Three weeks ago the Toronto Blue Jays were a team in disarray. They were and , and they won only twice during a stretch of 11 straight games against AL East rivals. Seven of the 11 games were at home too. Things got so bad the Blue Jays held a team meeting after a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on May 25.
"We got punched right in the face the last 10 days or so," manager John Schneider told MLB.com after that loss. "You have to understand that, make adjustments, and have the right attitude. You have to have the right focus going forward, and in talking to the guys and hearing them, it has to happen tomorrow. Yes, it's a tough division. Yes, it's a tough team. We're a good team, too."
Things could not be more different now. The Blue Jays swept the New York Mets at Citi Field over the weekend -- they allowed only five runs in the three games -- and they have won seven of nine games since that 2-9 stretch against AL East rivals. Toronto is still on the outside of the postseason bracket, though they are very much in striking distance. Here's the wild-card race:
- Baltimore Orioles: 37-22 (+2.0 GB)
- Houston Astros: 35-24 (+0 GB)
- New York Yankees: 36-25
- Toronto Blue Jays: 33-27 (2.5 GB)
- Boston Red Sox: 30-29 (5.0 GB)
- Los Angeles Angels: 31-30 (5.0 GB)
- Seattle Mariners: 29-30 (6.0 GB)
After losing that May 25 game in Tampa, the Blue Jays were in last place in the AL East and had four teams head of them for the final wild-card spot. Now they're one good week away from being in postseason position. That's a reminder things can change in a hurry in this game, and also that there's still plenty of time to right the ship. It's only June, after all.
Here are four things that need to happen for the Blue Jays to continue their recent hot streak, climb into postseason position, and have their best chance at making a deep run in October.
1. Their All-Stars must play like All-Stars
The Blue Jays sent four players to the All-Star Game last season -- Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Alejandro Kirk, Alek Manoah, and George Springer -- and those four players combined for 17.9 WAR in 2022. They were excellent. Two months in 2023, they have combined for 2.2 WAR and are on pace for only 6.0 WAR. WAR is not the be-all and end-all, but that is a significant decline in performance.
There are signs this group is coming around, however. Springer hit a leadoff homer against Justin Verlander on Friday and is 22 for 63 (.349) in his last 16 games. Kirk is 15 for 47 (.319) with only four strikeouts in his last 13 games. Vlad Jr. had a clutch game-winning double in the top of the ninth inning Saturday, then went deep Sunday.
"Not just for me, but for the entire team, it was a big hit," Guerrero told MLB.com about Saturday's double. "I always say, regardless of if you struggle with the ups and downs, you've got to stay positive. Eventually things like that -- good things -- are going to happen. They're going to come."
Manoah is a different case. He has struggled all season and, last time out, he needed 89 pitches to get through four innings against a Milwaukee Brewers lineup that is not particularly imposing. He's failed to complete five innings in seven of his 12 starts. Last season Manoah never once failed to complete five innings in his 31 starts. The underlying numbers are not pretty:
|K%||BB%||HR/9||Swinging strike rate||Exit velocity allowed|
Manoah's average fastball velocity is down about 1 mph and his slider, his go-to secondary pitch, is not moving as much as last season. He's not locating it -- or locating anything -- well either. Manoah threw 196 2/3 innings last season, a huge workload by today's standards (especially for a 24-year-old), and maybe it's catching up to him. Whatever it is, Manoah is having a poor season.
"It's been tough. I'm not doing what I'm meant to be doing. I just have to keep fighting and finding positives," Manoah told MLB.com following is most recent start. "... The mindset of, 'Don't throw a ball here' instead of, 'Throw a strike right here,' it's a difference-maker. Right now, I'm stuck in, 'Don't throw a ball here.'"
Getting Manoah on track is priority No. 1 for the Blue Jays. He's so important to the franchise both this year and long-term. Guerrero, Kirk, and Springer have started to come around and they are game-changing players. They are central to what the Blue Jays are trying to accomplishment. Toronto needs all four to be impact players and, for much of 2023, they simply haven't been.
2. Varsho has to make more of an impact offensively
The season is more than two months old and that's enough time for teams to start having a little buyer's remorse (the Yankees and Carlos Rodón, etc.). The Blue Jays surrendered Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno, both of whom have been fantastic with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to get Daulton Varsho, who owns an unimpressive .217/.283/.380 slash line.
