2018 Toronto Blue Jays
2018 Toronto Blue Jays / Franchise: Toronto Blue Jays / BR Team Page
Managed by John Gibbons
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays went into spring training with seemingly modest ambitions. After a very disappointing 2017 season that had seen them finish in 4th place in the AL East, just ahead of the last-place Baltimore Orioles, most fans expected a shake-up, or at least the addition of some front-line talent to fill in a number of holes that had been very apparent the previous season. With the team having led the American League in attendance the previous season and broadcast ratings being excellent, it was not as if owners Rogers Communications were short of money. But, in contrast with former GM Alex Anthopoulos who always liked to swing for the fences in making bold deals, the management team of President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins was very - some would say overly - prudent. There was little grumbling over the decision not to re-sign team icon Jose Bautista, now clearly in the twighlight of his career, but the failure to add a front-line outfielder was more puzzling. The previous year had also shown the risk of relying on two very much injury-prone players as a double play combination in SS Troy Tulowitzki and 2B Devon Travis, as it had resulted in offensively-challenged Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney picking up a ton of playing time. Both were gone, but their replacements were perhaps underwhelming, in Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte. In the outfield, the additions were aging veteran Curtis Granderson, clearly on his last legs, and the puzzling Randal Grichuk, although the Jays were also hoping that the excellent final month put up by young Teoscar Hernandez was a sign that he could be a solid producer over a full season. Among returning players, the core was constituted by 3B Josh Donaldson, 1B Justin Smoak, C Russell Martin, CF Kevin Pillar and DH Kendrys Morales, all solid players but coming with some question marks: age in the case of Morales and Martin, consistency in that of Smoak and Pillar. The Jays did have two of the top prospects in all of baseball in their organization in second-generation players Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but they were both at least a year away from being able to contribute at the major league level.
On the mound, the Jays still had four solid starting pitchers in J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada, although Sanchez was coming off an injury-plagued season. To fill the last slot, the Jays had made another ho-hum signing, adding Jaime Garcia and not bidding for some of the top-level talent available on the free agent market; the front office had also decided to fight Stroman in arbitration over a paltry $400,000 amount, a strange decision that had created unnecessary bitterness with their best young pitcher. In the bullpen, Roberto Osuna was now a proven closer, even if he had sometimes lacked support in the role the past seasons. A few young pitchers had emerged as good bullpen arms the previous year, including Ryan Tepera, Dominic Leone, Danny Barnes and Carlos Ramirez, but the Jays had given up Leone to add Grichuk, and another late-season addition who had pitched well, Tom Koehler, had left via free agency. However the return to the pen of Joe Biagini, who had struggled when asked to fill in as a starter for Sanchez, was good news, as he had been outstanding as a reliever in 2016. So the overall picture for manager John Gibbons was that he had some talent to work with and that, if everything clicked, this was a team that could contend, but the feeling was that by not being more bold in the off-season, the Jays had missed a chance to position themselves as a top contender planning to recapture the magic of the two recent postseason runs in 2015 and 2016.
