Evolution of Jays and M’s post playoffs: a tale of two cities
Weekend series not for revenge but reflects off-season changes
Baseball fans in Canada were definitely embarrassed and chagrined last October, following the Blue Jays’ stunningly historic collapse, blowing an 8-1 lead to Seattle with four innings left in Game 2 of the wild-card series. A lasting image for Jays fans is the collision in centre field between Bo Bichette and George Springer that cleared the bases and keyed the M’s comeback.
The Mariners moved on to be swept in the ALDS by the eventual champion Astros. Recall that 2022 was the first MLB playoffs in the Pacific northwest since 2001 and, in defeating the Jays, maybe the M’s simply believed the 2022 space odyssey needed a mere tweak to next-level it.
Ultimately, the ’22 wild-card result affected both teams’ efforts in constructing a roster for 2023 and beyond. The Jays’ brass, haunted by the loss, likely realized that with the ultimately flawed roster they fielded, they were not nearly good enough for the next level. This weekend at Rogers Centre is the first time the two teams will face off since then. The changes made by each side in the off-season will be noticeable. The reward for winning will be far less dramatic.
Have the M’s made necessary roster changes in seeking the next level?
The M’s looked at what they had in terms of youth, leadership and going deeper into October and made few changes. On the pitching side, they came back in ’23 with the same five-man rotation and most of the same bullpen. With regard to position players, five of the M’s nine primary players return. Changes were made in position starters at second base (Kolten Wong), left field (Jarred Kelenic), right field (Teoscar Hernandez) and designated-hitter (AJ Pollock).
The aging Carlos Santana had been M’s DH in the ’22 playoffs and was a clear catalyst vs. the Jays. The veteran clubhouse leader has been to the post-season five times in his 14 years withg four organizations. He was signed in the winter by the Pirates who have now shocked the baseball world, leading the NL Central through the first month. M’s new DH, Pollock, is two years younger than Santana and earning slightly more, at 1yr/$7-million.
So, what is it that has changed for the M’s, leading to a disappointing 11-14 start, fourth in the AL West? With the rotation, Robbie Ray is on the IL and likely out for the season, while Chris Flexen is 0-4, 8.86 ERA in four starts. In the bullpen, hard-throwing righthander Andres Munoz has been on the IL in April, while Kingston, ON native RH Matt Brash’s incredible 1.18 FIP is not reflected in the standard pitching stats. Consider that Brash has struck out 22 of the 52 batters he has faced, but that 15 of the 30 batters not fanned have reached base.
Meanwhile the catching duo of Cal Raleigh and Tom Murphy has combined for two homers, 12 RBIs and a .194 average in 25 games. Centre fielder Julio Rodriguez is easily one of the best young players in baseball and a future face of the game, and while he is on pace for a 30HR-30SB campaign, has not yet warmed to the task of superstardom. It will happen.
Jays have made ‘next level’ adjustments since playoff disaster.
The Springer-Bichette collision on the eighth-inning blooper by J.P. Crawford that resulted in a game-altering three-run double was a mental image that was going to be hard to forget for the Jays front-office as they entered the off-season. The bullpen failure in the series was proof that the ’22 roster was not deep enough. Teams that aspire to play .500 ball can sometimes get by with one closer and two setup men. But you already know as a true contender that there may be a half dozen times when a full turn through the rotation will put your team in position to win five or more games in a row and that with use of relievers today not asked to ever work three days in a row, you will need at least two closer-type pitchers that you can trust and at least three more that you hand over a three-run lead or less in the seventh inning and beyond, trusting they will do the job against good lineups.
With those criteria in mind, the Jays engineered a couple of off-season signings and two trades to show they learned from the M’s loss.
Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier was signed as a free agent. The Jays traded for OF/C Daulton Varsho from the Diamondbacks and obtained righthander Erik Swanson from the Mariners. In addition, starting righthander Chris Bassitt was signed to replace Ross Stripling and veteran 1B Brandon Belt was signed to back up Vlad Guerrero Jr. and DH vs. righthanders.
The bottom line from the pair of position player moves is that Springer is now the third option in centre field, moving full-time to a RF/DH role to preserve his health in what has been an IL plagued tenure in Toronto. Why can he be considered third-string? Varsho is a centre-fielder now playing left and his youth and versatility, means John Schneider is able to give Kiermaier his needed days off. It also allowed the Jays to move one of their three quality catchers – Gabby Moreno to the D’backs, along with incumbent left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Even though it would be strictly an emergency move, Varsho has major-league reps behind the plate.
Another significant off-season trade sent right fielder Teoscar Hernandez to the M’s for Swanson, a proven setup man, with what they believe are closer capabilities.
Is the Jays outfield better off with CF Kiermaier, RF Springer, LF Varsho, 2B/ OF Whit Merrifield and INF/OF Cavan Biggio instead of CF Springer, LF Gurriel Jr. and RF Teoscar? Yes.
Face it, there were times in ’22 when watching the Jays corner outfielders headed for balls over their head or in the alleys reminded you of when your GPS gives you the best route to a destination, maybe pointing you to a toll road, and deep down you know there’s a quicker route. But you trust what GPS is telling you because it should know.
The Jays won 92 games in ’22 to earn top wild-card and wild-card home field, while the M’s won 90 games. Those low-90s win totals need to be better for each team to reach the next level. This weekend’s three-game meeting is not a chance for revenge, because there will still be 134 games remaining on the schedule, but it will be a reflection of the changes in the winter and whether each team’s vision was more for the future or status quo.