TORONTO (May 19) — Baseball fans, it isn’t “early” anymore.
Roughly one–fourth of the Major League season is in the books and the biggest disappointment at the quarter–pole — given buildup and expectation — is again the Toronto Blue Jays. I say “again” because it is starting to look and sound like 2013 around here. You remember how the Blue Jays of four years back were chosen by Las Vegas to win the World Series. How the Rogers hype machine printed “THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN” on the cover of its Sportsnet Magazine baseball preview. Ultimately (and rather quickly), the 2013 Jays schedule was about as much fun as prepping for a colonoscopy. Toronto finished dead–last in the American League East with a 74–88 record, 23 games in back of first–place Boston. To merely equal that dubious mark, the Jays must go 55–65 in the remainder of the current season — a pace for which the club is almost precisely on target. Last year’s playoff–worthy record of 93–69 requires a 74–46 eruption. And, if you foresee the 2016 team soaring to a pace of 28 games above .500, please drop me a line to explain.
Merely suggesting to “remember what happened in August and September of last season” won’t cut it. The trades that were made by former general manager Alex Anthopoulos — beginning with Noah Syndergaard for R.A. Dickey on Dec. 17, 2012 and ending with Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt for David Price on July 30, 2015 — emptied the farm system. They ultimately engendered two of the greatest months in Blue Jays history. The club went 24–5 between July 29 and Aug. 30 of last season; 42–15 overall after the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki from Colorado just prior to the non–waiver trade deadline. Price arrived two days later from Detroit as did veteran Ben Revere from Philadelphia. This type of late–season modification cannot happen again — certainly not one year later, as the Jays no longer have the minor–league assets.
So, forget about another dramatic rescue mission.
If the Blue Jays are again 50–51 at the trade deadline, they will sell players; not acquire them.
IT APPEARS ROUGNED ODOR TOOK EVEN MORE PUNCH OUT OF THE BLUE JAYS LAST SUNDAY.
It is vehemently puzzling to Toronto baseball fans and observers why the most explosive team in the Majors last season has lost its collective wallop. This is best personified by Josh Donaldson — the defending American League most valuable player — who is having a dreadful month of May; wallowing with a .253 batting average. At no point last season did Donaldson lapse into a comparative slump. He is on pace for roughly 40 fewer RBI than his team–leading 123 of a year ago. Edwin Encarnacion is batting .241; Jose Bautista .222; Tulowitzki .196 and Russell Martin .170 (with zero home runs after hitting 23 last season). Chris Colabello, a revelation in 2015 (.321 15 HR 54 RBI), is serving a drug–related suspension. Baseball, more than any sport, is a game of numbers and it is therefore no coincidence the Blue Jays are scuffling.
But, there’s more.
Vastly underplayed thus far is an element of the game I feel is normally overplayed: team chemistry. I’m not in the Blue Jays clubhouse, so I cannot vouch for this with certainty. But, I did cover the Jays during their championship years in the early–90’s and I’ve seen enough baseball to espouse the theory that this season’s club isn’t nearly as closely–knit as the group that came to within two victories of the American League pennant. Nor is it difficult to reason why. Four components of the August–to–October Blue Jays are no longer with the club and, in my view, terribly missed: Price, Revere, Dioner Navarro and Mark Buehrle.
Price is obvious. He went 9–1 in 11 starts down the stretch and single–handedly pitched the Blue Jays into the playoffs. Under no circumstance would the club have ended its 22–year post–season drought without him. Price’s acquisition from Detroit not only provided the team its missing, front–of–the–rotation ace; it also furnished an unmistakable, team–wide machismo. It’s almost as if the Blue Jays said “Okay, come get us now!” when Price joined the roster on July 31. No–such intangible is evident with this year’s team.
Revere gave the Blue Jays a genuine lead–off bat; a base–stealing threat; a more–than–adequate left–field glove, and — perhaps most importantly — a happy, motivated presence. He hit .319 down the stretch with a homer and 19 RBI; he walked 13 times and swiped seven bags. It is no secret why John Gibbons has shuffled players in and out of the lead–off spot this season. His legitimate No. 1 bat was traded to Washington on Jan. 8 for relief–pitcher Drew Storen. At the time, the deal appeared to make sense — as did the Syndergaard–for–Dickey swap in December 2012. Both, however, could turn out to be unmitigated disasters. Storen has been dreadful thus far for the Blue Jays in high–leverage situations. Nor has the deal been kind to Revere, whose strained right–oblique muscle (an abdominal injury) in the Nationals’ season–opener, Apr. 4, has limited him to 12 games. The Jays are missing Revere’s presence — on and off the field.
Navarro gave the Blue Jays two starting catchers. He was allowed to walk as a free agent in the off–season and signed with the Chicago White Sox (one–year contract, $4 million). Inexplicably, the new Toronto regime chose to not replace him. As a result, the anemic bat of Josh Thole (.158 1 HR 1 RBI in 15 games) is the lone alternative this season. At no point arguably in the club’s history has the catching position been as much of a black hole at the plate. Navarro was also happy and demonstrative as a Toronto batsman; who can forget his over–the–head clap when he scored a run? Additionally, Navarro worked effectively as a battery–mate for Marco Estrada. Why the Jays let him go without an adequate replacement is a mystery.
Buehrle could be missed more than anyone. Though his performance on the mound tailed off as he neared retirement, the personable left–hander may have been the most respected player on the team. Everybody liked Mark Buehrle; from what I understand, it was impossible not to. He was virtually devoid of ego and pretension; thoroughly comfortable in his own skin and proud of his career as a mound horse for the White Sox, Marlins and Blue Jays. As such, he had no hesitation to share “secrets” with young hurlers gunning for his job in the rotation. If you don’t believe me, ask Marcus Stroman. I suspect more than a few Toronto players — perhaps Stroman as much as anyone — are missing Buehrle’s clubhouse presence.
So, it’s a fallacy to even imply that the Blue Jays are the same team this season. I have offered four prime examples to the contrary and there are surely more. Nor does it indicate the bats will not awaken. Though the Jays haven’t looked as thoroughly “dead” in the past couple of years as they did in their three–game beat–down at the ‘Dome by Tampa Bay, one would expect Tulowitzki, Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion and Co. to get it together at some point before the first week of October. But, don’t look for a 2015 replay.
TAMPA BAY ANNIHILATED THE BLUE JAYS BY AN AGGREGATE SCORE OF 31–7 THIS WEEK.
Last summer provided the perfect storm. The most powerful team at the plate by miles in all of baseball caught lightning in a bottle after management decided to go for the downs.
There has barely been a clap of thunder through the first quarter of this season.