Monday, October 23, 2023

The Toronto Blue Jays' playoff disaster

Something is rotten is the state of Blue Jays Land.  Toronto Blue Jay fans are disappointed, disgruntled, disgusted and dismayed, especially with President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Ross Atkins.  Oh sure, the team won 89 games and they were good enough to make postseason play.  However, the Jays collapsed like a house cards in their playoff series against the Minnesota Twins.

It's not just that the Jays have gone down to defeat in the their last two playoff appearances.  It's the way they've lost.  Their last two playoff performances have been embarrassing and shameful.  In 2022, they allowed an 8-1 lead slip away in the second game of a 3-game against the Seattle Mariners.  They didn't get past the first round.  Although the Jays won 91 games in the 2022 regular season, they experienced a meltdown in the postseason.

In their 2023 playoff series with Minnesota, the Blue Jays only managed to score one run in two games.  Don't get me wrong, the 2023 Jays were a good team with some glaring flaws  They were by no means a great team, but there were a lot of talented players in the lineup.  The 2023 roster just wasn't built to go deep into the postseason or to win the World Series.  They didn't have enough power hitting and they couldn't hit in the clutch.  Time after time, they left player stranded on base.  

During the 2022 offseason, the Blue Jays made some big roster moves.  On November 26, they traded outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, a fan favourite, to the Seattle Mariners for relief pitcher Erik Swanson and pitching prospect Adam Macko.  In doing so, the Jays gave up some hitting power.  Hernandez spent six seasons in Toronto and won Silver Slugger awards in 2020 and 2021  In 2023, he batted .258 for the Mariners and hit 26 home runs in 160 games.  Swanson was a good addition to the Jays' bullpen, but they missed Hernandez's hitting. 

In December 2022, the Jays made two significant moves to bolster their outfield defence.  On December 14, they agreed to a one-year $9 million contract with fee agent  Kevin Kiermaier.  On December 23, they made what may turn out to be the worst trade in the history of the franchise.  They acquired outfielder Daulton Varsho from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for their star prospect, catcher Gabriel Moreno, as well as outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.  As expected, Kiermaier and Varsho provided solid defence, but at too high a price.  Unfortunately, the Jays gave up a lot of slugging power in order to get Varsho.   With Moreno and Gurriel Jr. making huge contributions, the Arizona Diamondbacks are playing the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League Champioship.Series (NLCS) title.  

It seems that Moreno has the potential to be an all-star or a Hall of Famer.  The Jays had three good catchers in Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Moreno.  Something had to give and one of them had to go.  It should have been Kirk.  This is not to demean Kirk, far from it.  He is a skilled catcher and he demonstrates grit and determination. It's just that Moreno is a better hitter and a much faster runner.  Kirk gives it his all, but he will always be a slow runner.  The Jays will always have to use a pinch runner for hm in key situations. 

After the Jays humiliating defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, GM Atkins should have accepted responsibility for the debacle.  I am not putting all the blame on Atkins.  The players also bear some responsibility.  Their play was far too streaky all season.  For example, Matt Chapman was American League player of the month for April.  For the rest of the season, his hitting was very uneven, although he always provided stellar defence at third base.           

Ross Atkins

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. recorded 26 homers and 94 RBI in 2023.  Those are very good numbers.  They are very respectable, but still disappointing for Vladdy.  More is expected of him because he hit 48 homes with 111 RBI in 2021.  Fans wonder if he'll ever be that good again.  Vladdy is not always the best base runner either.  He can sometimes be too aggressive or not attentive enough, as he was in the crucial second game of the 2023  playoff series with Minnesota. With the  Blue Jays down by two runs, Vladdy was at second base and George Springer at third.  Bo Bichette at the plate, with two outs and a full count.  Suddenly, Vladdy was picked off second base.  That was an inexcusable blunder.

Vladdy's gaffe, however, pales in comparison with the Jays' bonehead decision to pull Jose Berrios after three dominant innings, when he was pitching the game of his life.  Barrios had only allowed three hits with five strikeouts and one walk on 47 pitches.  As soon as he allowed that one walk, manager John Schneider walked on to the field and replaced him with lefty Yuseai Kikuchi,   Kicuchi promptly allowed two runs, from which the Jays never recovered.  As commentator Buck Martinez pointed out, the removal of Barrios provided some relief for the Twins.  It was a psychological advantage for them.  They didn't have to deal with Barrios anymore and it sparked them.

The Jays have defended the move to replace Berrios.  They say it was planned, that it was an organizational decision.  Atkins has called it a "courageous" decision on Schneider's part, deftly deflecting the responsibility from himself.  The truth is that it will go down in the annals of Blue Jays history as a bonehead move.  Call it whatever you like. but a bonehead move is still a bonehead move.  It doesn't matter how many were involved with the decision, it cost the Jays a must-win game.  I did notice that Schneider's seemed red-face for the rest of the game.

There are three lessons to be learned from the Jays' experience.  Firstly, statistics and analytics won't necessarily win you games.  The Jays loss in the second game against Minnesota proves that.  Sometimes good managing means reacting to what's happening on the field.  Barrios was pitching well and shouldn't have been removed.  Period.  Secondly, a team that performs wee in the regular season many be eliminated early in the postseason.  Racking up wins in the regular season is not as important as winning when it really counts.  Thirdly, balance is needed.  The Jays shifted from too much from offensive power to defensive strength.

Then there was the mishandling of Alec Manoah. Manoah's nightmare season was unexpected, and the Jays brought him back too soon.  Who knows how he'll perform n 2024.  He may return to his old self, or he may never be the same.  The Jays can't count on him.  If he rights himself, it will be a bonus.  The Blue Jays have to get a decent starting pitcher.  Their starting pitching depth is very weak.

Jays fans are understandably upset.  They supported the team very well.  In 2023, Jays attendance surpassed three million for the first time since 2017, despite increasingly rising ticket prices.  The fans deserve better for their money.  The Jays have had few playoff appearances since their World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, over 30 years ago.  They only really came close in 2015 under their former GM Alex Anthropolos, who led Atlanta to a World Series victory in 2021.  A.A.'s team has done far better than the Jays in the playoffs.  Just imagine if Moreno, Gurriel and Hrrnandez were still in a Blue Jays uniform.  The Jays certainly would have gone further in the postseason.  

Mark Shapiro has confirmed that Russ Atkins and John Schneider will be back for the Jays' 2024 season.  They are fortunate to have survived the disappointing 2023 season.  They won't be so fortunate if the Jays don't turn it around in 2024.  As for Rogers, they may find a lot of empty seats at the ballpark if something doesn't change.