East was going to be relentlessly tough, many of us thought four teams from the division would advance to the newly expanded Major League playoffs. Baseball? That could still happen, but few expected the New York Yankees to have a two-figure lead on July 4—or the Baltimore Orioles racking up eight straight wins to win within a .500 game a week ahead of the all. star pause.
And I guarantee you damn sure nobody in these parts thought the Blue Jays would be closer to fifth than second on July 11. But here we are: the Blue Jays are two — two! — games on the stinky Orioles and 2.5 back from the second place Boston Red Sox.
Now the usual caveats should be used here: Your minor league prospects or even players on your major league roster are only as valuable as they are seen by your potential trading partner. It doesn’t matter where they are ranked by anyone on a website. It also takes two to trade and with extended playoffs… well, ask the Orioles if they’re ready to support the truck to the extent they were two weeks ago. Or, for that matter, the Seattle Mariners. Then there’s the fact that the draft has moved to the June all-star break… and we all know how much bandwidth the draft takes up.
Meanwhile, Atkins has a lot of money on the IL in Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yusei Kikuchi. Can he still make money in a deal? Should he send something? These are all complicating factors.
Sometimes the Blue Jays pitch well (at least, the starters). Sometimes the line-up catches on well. It seems like it rarely happened at the same time in 2022, but let’s face it: Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and George Springer are all underperforming offensively this year. So there should be some room for internal improvement, even if Alejandro Kirk comes back to Earth.
You obviously want some balance in the lineup, and I have to believe the Blue Jays will address the issue. That’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? Few at bats are available on the designated batter’s spot as long as the Blue Jays don’t feel the need to get Springer, Guerrero or Kirk “on their feet” as often as they do.
Pitching should be Atkins’ focus. Kikuchi’s first half is a continuation of his ineffective second half in 2021, when the Mariners dumped him on the market. Remember that in 2021 Gausman had a dragging second half with the San Francisco Giants (he had been identified as the problem at the time) and Alek Manoah hasn’t been that far down the road.
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 flying. At Triple-A, there’s a lot of Thomas Hatching and Casey Lawrencing going on. weft. And the bullpen is shredded, with pixie dust absent from Richards and Tim Mayza, Jordan Romano curiously absent for large portions of games and the group as a whole softly tossing their way into the bottom third ratings in overall speed and fastball speed (24th after 81 spell.)
You’d almost think the Blue Jays were waiting for Nate Pearson to rescue them, which begs the question: why? On the basis of which track record exactly?
Until now, Atkins’ response has been to bring in Sergio Romo from the waiver and buy Anthony Banda. Hence the Clueless in Seattle series: Banda opens a game, Lawrence enters and is fired upon. Max Castillo logs 7 1/3 innings with two rest days in between. I mean, what the hell? Yes, the Blue Jays went 2-for-20 on Friday with runners in scoring position. Yes, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., shot a ball over the fence for a Mariners home run and yes, Vladdy’s gauntlet exploded for the second time this year, but make no mistake: It’s the thinness of the pitching that sets the backdrop for everything. .
Look: Atkins did a great job on the deadline. Taijuan hiker. Robbie Ray and — I’m dying on this hill, folks — Berrios. Maybe he can cut a deal with Luis Castillo or (dream scenario, here, folks) Pablo Lopez. I’m sure he can find some relievers to throw the 90’s because it seems like they fell from the trees for everyone. He may want to start thinking about whether it’s time to put together a wider deal targeting one of his right-handed outfielders, especially since the organization has failed to lock up Hernandez.
Because the feeling here is that it’s time to rethink some of the assumptions about the 2022 Blue Jays. Long past.
HIT AND RUN
• Josh Donaldson took the 0-fer Sunday night in the Yankees’ 11-6 loss to the Boston Red Sox, ending a 17-game run that reached base at Fenway Park, the third-longest streak since 2013, behind only teammate DJ LeMahieu (whose 23-game streak ended Friday) and Nick Markakis’s 19-game streak. Donaldson has 33 runs, eight doubles, two triples, nine home runs, 27 runs batted in and 28 walks in 41 career games with Fenway.
• The Houston Astros placed Yordan Alvarez on the IL with a right-hand ignition, meaning he will not play in Tuesday’s All-Star Game and will not have a chance to break Lance Berkman’s Astros record of 29 home runs for the all-star challenge break, set in 2002. Alvarez played in 75 games hitting 26 dingers, behind Springer’s 27 hit in 2017 and Jeff Bagwell’s 27 in 1994 and 28 in 1999. Alvarez would go on to finish second 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. but the last time they took four out of four in Chavez Ravine was July 15-18, 1965, when Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen and Howie Reed were the record pitchers.
• Speaking of Springer, I have to think he will pass attending the All-Star Game to rest after a first half of tax management and a series of aches and pains. Plus, I’m not sure if he needs the grief of the media day or playing at Dodger Stadium, where he won’t be greeted warmly, given his association with the trash-canning Astros. Watch out, George…
• Albert Pujols homer to Philadelphia Phillies Christopher Sanchez was the 684th of his career for Pujols. Sanchez was the 445th different pitcher to deliver a dinger to the future Hall of Famer—four back of the record 449 pitchers who fell victim to Barry Bonds en route to his career HR total of 762.
THE END GAME
Unlike the Blue Jays, the Red Sox can expect an internal pitching boost in the second half. Chris Sale will make his first start of the season on Tuesday in Tampa against the Rays. Nathan Eovaldi (hip infection) could be activated as early 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 go back to the bullpen…and that’s before GM Chaim Bloom makes any move….
Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker from 10 a.m. to noon ET on Sportsnet 590/Fan and Sportsnet 360.