1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr
Living in the moments — as unsightly as they were — it was difficult to get a true feeling on how rough 2019 was for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sure, the arrival of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and, finally, Bo Bichette offered a tantalizing glimpse at the future. In fact, the debut of each of those sons of accomplished major leaguers could well be landmark moments to be remembered in years to come.
But when a team loses 95 times — the most in almost four decades for these Jays — it’s difficult to spin things in a positive direction. Consider that the Jays are a franchise that, in three achingly long years, has spiralled from the top to becoming the dregs of the MLB in two key measurables: Wins and attendance.
But perhaps the most revealing moment came via forced analysis when the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dropped the request for our top three votes for Blue Jays player of the year.
It wasn’t an easy assignment, folks.
Yes, the Jays were bad in 2019 — historically so. If there is hope for the immediate future, it is that this most recent and disheartening season has resulted in the team hitting rebuild rock-bottom.
Unfortunately, there is no tangible evidence of that being the case.
Pitching was in crisis almost from the outset, making for a trying year for rookie manager Charlie Montoyo, who nevertheless continued to push his young roster through a strong September finish. Add in widely respected pitching coach Pete Walker and perhaps these two were the most legitimate candidates of the year.
For the record (and perhaps by consolation) Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the oft-injured, once-demoted infielder-turned-outfielder, took the MVP “honour.”
(Warning: The following review of the Jays 2019 season contains graphic scenes of chronic disappointment.)
Tis the season and all, so we’ll begin our rewind with some positives, such as they were.
In an often exasperating season, Montoyo returned to his off-season Arizona home buoyed by the fact that the team went 12-10 in its final 22 games, all against AL East opponents. The Jays won nine of their last 13 overall to avoid the indignity of a 100-loss season, and won five of their final six series of the year.
Hollow victories both, however, given that the Jays’ overall divisional record was just 33-43 (and it included 19 games against the even worse Orioles) and the team had an overall series record of 16-29-7.
KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
The Jays had an MLB-high 840 man-games played by rookies in 2019, which predictably led to a lengthy list of collective season highs for freshman players.
Toronto rookies led all of baseball in rookie hits (535), doubles (115), home runs (97), RBI (284) and walks (224.) A snapshot of the state of the franchise as a whole, the position-player rookie results were far more impressive than that of the pitchers, who ranked seventh in innings pitched with 486.
THE BEST OF VLAD
Where to start with one of the most highly anticipated debuts in decades?
Vladdie Guerrero Jr. was still a teenager when he finally earned his promotion to the big team and instantly became one of the most-watched players in the majors.
The 20-year-old finished his rookie season with 126 hits — best among AL rookies — and was top-10 in doubles, walks, triples and home runs among freshmen.
While he struggled at times, the third baseman was twice named the AL’s player of the week and, during a red-hot six-game stretch in late July-early August, drove in 17 home runs.
QUOTES OF THE YEAR
One was said with a chuckle and a dollop of gallows humour and the other was hard to be interpreted as anything other than a warning for fans not to spend too much on tickets in 2020.
Both were capsule indictments of the season that was.
First to manager Montoyo, the personable skipper who, when asked who would be the starter for his team in a couple days, responded with a shrug and a chuckle and said, “An opener and a guy.”
Funny, not funny. The Jays employed a team record 39 pitchers in 2019, three more than the previous year. The 21 starters they used trailed only the 1915 Philadelphia Phillies for the most in MLB history.
Our second quote goes to GM Ross Atkins, who was enthusiastic in his summary of the trade-deadline moves celebrating the fact that the team “turned 14 years of control into 42 years of control.”
Not surprisingly, fans were less-than-amused, even though there was some buried common sense in the comment. Coupled with the exhaustive nature of the rebuild, Atkins effectively signalled that, at minimum, 2020 figures to offer even more pain.
There are those within the organization who believe the departure of Stroman was a key move forward, never mind that the flamboyant starting pitcher was the closest thing the team had to an ace.
The Stro Show had a larger-than-life presence in the Jays clubhouse — and often not in the most positive way.
