When the Blue Jays began the season with a disappointing 1-5 road trip to Baltimore and Tampa, the first home stand of the year took on additional importance. That importance only intensified when they dropped a pair of close games in a short series against a flawed Milwaukee team and fell to 1-7. At that moment, the Jays found themselves at a surprisingly significant early season crossroads with seven consecutive face offs against the Orioles and Red Sox upcoming. It was an unusual sink or swim moment you don’t usually see in April.
Unfortunately, the Jays not only sank like another object from mid April lure, but lost more key players to the disabled list (three: Donaldson, Sanchez, and Happ) over that stretch than they won games (two). They now have the worst record in all of baseball at 3-12, and already find themselves seven games out in the AL East (and it’s really even worse than that because they’re at least 6.5 games behind three different teams).
April baseball is supposed to be fun for all teams; a time when anything is possible before the summer heat and the marathon of the season overwhelms the early quirkiness and melts away the dreams of the undermanned clubs. Jays fans however haven’t gotten to experience any of that yet this year, and if the team doesn’t pull this plane out a nosedive soon, they might not get to experience it at all.
With the 4-1 loss to Boston Thursday afternoon, the Jays dropped their fifth consecutive series to open the season - Something they’ve never done in franchise history - and in the process, set themselves up for more trouble in the games ahead. When the club had to put Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ on the DL this week, they knew they were going to have to expose the soft underbelly of their Triple-A pitching staff to opponents for a couple of games at some point, but with the off day on Monday, they had a choice as to when that was going to happen.
They either could have started Mat Latos today against Boston and kept Marco Estrada in his originally scheduled window Friday, or they could move Estrada up a day while keeping him on normal rest and try to steal a game against the Red Sox. Now I get not wanting to throw Boston a bone with the way the season’s started, but they had Chris Sale on the mound today, and the Jays were going to be at a disadvantage no matter who started for them. There was a pretty compelling case to just throw Mat Latos against Chris Sale the same way a card player would throw a three of clubs on an opponent’s ace. Then you could turn around on the next trick and throw your boss card in Estrada against the Angels on Friday.
No matter how the Jays played this, they were extremely likely to lose at least one of those two games. The key is not dropping them both, which is exactly what might happen now. In addition to the pitcher shuffling, Gibbons decided to give both Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin a day off in today’s Sale game. Now on one hand you do need to rest these players: Tulo’s played in every game so far and Martin sitting in a day game after a night game makes sense. However, if you’re going to add Goins and Saltalamacchia to a lineup that’s already looked downright decrepit in the early going, doesn’t it make even less sense to start Estrada in this game? Why hedge the bet? Why burn Estrada if you’re going to put out the worst lineup possible against the guy who might be the best pitcher in the American League? That’s a recipe for disaster.
As it turns out, they not only burned Estrada, but they also had to burn Biagini, Smith, Osuna, Grilli and Barnes. They emptied the tank on that side of the ball trying to squeeze this one out and have nothing to show for it. If Latos started this game, he almost surely gets touched up for a few runs, and the high leverage relievers are all rested and ready to go in an Estrada start tomorrow. Instead, it’s probably going to take a bunch of runs to win Friday’s game now, and that’s a very dangerous proposition for this team considering what some of the batting lines look like.
Jose Bautista is now batting .109 with a .387 OPS and a 33.3 percent strikeout rate, Devon Travis is batting .104 with a .277 OPS, Steve Pearce is batting .154 with a .368 OPS, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia somehow looks even worse than Josh Thole out of the gate striking out in ten of his first 14 plate appearances this season. If this team fell out of a boat, they couldn’t hit water right now.
One more note on the conclusion of this hideous home stand: Jason Grilli needs to slide down a couple of pegs on Gibbons’ trust meter. I think you saw some of that today with Biagini and Smith pitching in the seventh and eighth in front of Osuna, but Grilli’s been very uncomfortable to watch in high leverage situations this year.
On Opening Day he served up a meatball to Mark Trumbo which resulted in a walk off home run, and today he got himself in huge trouble by walking both Sandy Leon and Andrew Benintendi. Even though the death blow was a bases clearing double, that mess was created by the two walks and falling behind Betts 2-0 in the critical at bat. Grilli put himself in a spot where he had to be predictable to one of the best hitters in the game, and something you can’t do, especially not in a game where the team burned as much good pitching as it did today.
Grilli has now walked five batters in just 6.1 innings, and that’s poisonous to your team’s chances in high leverage situations. If Danny Barnes proves to be anywhere near as good at limiting free passes in the major as he was in the minors, he might prove to be a better option than Grilli in the months ahead.
If you’re looking for good news, there’s not much. However, I would point to two things. One, even if the offense proves to be highly disappointing by the end of the year, they’re much better than this. Even if Bautista and Peace and Travis can’t truly turn things around, they will give you more production than this. Also, Josh Donaldson will come back at some point and probably look like Josh Donaldson. The lineup almost certainly has a hot run with the bats coming at some point.
The second, and this is more important, is that the Jays still have a really good pitching staff if it can get healthy - And they should be healthy again after a couple more swings through the rotation. When they get back to throwing Estrada, Happ, Sanchez, Liriano, and Stroman every five days, they have a good chance to win every time out. There’s still a case to be made that they have the best No. five starter in the league. That matters in the dog days of summer if they can get there. The question now of course is will they get there before it’s too late.