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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider


The Toronto Blue Jays just completed a stretch of 15 games, going 7-8, in which they played the American League Central Division-leading Chicago White Sox as well as the lowly Washington Nationals, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles.

They split the four games against the White Sox and there is no shame in that. But the Jays went just 5-6 against the other three clubs that are a combined 159-240 this season. The Jays are clearly better than these teams. It was a lost opportunity to make up ground in the AL wild-card race with just 30 games left to play in their season. 

Toronto is now faced with the daunting task of making up five games in the AL wild-card race, with three teams – the Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners – in front of them while playing just one of those teams during their remaining 30 games. The Jays (70-62) square off against the A’s (74-60) for a pivotal three-game series starting tonight at Rogers Centre. 

The Red Sox, who blanked the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays 4-0 Thursday to improve to 77-59, currently hold the final wild-card spot with a two-game lead over the A’s and a four-game lead over the Mariners (72-62). I believe it is going to take at least 90 wins to earn the second wild-card spot. That means Toronto would have to go 20-10 to get to October baseball. It can be done but it is a very narrow path. The New York Yankees (77-56) hold the first wild-card spot.

The underperforming Jays will have to play at a level that they haven’t reached all season. They won 16 games in August (16-14) which is the most they have won in a month all season. But that won’t be good enough to get them into the postseason.

At some point, the Jays’ front office will have to dissect why their club’s run differential didn’t translate into more wins in 2021. Outscoring their opponents by several runs (117 entering play Friday) should have translated into many more wins.   

For much of the 2021 season, the Jays’ pitching simply wasn’t good enough, but in July (3.84 ERA, seventh best in the majors) and August (3.49 ERA, sixth best in MLB) it was very good. However, the team’s offence could muster just 12 and 16 wins respectively during those summer months. When the pitching was bad, the offence was good, and when the pitching was good, the offence was not good.

The Jays will need to add some better pitchers as they move forward over the next couple of years. This season has also shown that their young hitters had some more developing to do at the big-league level. There is no perfect baseball team. The Jays are a good team. They are better than their record indicates. 

As for the rest of this season, it will take a herculean effort for them to pull this off and grab a wild-card spot. The Jays can do it and if they do, we will be talking about it for years to come. 

Jays can’t let Ray get away

One of the many decisions the Jay will have to make this off-season is what to do with free agent starting pitcher Robbie Ray.

Unfortunately, the Jays only signed Ray to a one-year deal for a measly $8 million last fall. He has outpitched his contract significantly. On Thursday, Ray was named AL pitcher of the month for August after recording a 1.76 ERA in six starts, giving up just 27 hits and allowing eight walks.

Certainly, the Jays will offer Ray a qualifying offer in the off-season to ensure draft pick compensation, if that is still an option in the new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA is set to expire Dec. 1 but it’s premature to speculate on what the rules will be moving forward.

Nevertheless, Toronto will still have interest in the soon-to-be 30-year-old Ray and know they will have to pay him what he deserves to keep him. 

Ray’s value will be in the vicinity of five years and $100 million. Teams that aren’t certain whether they should believe in the new and improved version of the left-hander will have to look no further than how the Jays treat him. Once Toronto is aggressive in their pursuit of Ray, it will signal to everyone that the change in his effectiveness is real. Toronto knows him better than everyone else. Once they are all in, others will follow. 

It will behoove the Jays to try to sign Ray quickly like they did last fall. They need to get him in the fold before he can even consider going anywhere else. I believe his improvement is real and I would spend the money on him. The Jays have the financial flexibility to re-sign Ray. 

Mets continue to spiral

What a week for the New York Mets. What a year it has been for the Mets – on and off the field. 

Hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen, who bought the Mets last fall from the Wilpon family, must be wondering what he has gotten himself into.

So far in 2021, his new club has hired and fired one general manager – Jared Porter – who was fired by Cohen in January for sending explicit texts to a female reporter in 2016 while he was working for the Chicago Cubs. 

His superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was signed to a 10-year, $341-million contract extension in the spring, has struggled miserably and has even been booed by Mets fans.

His team (66-67) was in first place in the NL East for 90 days until they lost ace starter Jacob deGrom to a forearm strain in early July and the offence seemed to disappear. Now, they are five games behind the Atlanta Braves and in third place after a 4-3 win over the Miami Marlins Thursday, their fourth straight victory. The Braves (71-62) beat the Colorado Rockies 6-5 late Thursday.

This week, things got worse for Cohen. Several Mets players, including Lindor and July trade acquisition Javier Baez, decided it was a good idea to celebrate big hits during their home game with a thumbs-down motion. They said it was their way of booing their fans for booing them. 

It was bad enough that they came up with the idea, but then Baez, acquired from the Cubs at the trade deadline, decided to tell the media what their hand gestures meant. The fans didn’t handle that very well. So, needless to say, the week started with a firestorm. 

On Monday night, Cohen had a get-together at his home in Greenwich, Conn., with Mets players and executives and some Mets alumni. It was a function to raise money for the billionaire’s foundation and the club’s acting general manager, Zack Scott, was in attendance as well.

The function ended at about 9 p.m. The only reason that is important is because Scott was arrested at 4:15 a.m., after he had fallen asleep in his vehicle at a traffic light in front of a courthouse in White Plains, N.Y. 

On Thursday, the Mets placed Scott on administrative leave after his arrest on charges of driving while intoxicated. He has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court on Oct. 7.

The Mets have had their share of bad weeks over the years.

You can go back to the Mets teams of the 1980s that always seemed to have problems, both on and off the field. Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry had well-documented off-field issues. The players got in a fight in a Houston night club. In the 90s, Vince Coleman shot off fireworks outside Dodger Stadium, Bobby Bonilla got in the face of writers and Bret Saberhagen squirted bleach on the media.

In my time as Mets general manager, we had our fair share of problems as well.  Some of those problems were my doing. For some reason, these issues have plagued the Mets for decades. It’s hard to understand why exactly, but I think in some ways the Mets feel like they’re the “other team” in New York, the second team after the storied Yankees. 

It’s almost as if the Mets are the junior varsity team and the star-studded Yankees are the varsity team with a rich history and tradition in their favour. 

Late owner George Steinbrenner was larger than life. His Yankees had their issues over the years with Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. Ricky Henderson’s time in the Bronx was chaotic to say the least. Since the early 1990s, however, the Yankees have been, for the most part, turmoil-free. Winning cures most problems and they have done a lot of winning.

I also believe many of the problems the Mets have dealt with over the years seem to be a result of their emotional immaturity. Mets players have done some very immature things over the years. 

This is also a self-incrimination. I know, now, I wasn’t healthy enough or mature enough to handle running a major sports team and sustain success. We had a few good years and made it to the 2000 World Series, but the pressures of doing it again were too much.

It is hard to explain what it’s like being in the fishbowl of New York with huge expectations. It strips you bare and if you aren’t mature enough to handle success and/or failure, it can eat you up.

It seems to me that the Yankees have had grown-ups running their team for the last few decades.

Gene Michael gave them stability when Steinbrenner was suspended. Former GM Bob Watson, who took over for ‘Stick’ Michael, was a man’s man. He was a slugger as a player and a well-respected executive. Brian Cashman was very young when he became GM, but he had a confidence level that is extraordinary. He trusted others and himself in a way that I know I couldn’t. Joe Torre took over as manager as a well-travelled baseball man who was comfortable in his own skin and could just be himself. His calmness in turmoil showed maturity and strength. Joe Girardi was much the same way as Torre. Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada were all very mature men on the field who created expectations for the behaviour of others.

Cohen and his right-hand man, team president  Sandy Alderson, need to do a better job of vetting both their front-office candidates and their players in the future. Maturity would be one key quality I would look for in anyone who wants to be a part of the Mets.