Let there be no question about Marcus Stroman’s Sunday. None. In fact, given all the stuff swirling around the Toronto Blue Jays organization, the Stro-Show – abbreviated as it was by that damned blister or hot spot – was precisely the distraction we all needed.
“It is what it is,” said Stroman, who allowed one run and gave up five hits in the Blue Jays 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at the Rogers Centre before exiting after 76 pitches. “I’m a competitor. What’s frustrating is that my body and arm feel great. I feel like I’m getting to be myself, and this thing pops up.”
The Rays’ only run came on a fourth-inning single by Willy Adames, while the Blue Jays came back with two runs off the Rays’ bullpen in the sixth, including the winning run when pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar’s slide at home was upheld after video review on a play that started as a squibber off the bat of Randal Grichuk and ended up with Pillar and Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek arriving at home at the same time.
These teams have nine more games left and we’ll take more of this: good starting pitching, base-running, balls in play all over the place and highlight defence from Blue Jays new third baseman Russell Martin, second baseman Devon Travis (who deserves all the credit in the world for how he’s saved his season) and the Rays’ Martin Perez and Joey Wendle. More of this, please.
And so now the Blue Jays head out on the road for three games against the Kansas City Royals and three more against the New York Yankees with prospects Sean Reid-Foley and Danny Jansen scheduled to make their Major League debut as a battery, according to manager John Gibbons and – yes – Gibbons still occupying the manager’s office.
“Danny’s here to play a lot,” Gibbons said. “It doesn’t do him any good to sit him, so you’ll see him a lot. They’re two of our top prospects … you just felt like it was a matter of time.”
Gibbons and general manager Ross Atkins had what Atkins called “open and frank” discussions about several matters this week as the organization honed its plans for September and beyond. I have no clue how much of their time was devoted to Gibbons’ status – as I reported, some industry sources believed and believe there is a chance this was Gibbons’ last homestand, and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the Jays are “ready to move on” from Gibbons – but I am told that the decision and timing is being driven by Atkins, not president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro, and this isn’t going to be an easy move for the 45-year-old general manager, who is fond of Gibbons and is enough of a baseball guy to know the limitations of the hand dealt to his skipper.
So, according to people familiar with the organization’s thinking, that’s where things stand. Bear in mind that Gibbons is under contract for next season (with a club option for 2020) which also dovetails with thew fact Atkins has one year left on his deal. That’s interesting, since my guess is any new manager would want an idea about the job security of the people hiring him and Atkins’ immediate superior – Shapiro – has just one more year on his deal than Atkins. I have to think giving Atkins an extension would seem to strengthen his hand heading into discussions on a new manager unless Shapiro plans on assuming a large role in the process. But that’s stuff way – and I mean way – above my paygrade.
The ‘chicken salad’ argument is the major one for keeping Gibbons in the short and long term.
It centres on the players he’s working with and the fact that Josh Donaldson’s injury has had a heavy knock-on effect: it exposed Yangervis Solarte as an everyday player, and set in motion a chain of events that saw the team play for awhile without an identifiable shortstop. Gibbons couldn’t have done anything about that or injuries to Troy Tulowitzki or Aaron Sanchez, either, never mind Roberto Osuna’s domestic assault allegations. He can’t make Teoscar Hernandez catch the ball and, yeah, he’s already tried benching him and talking to him so don’t go there. He’s had team meetings. He’s exhausted the managerial bag of tricks. Armchair managers have called for public flogging at the stake or taking infield practice for six hours before batting practice, but that isn’t a real world answer.
Gibbons’ lineup shuffling sticks in the craw of some, although it’s remarkable how when a team is winning that looks a great deal like creativity instead of tinkering. And keep in mind that he hasn’t had a lead-off hitter since Ben Revere made the penultimate out of the 2015 American League Championship Series.
So the gist of the ‘keep Gibby’ argument: it’s not his fault, or at least it’s the fault of others more than it is him. Conspiracy theorists might even suggest the thorny issue of Donaldson’s return and management down the stretch at the end of the worst free-agent walk year imaginable would be best handled by somebody as no-nonsense as Gibbons. He knows veterans; witness the way in which Pillar lauded how “Gibby doesn’t hold grudges,” Sunday after Pillar was picked off first base on Saturday.
Now, the flip side. It’s not just recency bias that has created the impression that this team doesn’t always pay attention to details; not just the way the Rays and Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox out-everythinged the Jays. The Jays went into Sunday 27th in the Majors in defensive runs saved and will be among the worst fielding teams in the league again and that’s death for a team in transition. The question for Atkins and his advisors is how much of this is a product of the ingredients themselves or the guys doing the cooking – especially, the chief chef. I’m not sure that’s something analytics can determine; I’m not sure there’s a way to quantify work environment and culture.
Look: the Rays are a development guy’s dream: they’re in third place in the toughest division in the game and can run out a starting lineup that includes three rookies who started the year as top-tier prospects and barely tap into the depth of their minor league system, which is considered in some quarters to be better than the Blue Jays much-touted group of prospects. They do all sorts of weird, funky stuff – they tinker, as my Baseball Central colleague Kevin Barker likes to say – and use closers to pitch just one inning at the start of the game; take out starters in the middle of perfect games … stuff like that.
Stuff you can do when you have a team full of kids most of whom aren’t yet eligible for arbitration (you try qualifying financially in front of an arbitrator the notion of an ‘opener’); stuff you can do when everybody really is just happy to be there. The Rays just kind of pulled this thing off organically – unlike other prospect-centred teams such as the Atlanta Braves, there’s no Freddie Freeman on this roster – and that could very well be what the 2019 Blue Jays feature in their lineup. Young guys just sort of figuring it out together; taking ownership of their own clubhouse, as Rays manager Kevin Cash has asked his group to do.
And so it appears as if what we are now talking about is exit strategy. Gibbons said publicly on MLB Network Radio that he wants no part of a “total rebuild.” The Blue Jays want to give themselves as much time to do a deep dive into the prospective managerial pool, because this will be the biggest hire Atkins makes. This is the guy who will manage Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., the guy who will literally hold the future of the organization in his hands. This is a chance for Shapiro and Atkins to hire their own guy after three seasons, and while that’s not the most sensitive way to do business, it’s kind of the way business is done. Forced exits are never satisfactory but as Marcus Stroman might say: sometimes it is what it is.
Originally published at https://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/stroman-pitches-needed-distraction-ahead-jays-cloudy-future/