"I was trying to do too much," Varsho told the Toronto Star recently. "Tried to get back to a simpler approach instead of pressing, just hitting the ball hard and seeing where it goes. That's my goal right now."
Varsho does have an eight-game hitting streak at the moment, though it is a vitamin hitting streak (one hit a day), and he's not walking much. Just six walks in his last 31 games and 126 plate appearances, a 4.8% walk rate that is well below his 8.4% career walk rate. The hope was a move into the renovated Rogers Centre would boost his power, but that hasn't happened.
|2022 Varsho||2023 Varsho||MLB average|
Isolated power (extra bases per at-bat)
Home runs per fly ball rate
Average exit velocity
Barrel rate (what's a barrel?)
Do I think the Blue Jays have buyer's remorse with Varsho? Nah. Varsho is under team control through 2026 and he is only 60 team games into his first of potentially four years with Toronto. It is way, way too early to issue a ruling on the trade. The D-Backs are surely happy with their end of the deal. There's plenty of time for the Blue Jays to end up happy too.
That all said, the Blue Jays were no doubt expecting more than a .217/.283/.380 line from Varsho two months into the season. He's a fantastic defender and base runner, so he's still helping the team that way, but the Blue Jays saw a 26-year-old who hit 27 home runs with a 109 OPS+ last season and though he could get to another level, and it hasn't happened yet. Toronto will need Varsho to make an impact offensively to climb back into the postseason race.
"There's always pressure when you go to a new team," Varsho told the Toronto Star. "You want to show everybody that you belong and you want to do well. That pressure comes with trying to do too much, which I was doing. You've got to be who you are. Being Daulton, getting on base and allowing my legs to help run the bases and playing really great defense. If you can keep a level head and understand that this game can be very humbling at times, it's going to be fine."
3. Improve the margins of the roster
The Blue Jays do not use their bench as much as some teams (see: the Rays), but, when they have used their bench, they've gotten very little production. Neither Cavan Biggio (.172/.258/.333) nor the currently injured Santiago Espinal (.205/.266/.274) have hit much, and others like Nathan Lukes, Jordan Luplow, and Tyler Heineman have contributed basically nothing in limited action. There's a revolving door at the back of the bullpen too. It would be nice to settle that a bit.
Toronto will only go as far as marquee players take the the team (that is true of most teams) but there is room to improve the bench and the back of the bullpen. The margins of the roster are lacking a bit and, with the AL East race and wild-card race being as tight as they are, every roster spot matters. Every little upgrade is worth making. The Blue Jays have bigger issues than the bench and the last spot in the bullpen, no doubt. Those roster spots can still be (and should be) improved though, either at the trade deadline or by promoting from within.
4. Take advantage of head-to-head matchups
The Blue Jays are entering what might be their most difficult stretch of the season, at least on paper. This is what Toronto is looking at the next two weeks:
- June 5-8: 4 games vs. Houston Astros
- June 9-11: 3 games vs. Minnesota Twins
- June 12: off-day
- June 13-15: 3 games at Baltimore Orioles
- June 16-18: 3 games at Texas Rangers
With all due respect, the Twins are the soft spot in that two-week stretch, and they're in first place in the AL Central. The Rangers (38-20), Orioles (37-22), and Astros (35-24) own the second-, third-, and fourth-best records in the American League. It's way too early to call that a make-or-break stretch. It's fair to call it a measuring stick though. Time to show you belong, Blue Jays.
Beyond being a measuring stick, these upcoming two weeks are important because the Astros and Orioles (and potentially also the Rangers and Twins) are direct competitors for wild-card spots. The best way to gain ground is winning head-to-head games and the Blue Jays have a chance to rack up head-to-head wins the next two weeks. Here's what Toronto has left against AL East teams:
- vs. Baltimore Orioles: 10 games (4 at home)
- vs. Boston Red Sox: 9 games (6 at home)
- vs. New York Yankees: 6 games (3 at home)
- vs. Tampa Bay Rays: 6 games (3 at home)
The Blue Jays have to get back into wild-card position before they can begin thinking about the division race, but there's a chance the AL East will send four teams to the postseason this year. At least one of the five AL East teams will be left on the outside looking in and each time the Blue Jays beat a division rival, the better their odds they are not the AL East club staying home in October.