One of the defining characteristics of the Blue Jays in spring training was how many second-generation players - and good ones - were in the organization. They were featured in a game against the Canadian junior national team on March 17th. In the starting line-up were, of course, top prospects Bichette and Guerrero, but they were joined on the field by Kacy Clemens at first base, Cavan Biggio at second, Dwight Smith Jr. in LF and Brandon Grudzielanek at DH. All were sons of big leaguers, except Grudzielanek who was the nephew of Mark Grudzielanek, and all were solid prospects. Clemens, Biggio, Bichette and Guerrero went a combined 8 for 14 with 7 RBIs in an 11-3 win. One of the few pitchers to keep them in check was 17-year-old Braden Halladay, son of the late Roy Halladay, who had been born and had grown up in Toronto, ON, hence his eligibility to play for the Canadian team; he pitched a perfect 8th inning. In the Jays' last game of spring training, part of the now traditional two-game series at Stade Olympique on March 27th, Guerrero began building his legend in his father's former stomping grounds by hitting a walk-off homer with two outs in the 9th inning to break a scoreless tie against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Blue Jays looked listless in their first two games of the year, being beaten by the New York Yankees, 6-4, on Opening Day on March 29th as Happ had a poor performance, and losing again the next day, 4-2. However, they then got things turned around. On March 31st, Solarte homered off Dellin Betances to lead off the bottom of the 8th inning and break a 3-3 tie, then Pillar electrified the crowd by stealing second base, third base and home plate in succession to add an insurance run. On April 1st, it was Smoak's turn to wear the hero's shoes, as he hit a two-run homer off Tommy Kahnle in the 7th to bring the Jays to within a run of the Yanks, and he followed that with a grand slam off David Robertson in the 8th, after New York skipper Aaron Boone had decided to issue an intentional walk to Donaldson, giving Toronto a 7-4 win. He was named the AL Player of the Week for his exploits, and the Jays continued to do well in the next series, against the Chicago White Sox: Donaldson and Diaz both homered in the first two games of the series, resulting in wins of 4-2 and 14-5. In the second of these, Happ became the first Jays starter to notch a win, the first three victories having gone to members of the revamped bullpen.
On April 16th, the Blue Jays were the victims of a rare postponement at the Rogers Centre, as falling ice from the nearby CN Tower damaged the roof at the indoor ballpark, forcing them to move back that day's game for the safety of the spectators. The area had been battered by a severe ice storm, a weather system that had also forced the cancellations of their previous two games at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. The cancelled home game was played the next day as part of an exceptional doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals. Continuing their strong play of late, the Jays swept both games, 11-3 and 5-4, with back-up catcher Luke Maile, who had been an offensive black hole the previous season, providing the winning hit with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th. Maile was one of several members of the team who seemed to have turned things completely around in the early going as he was hitting .421 with 7 RBIs in his first 5 games, matching the total accumulated in 46 games the previous year. The Jays were now at 11-5, sporting the third-best record in the league, another huge contrast with the previous season when a terrible month of April had torpedoed their entire season. They finished the month by defeating the Minnesota Twins, 7-5, to give them a record of 16-12 and third place in the AL East, a very good sign for a team notorious for its slow starts the past few years. Happ had won four games since his opening day loss, but Stroman was struggling badly with an ERA of 8.88 in 5 starts, while Osuna had already notched 7 saves. On offense, the big contributors had been OFs Granderson (.306 with 3 homers), Pillar (.305 with 4 homers and 20 runs) and Hernandez (.306 with 4 homers in 15 games after starting the season in AAA). However, Grichuk (.106) and Travis (.148) had had terrible starts, and the former ended the month on the DL and the latter in AAA.
The Blue Jays had some enormous roster churn in early May due to a combination of injuries, some make-up games caused by the bad weather in April, and paternity leave by Justin Smoak. They sputtered during that period, then on May 8th started a homestand in the worst possible manner, and in retrospect that date marked the end of any hope they may have had for the season. First, in the early hours of that morning, closer Roberto Osuna was arrested in Toronto on charges of assault on an unnamed woman, who was later revealed to be the mother of his three-year-old son. He was immediately placed on administrative leave by Major League Baseball and faced a lengthy absence. In fact, he never again pitched for the Jays, as he was issued a suspension by MLB, and then was traded to the Houston Astros for disgraced closer Ken Giles at the end of July. The same evening the Osuna story broke out, the Jays were the victims of a no-hitter pitched by James Paxton of the visiting Seattle Mariners, 5-0. It was the first time a Canadian pitcher had pitched a no-hitter in Canada, and while Paxton had once been a high draft pick by the Jays, he had never signed with the organization, so his day of glory came as a visitor. On May 26th, Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies made a bid to imitate Paxton, taking a no-hitter into the 7th inning before a two-out single by Russell Martin, hitting just .157 at the start of the game, broke up the attempt. The month of May was a very poor one overall, as the Jays went 9-19 and finished the month in 4th place, 14 games back and virtually eliminated from postseason contention. Worse, they were playing listlessly, attendance was falling quickly at home games, and demands that they call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was terrorizing pitchers in AA by hitting over .400, were getting louder by the day.
