The “it’s early” crowd will keep that stake in the ground for months yet.
And with 129 games remaining for the Blue Jays — plus two potential moves to new home stadiums — there is plenty still to unfold in the 2021 MLB season. That said, the 17-16 team has now played a tumultuous fifth of its season and enough reason for optimism remains.
Given the ridiculous rash of injuries, a stout schedule and other challenges, the Jays have remained well positioned in the American League East race while providing enough evidence that their stock can improve considerably.
“We feel good about how we’ve weathered this portion of the year,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins said recently. “Starting this season with 16 consecutive games (without a day off), starting away from Toronto at a spring training site, and then having George Springer on the IL for the majority of the time and some other injuries we’ve had to deal with … the guys have been competitive.”
Almost definitively, the Jays have been a middle of the road team — and given how things have unfolded, they’ll take it. But competitive? Yes, as they’ve shown on a number of occasions by grinding out wins in unconventional ways.
Along the way, the Jays have seen their players make a league-high 21 trips to the injured list, including two separate dispatches for Springer, the US$150-million acquisition who will have a massive impact on this team when he finally gets healthy.
There has been a schedule loaded against solid teams and division leaders. Of the first 33 games, 24 have been against teams with records of .500 or better, a far more gruelling stretch than what the Jays will face in late summer.
So while there have been some bumps, to be sure, starting with the pitching staff that has been ravaged by an untoward number of injuries, the Jays soldier on. At one point, the team was essentially reduced to two reliable starters and even now has just three that would fit that category in Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz.
Coming off a pandemic season, the team expected injuries to be an issue, though perhaps not to this degree.
“The odds of being 100% healthy is not high, but that calls on the importance of depth and over the course of the year, we will be healthier than we are today,” Atkins said. “I can’t say enough about how well (pitching coaches) Pete Walker and Matt Buschmann have prepared our pitchers with our baseball operations staff and how (manager Charlie Montoyo) has deployed them to keep us in games and remain competitive.”
On one level, such high-wire requirements of the pitching staff necessitated by the injuries is not sustainable. But to Atkins’ point, it’s also difficult to envision the traffic to the infirmary his team has seen thus far continuing to this degree for the duration of the season.
As that process unfolds, the GM believes one area that will help the starting pitching situation is when the high-powered offence settles in with consistent production.
There have certainly been flashes of it to date — with Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Marcus Semien and Vlad Guerrero Jr. all having noted measurable streaks — but there’s no doubt that Springer’s regular presence will have a profound impact.
“I’m excited about the offensive potential that we have confidence in,” Atkins said. “I think you saw the difference when you have George Springer’s disciplined approach in our lineup and how that impacts others throughout and how it impacts the starting pitcher.
“As the guys get into the flow of things, our offence will improve.”
Another area of optimism has been infield defence, despite the sketchy start in which both Bo Bichette at shortstop and Cavan Biggio at third have struggled at times. In the first 20 games of the season, the Jays made a damaging 15 errors. But in their past 13 contests, they’ve tightened up considerably, making just three.
That improvement has also helped the Jays weather the injuries, the incessant roster moves and the absence of Springer for all but four games. Other than one day, they’ve never been more than two games below .500 or two games above the level-water mark.
Staying in touch with the frontrunners has been an accomplishment and it’s on to the next challenge. Following the three games in Atlanta, the Jays return to Dunedin for their final Florida homestand before shifting north to Buffalo.
And over the next couple weeks, the Jays will get another indicator of their development. After an off-day on Monday in Atlanta, they’ll finish off a 10-game road trip with three against the Braves starting on Tuesday. After three against the Phillies back in Dunedin, they will begin a 10-day stretch against AL East opponents that will further test and gauge their competitive standing.
“We feel really good about the step that this team has taken this year and are looking forward to the time ahead,” Atkins said.
BLUE JAYS PLAYERS PUSHED FOR EARLY MOVE NORTH
The heat will soon be on for the Blue Jays and they’re ready to make their escape.
As the weather becomes an issue in Dunedin, the Jays will wrap up their final homestead at TD Ballpark on May 24 before moving up to Buffalo for their next “home” start on June 1.
General manager Ross Atkins said the decision to move sooner rather than mid-June was in part driven by the players. Weather and blinding sun in the early innings are an issue at TD Ballpark.
“The option and alternatives and our players’ preference were the two things,” Atkins said. “Weighing the weather, the facility and how it plays … and the players ultimately felt that was the best timing and the best decision.”