Details of the blowup on the day he was traded are sketchy, but the fact the team violated MLB rules and kept the clubhouse closed after the game that his deal was announced speaks volumes.
While no one is comfortable speaking on the record, it’s known that some among the Jays brass worried Stroman was too disruptive to be a positive force for the young group going forward.
POSTCARDS FROM THE ROAD
From stadiums to saloons, to some exceptional performances, the 54 road games we hit offered some personal highlights. In no particular order:
* On our maiden trip to Coors Field in Denver, we took a break during our nightly stadium walkabout and spent an inning in the Mile High seats — a purple ring of one row in the fifth deck. Cool stadium, cool experience.
* Another first-time venue for us, Oracle Park in San Francisco revealed the dual pleasures of one of the most fan-friendly stadiums in MLB and the site of Guerrero Jr.’s first two big-league home runs.
* Cooperstown, N.Y. Not sure why it took so long to make our first trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but the occasion of the late Roy Halladay’s induction certainly made up for lost time. The museum itself is a baseball fan’s must, the town is idyllic and the ceremony was touching.
* Durty Nelly’s (Boston), Hooverville Bar (Seattle), Sliders (Baltimore), P.J. Clarke’s and Foley’s (Manhattan), Nick’s Sports Corner (Cleveland), Rossi’s (New York), Biggio’s (Houston), Barley Mash (San Diego), Hank’s (Los Angeles.) Thirst quenchers, one and all.
Not starting Vlad on Victoria Day.
The month of May: 7 wins, 21 losses.
Interleague play: 3 wins, 17 losses.
Outfield follies too numerous to chronicle.
Empty seats and silence at the Rogers Centre.
WORLD SERIES HEROES?
Prop bet for 2020: Which former Blue Jay will have a significant influence on the World Series champions?
This past fall, it was Washington reliever Daniel Hudson, who was dealt at the trade deadline and went on to become a key part of the Nats bullpen. Hudson — a two-time Tommy John-surgery survivor — credited Jays pitching coach Walker and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann with reviving his career.
The previous year, it was utility infielder Steve Pearce who was the hero, belting a number of key home runs and earning the World Series MVP award.
It would be difficult to fault the Jays for parting ways with Hudson or Pearce, given the depth of the rebuild and the fact that both were scheduled to be free agents.
1.) Hard not to top with the home-run derby sensation of Guerrero during all-star week in Cleveland. Vlad electrified a sold-out stadium and national TV audience by belting out 91 homers and destroying Giancarlo Stanton’s record of 61. Never mind that Mets rookie sensation Pete Alonso won the competition, Guerrero stole the show.
2.) Bo knows. July 29 in Kansas City is a night Jays fans won’t forget any time soon. In the first at-bat of his big-league career, Bo Bichette belted out a single and, two days later, added his first home run. Both were part of an 11-game hitting streak to begin his career, a Jays record and the third-longest in MLB history for a player aged 21 or younger. Also included in the stretch were a streak of nine games with an extra-base hit, the longest by a rookie since Ted Williams did the same in 1939.
3.) V is for Verlander. The Astros ace was dominant in his Sept. 1 appearance at the Rogers Centre, tossing the third no-hitter of his career, and second against the Jays. Throwing 120 pitches, Verlander struck out 14 on his afternoon of brilliance.
4.) Get Rowdy. There’s no denying first baseman Rowdy Tellez’s power, but a prodigious blast in April at famed Fenway Park was one for the ages. Originally measured at 505 feet by Statcast, that distance was eventually retracted and never updated. Conspiracy theorists suggest the reason was the Tellez shot would have eclipsed the 502-foot shot from Red Sox great Ted Williams back in 1946, universally accepted as Fenway’s furthest. Whatever the distance, it was a shot not to be forgotten.
5.) Biggio cycle. Part of a September to remember for the Jays’ young guns took place at Camden Yards when Toronto rookie Cavan Biggio became just the third player in club history to hit for the cycle. A triple in the ninth inning of an 8-5 Jays win finished off the feat, matching his Hall of Fame father Craig’s effort from 2002.