The Jays finally showed some life in June, as on June 9th, they won a third straight game for the first time since May 1st. They were by no means demolishing opponents, however, as two of the wins had required extra innings - and in spite of their struggles otherwise, they were a remarkable 7-1 in extras - and they had all come against the lowly Baltimore Orioles, who were on their way to posting the worst record in team history. In fact, the third win had been the result of a "walk-off walk" issued to Luke Maile by Mychal Givens. The most positive sign was that they were now getting regular quality starts, giving the team a fighting chance every day, something that had been sorely lacking in the first couple of months. They completed a four-game sweep the next day with a 13-3 rout in which Curtis Granderson had a career-high 6 RBIs. They completed a season sweep of home games against the Orioles in mid-August, those wins coinciding with DH Kendrys Morales setting a new team record by homering in seven consecutive games. The Jays were also receiving some fine performances from recently called-up youngsters, specifically Ps Ryan Borucki, Thomas Pannone, and Justin Shafer, C Danny Jansen, OF Billy McKinney and IF Lourdes Gurriel, contributing to a bit of optimism in Toronto. However, this was short-lived as the O's then swept the Jays right back in the return series at Camden Yards on August 27-29. Worse, the Jays were the first team to be swept by the lowly Orioles that season. On August 31st, they got rid of two veterans, sending injured 3B Josh Donaldson to the Cleveland Indians and OF Granderson to the Milwaukee Brewers, both for minimal returns. In Donaldson's case, it was a bittersweet ending for a player who had been a team icon in their return to the postseason in 2015 and 2016, but his repeated injuries had soured relations with the team.
One of the few highlights of the season came in an otherwise meaningless game at home against the Rays on September 21st. The Jays went into the bottom of the 9th trailing 8-2 after another uninspiring performance, with the young relievers now making up the bullpen having allowed 5 runs in the 7th to apparently put the game out of reach. But then magic happened, and a bunch of rookies were in the middle of things: Dwight Smith Jr. and Rowdy Tellez led off the inning with back-to-back doubles and Jonathan Davis was hit by a pitch. After one out Danny Jansen hit a three-run homer. Kendrys Morales, the first non-rookie of the bunch, singled with two outs, and Gurriel followed with a game-tying two-run shot. Then the next batter, Justin Smoak completed the job with the Jays' third long ball of the inning, to give Toronto a stunning 9-8 win. For Tellez, the game was part of a fairy-tale first month in the majors. Overshadowed in the minors by Minor League Player of the Year Vladimir Guerrero Jr., he made the best of his first opportunity in the bigs by hitting a record 6 doubles in his first three games on September 5-7, and then continued to hit. He had blasted a homer earlier in the September 21st contest, and at the end of the day had 8 doubles and 2 homers and was hitting .385 after 14 games.
One of the major characteristic of the 2018 Blue Jays was how static they were. They rarely attempted to steal bases, with just 47 steals and 30 caught stealings, and were not into moving baserunners either. They recorded just 5 sacrifice bunts all season, the fewest ever by a major league team. What they did was sit and wait for extra-base hits: their 320 doubles and 215 long balls both ranked 3rd in the league, but these resulted in just 719 runs, placing them 10th, as they really were not good at doing much else with the bat.
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: J.A. Happ
- Gregor Chisholm: "New faces, vets give Blue Jays shot at playoffs: Health, starting pitching key for club to contend for Wild Card", mlb.com, March 11, 2018. 
- Gregor Chisholm: "Blue Jays showcase star-studded family ties: Lineup against Canadian Junior National Team dotted with sons of baseball luminaries", mlb.com, March 17, 2018. 
- Robert Macleod: "Locker room not all doom and gloom as Blue Jays play out the string", The Globe and Mail, September 20, 2018, p. B11.