Bluebird Banter manager Tom Dakers was kind enough to sit down with us for another edition of our on-again, usually off-again View From the Other Side series, and was also nice enough to tolerate my bleary-eyed and typo’d responses back to him about the White Sox. Thankfully, Tom was able to make it back to town last year after almost being pandemic-marooned in Morocco after a vacation with his wife, which, come to think of it, would not be half-bad ... well, anyway, great to have you back and safe on the continent, Tom!
The Toronto Blue Jays enter this series in Chicago at 30-27, good for third place in the AL East, six games behind the Tampa Bay Rays and two games out of the wild card. The Jays have a plus-36 run differential, which would project them for second place in either other AL division but keeps them locked in third in the East, behind Tampa and the Boston Red Sox. Like the White Sox, Toronto is playing under their run differential (two games worse), which could be an indication of poor managing (the White Sox are in fact three games worse than their run differential). If Toronto gets its act together, or runs into a little luck, its run differential projects to a 91-71 finish.
So, here’s my Q&A with Tom, and forgive in advance the cockeyed questions and flip research. Tom seemed to.
Jesus, the young Toronto talent. Can I please have updates on all the young legacies on the club: Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr.?
Biggio? He had a rough start to the season, both offensively and defensively, and now he’s injured. He’s always been patient at the plate, and he came into the season thinking he wanted to be a little more aggressive, trying to stop pitchers from jumping out in front of the count, but it didn’t seem to work well. It wasn’t natural for him. So, coming to a happy medium has been a bit of an issue. He’s been out with a sore neck, but started a rebab stint on Sunday and homered in his first game.
Bichette also had a tough start defensively, especially throwing, but seems to have figured that out. On the offensive side, he hasn’t had the hot streak yet, and we keep expecting him to have one. He’s been chasing a bit more than he usually does. His swing is pretty violent, at least until two strikes. The Jays broadcast team keeps telling us how much better he is with two strikes, but the numbers (.165/.203/.228) don’t bear that out at all.
Guerrero has been excellent. A lot was made of his weight loss and how much more athletic and flexible he is (he’s done a full split at first base several times early this season). His bat has always been quick, but he seems to be more confident this year. And he is having fun. Last year he seemed to get down on himself at times. This year, he is just having fun.
And he is far more confident on defense at first base. The team, during spring training, suggested that he could play some third base, considering his improved conditioning. Still, he has been so good and so comfortable at first that I can’t see any way he’ll play third, except in a late-game emergency. His play has been such that people wonder if there is a Gold Glove in his future. (If you suggested that a year ago, the response would have been laughter.)
He’s also running much better. FanGraphs has him fifth in the AL in BsR at 1.9, when he finished at -0.9 last year and -6.6 in 2019. The other day he went first to third on a ground out to third base. He may have tried something like that in the past year, but he would have been out. Now his speed matches his confidence.
Can Vlad keep this up and make a legit run at MVP, or are we asking too much too soon?
I think he can keep it up. There will be slumps, but he has such a good eye at the plate that he can still help the team even if slumping. As I type this, he leads the league in home runs, batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, total bases, and WAR.
I guess we’ll see if he tires some with the long season, but they have him DH on occasion to give him a breather.
There are other good players in the league. Shohei Ohtani is a one-of-a-kind type, and there is this guy. I doubt you’ve heard of him; Yoán Moncada?
So, what position does Vlad play, and does it matter when you’re mashing a 10 WAR pace?
First in the field and first in our hearts. But yeah, he would be a valuable player if he played shortstop with the glove on the wrong hand.
Marcus Semien is another White Sox who got away, and he came to Toronto on a one-year deal at a new position. Looks like it couldn’t possibly be working out better?
Semien had a bit of a slow start to the season, and there was a little bit of grumbling about him hitting leadoff, but his AL Player of the Month May silenced all of that. As well as his great bat, his defense at second has helped. Last year, our team defense was somewhere between poor and horrendous. Having a steady glove in the middle of the infield has helped.
And he is one of those Veteran Presence guys who does seem to be a good influence in the clubhouse. He’s helped Bichette with his defense at short.
Four questions already and none about George Springer. Is playing four games in the first two months of what will be a long Blue Jays career giving anyone bunchy underwear?
The tricky part of the Springer injury is it isn’t something broken or something torn. It is a “quad issue.” At various times it has been described as “leg fatigue” or “a sore leg.” Most of us on this side of the border were brought up on stories of hockey players playing with a broken leg. So when a guy misses a couple of months with “soreness,” it seems a bit wimpy. But no hockey player ever played seven games a week with a broken leg.
