As the Tigers return from their All-Star break refreshed and ready, they’ll take on the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park in a three game series over the weekend. After that they’ll enter a long haul against division rivals like the Royals, Twins, and oh... the Royals.
Since the Tigers don’t see as much of the Blue Jays throughout the year, we decided to ask Jenn Smith, writer for Baseball Prospectus Toronto, Sporting News, and Beyond the Box Score what was causing the former AL East champions to flag this year, and how they might behave going into the trade deadline.
BYB: The Jays had one of their strongest seasons last year with some incredibly exciting postseason action. With much of the team, minus Edwin Encarnacion, returning this season, what do you think is the major thing impacting their performance this year?
Jenn: Without a doubt the biggest impact on the Jays’ first half of the season has been the number of injuries the team has suffered as a whole. Losing Aaron Sanchez, who had a phenomenal season last year and was expected to be the staff ace this year, for nearly the entire first half was a major blow. The impact of Devon Travis (who, of course, was traded to Toronto by the Tigers for Anthony Gose) being out indefinitely cannot be understated, either. After missing most of spring training he was really heating up at the plate, hitting to all sides of the field and setting the table as the leadoff hitter. I think the offense is much less diverse without him in the lineup.
Speaking of Encarncion, how much is Toronto missing him and his parrot this year?
For me, personally, I shut the door on Edwin the moment he turned down the Jays’ offer. Whether or not management should have given him a longer window of opportunity to pursue free agency before essentially replacing him with Kendrys Morales is debatable among the fan base. I’ll say this – having Justin Smoak perform the way he has been offensively while playing first base every day has gone a long way to helping people get over the loss of Edwin.
What does it feel like to beat the Texas Rangers in the postseason? My 2011 self wants to know.
Oh, let me tell you. It was the sweetest of victories both times. I was there for Jose Bautista’s bat flip in game five of the 2015 ALDS and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a part of a more incredible moment. Sweeping the Rangers in 2016 was the icing on the cake, especially considering how things went down last May in Texas between Bautista and Odor. It’s made for a great and unlikely rivalry as far as the fans are concerned.
Is there any merit to the Donaldson trade rumors swirling around? Do you think the Jays are going to go into sell mode, or stay pat at the trade deadline?
I can’t imagine that Josh Donaldson gets traded this season. The front office wants to remain competitive both for the rest of this season and moving forward, which in my mind means building around Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna. Trading away a recent MVP winner who is, when healthy, the best offensive player on the team, would not only make the team worse in the short term, but it would alienate a lot of fans who have yet to purchase tickets for next season. Unless the offer for Donaldson was overwhelming in terms of major league-ready players who would be coming to Toronto, I think Donaldson will remain a Blue Jay.
As far as what the front office will otherwise do come the trade deadline, it would make sense if they were able to move players who will hit free agency at the end of this season, such as Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano and Jose Bautista. However, none of these players are exactly enjoying a stellar season – quite the opposite. I have no idea what their trade value might be. Ultimately, it sounds as though the Jays will make smart baseball moves – move pending free agents or players with huge contracts for younger, controllable players – but will have a relatively quiet trade deadline. President Mark Shapiro has made it clear that he is not looking to engage in a fire sale and rebuild the team.
If health concerns stop plaguing the team in the second half, do you think there’s still a postseason shot?
Probably not. It’s awfully difficult to win ballgames when relying on sixth, seventh, eighth and even ninth starters to fill in the rotation. We’ve also seen just how beleaguered this offense is without a healthy Josh Donaldson. It’s difficult to tell, though. The Jays did go 18-10 in May despite several key players (Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and other) being on the disabled list. Injuries aside, they need to play up to their potential. That’s the bottom line. Too many players are struggling right now. The injuries certainly don’t help, and I think are the main reason why Donaldson and Tulo have struggled since returning from the DL, but really, they just need to play better if they are to have any hope of grabbing a wild card spot.
Who is the most underrated player on the team?
That has to be either Danny Barnes or Ryan Tepera. Both have been extremely, surprisingly good out of the bullpen this season. Barnes has a 2.31 ERA and .211 BABIP with a K/9 rate of 10.38 in 39 innings of work. Tepera has thrown 45.1 innings and has a 3.77 ERA and a 9.73 K/9. Relievers do not receive a lot of attention or credit unless they are the closer, but these two guys have been so reliable this season. Jays’ starters have had difficulty going deep into games and the bullpen has been leaned on quite heavily. Not everyone has performed well and several have lost the trust of manager John Gibbons. These two guys, though – I’m not sure where the team would be without them. Their innings alone tell the tale of how valuable they’ve been in the wake of the disaster that has been the Jays’ starting rotation.
Which Tiger do you think will be the biggest concern for the Jays this weekend?
I’m going with J.D. Martinez. He hasn’t hit any of the Jays’ three starters well in the past (albeit the sample size is quite small), but as you know he’s having quite the season. (He’d also look quite good in left field wearing a Jays uniform. Just saying.) I’m also very interested in seeing what Dixon Machado can do.
As of right now [Ed. note, the questions were prepared on Thursday] the pitchers for Saturday and Sunday aren’t listed. Since everyone is well rested do you think we have a chance to see a Stroman/Fulmer showdown?
As fun as that would be, the Jays have announced that Stroman will not pitch in this series, although that doesn’t seem to have been made official as of yet. Apparently we’ll see Francisco Liriano against Fulmer on Saturday.
The Tigers famously traded David Price to the Jays not that long ago. Can we interest you in another former Cy Young winner?
Haha! I’ll tell you a quick story. On the day of the Tulowitzki trade, which was a few days before the 2015 deadline, I spoke to a player who said that what the Jays needed more than a short stop was a starting pitcher, and that the only person who could help the team was David Price. Two days later – BAM! David Price was a Blue Jay (thanks for him, by the way). I feel relatively confident in saying that no one would have that opinion of Justin Verlander this season. I do wish him well, though, and wish the Tigers luck in getting out from underneath that contract (the Jays have a few of those that they’d like to move as well, I’m quite sure).
Thanks so much to Jenn for taking the time to talk to us. You can find her work at Baseball Prospectus Toronto, and look for her bylines to appear at Sporting News and Beyond the Box Score soon. You can follow her on Twitter @Baseball_Jenn.