Springer is close to being ready to start a rehab assignment, something they skipped when he came off the IL at the end of April. With luck, we might see him back with the Jays in a couple of weeks.
The pitching staff looks a little patchy, but Ryu, Ray, Matz seem a solid postseason rotation. What’s the feeling on your core starters?
Ryu is a lot of fun to watch. He doesn’t throw hard but gets by with changing speeds and hitting his spots. Ryu rarely walks anyone; he’s averaging one walk per start this year. He gets a ton of ground balls, and he’s averaging almost a strikeout an inning.
Ray, another lefty, is much the opposite of Ryu. He throws hard (in the 96-99 mph range), getting many swinging strikes, and, until this year, walked a lot of guys. This year, Ray walked nine over his first two starts and five total in eight starts since. He gives up home runs (he’s given up as many home runs as walks) but keeps guys off the bases. He loudly grunts with every pitch, and wears the tightest pants you’ll ever see on a pitcher.
Matz completes our trifecta of lefties (and has the longest name of the three, at four letters). He came over in a trade from the Mets, and we weren’t thrilled. Picking up a starting pitcher who had an ERA north of 9.00 last year isn’t something that excites a fanbase. But working with Jays pitching coach Pete Walker seems to have righted him. Matz has had the odd lousy start (this Sunday against the Astros, for example), but, all in all, he’s been good. Again, he doesn’t walk many and gets a good number of strikeouts.
What starters will the White Sox face in this series?
Wednesday: Alek Manoah, in his third MLB start (and 12th professional start). He made three Triple-A starts, with a 0.50 ERA, before getting a call up to pitch against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, where he threw six shutout innings. His second start didn’t go near as well, his velocity was down, and his control wasn’t near as sharp. He is a big guy, 6´6´´, 260, and throws like a big guy, getting into the upper 90s on the fastball, with a slider and a change. He was our first round pick in 2019 and was our No. 2 pitching prospect. Likely called up sooner than the team would have liked, but there was a need. Unless something breaks, he’s in the rotation for a while, as we don’t have anyone else.
Second year of no games in Toronto. What is it like rooting for a team that plays no home games? What’s been the fan base reaction (dip in ratings, different avenues for interest like improved site traffic) to these extraordinary circumstances? And when might the Blue Jays play in Toronto again?
It is a weird situation. I mean, the last year-and-a-half have all be one big bizarre situation, but the Jays players have had to deal with playing their home games in facilities that aren’t truly of major league quality.
TV ratings, site visits have been good, but that’s likely due to having a good and exciting team to watch. Likable players, who play well, make for good TV.
When will they be back playing in Toronto? Well, it likely depends on vaccine levels and Covid numbers, and negotiations with the Federal Government. They are letting NHL teams cross the border for the playoffs, so that’s a hopeful sign. The optimist in me says they will be back in Toronto in late July, early August. But the optimist in me has taken a beating over the past. Maybe September is a better guess of when we’ll be drinking overpriced beer and eating popcorn leftover from 2019 in Toronto.
Seems you have a winner in Charlie Montoyo. True, or is there someone else who should be running the show?
Well, I should be running the show, of course. I’ve won several World Series in OOTP Baseball.
If Bluebird Banter was a hornets’ nest, you just hit it with a stick.
Let’s say there are strong opinions. In April, our bullpen had great numbers. May, with roughly 67 relievers on the IL (OK, eight) and a couple of uninjured relievers, it lost the ability to find the strike zone. When relievers lose games, fans tend to blame the manager.
One of the things fans will always have an opinion on (including me) is when a pitcher should be taken out of the game. Odds are, that idiot manager either left the pitcher in too long or pulled the pitcher too early, and, beyond that, the dimwit used the wrong guy.
Managers get more blame than they deserve. We lost a game because our third baseman booted an easy play, putting on the tying run, and our left fielder threw to the wrong base, allowing the go-ahead run to get to third, to he could score on a sac fly, and yet the manager lost the game.
Traditional question, the AL East is always a minefield. You’re holding your own, with solid playoff chances in 2021. How do you like Toronto’s postseason chances this season and in years to come?
In years to come, I think we should be in the running for a playoff spot every year. Our core should be as good as any in the AL East going forward. Many good players make little enough money that they should be able to add needed pieces.
This year, the first third of the season, we have faced all the best teams (I keep wondering when we get to play the Orioles), and we are still in the race, so, when the team does get back to Rogers Centre, the place should be rocking.