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Steve Phillips

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On Thursday afternoon, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported a story from the MLB owners’ meetings that the Tampa Bay Rays have been given approval from commissioner Rob Manfred to explore a plan that would have their team play the first part of their season in Tampa and the rest of the year in Montreal. 

The Rays have been unable to find the pathway to a new stadium in the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. Their current lease at Tropicana Field runs through 2027. 

The idea behind this plan is that splitting the Rays season between these two locations will allow the team to enjoy the best weather conditions in Tampa and Montreal without needing a domed stadium in either city. For the plan to work though, new stadiums would have to be built in both locations. That seems to be less of a problem in Montreal than in Tampa. 

Last month, a group in Montreal led by Stephen Bronfman (son of original Expos owner Charles Bronfman) and businessman Mitch Garber reached an agreement with a developer on a site to potentially build a new stadium for a possible MLB team.  

Of course, there are so many logistical and practical questions that would have to be answered. What would the team be called? Which city would be reflected on the front of the home jerseys? How would you get free agents to join your team knowing their families will have to relocate during the season? Where would the team’s playoff games be played? Would the administrative staff in Tampa relocate or would there be a completely different staff in Montreal?  

The most obvious hurdle: How does a city rationalize being 100 per cent in on a new stadium when the Rays and MLB are only 50 per cent in on their side? If the Rays can’t get a stadium built to house their team for a full season, why would a municipality in Florida build a stadium for a half-season?  

Think about it this way: If this is such a good idea, why isn’t anybody else doing it? As a long-term plan, it’s flawed. It’s not possible to build two fully committed fan bases for the same team in two cities. This structure will create two half-committed fan bases, which doesn’t add up to one in this case. It adds up to something less. So, there must be some other motivation behind it. 

Here’s what I really believe is going on: The Rays and MLB realize they can’t get a new stadium in the Tampa area, so they’re starting the transition. They will eventually play half the games in Tampa and half in Montreal. Bronfman’s group will buy a minority ownership stake in the club and oversee the construction of a new stadium in Montreal. The Rays will continue to push for a new facility in Tampa to match what Montreal is creating. There won’t be a commitment for a new stadium in Florida by the time the lease runs out in 2027, at which time the club will make an outright move to Montreal. 

This plan ensures that the Rays won’t have to wait until 2027 to decide to relocate and then wait for the construction of a new facility. They will have a home waiting for them and a fan base that is already connected to the team. It’s brilliant.  

Confident Gurriel Jr. crushing the ball

The Blue Jays player development staff deserves a ton of credit for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. looking like a much more confident player now than he did when he was demoted to the minor leagues two months ago. 

Gurriel was a mess mentally and emotionally when the Jays optioned him to the minor leagues on April 15. He wasn’t hitting (.175/.250/.275) and he was having significant issues trying to make throws from second base. He had started to get the “yips.”  

He was recalled to the major-league roster on May 24 and he looks like himself again. Gurriel is crushing the ball at the plate, raising his offensive numbers to a slash line of .276/.333/.561. He’s using the whole field and driving the ball to the gaps.  

The most impressive aspect of his return to the majors is that he came back as an outfielder. He played seven games in the minors as a left fielder to be better prepared and has since played 24 games in left field in the majors. He has shown himself to be a more than adequate outfielder. His routes and breaks are pretty good for a novice and he has already thrown out four baserunners who tried to test his arm.  

Gurriel doesn’t ultimately profile as a corner outfielder because he doesn’t have 30-home run power. Ideally his value is highest if he becomes the super-sub for manager Charlie Montoyo. That would mean that he would have to be able to make throws as an infielder again. I don’t want to give up hope about that just yet. He can overcome the mental challenges and throw again. The one thing for certain is that he is part of the solution in Toronto.

Stroman in position to be traded

Marcus Stroman continues to pitch well and put himself in a position to be dealt at the trade deadline.

Despite his 4-9 record, he has a 3.23 ERA. In 94.2 innings pitched he has allowed 91 hits and 28 walks while striking out 71 batters. His power sinkerball has led to another high rate of ground-ball outs. He had had 10 quality starts (six-plus innings allowing three or fewer earned runs) in his 16 games started. His name continues to be at the forefront of the trade rumour mill.

After his last start against the Los Angeles Angels, Stroman was resigned to the fact that his days in Toronto are numbered. I heard a level of acceptance in his comments. He finally realizes what he has control of and what he doesn’t. He sounds like a mature veteran player who has a handle on his emotions. It’s an impressive sign of growth and progress. 

It may just be that has found a new target to direct his emotions and motivation. Instead of creating a villain, he is courting potential teams in the trade market. Again, it’s something he has no control over ¬– other than the better he pitches, the more he will be coveted by teams. In the end, we all just want to be wanted and appreciated. 

The starting pitching trade market is a moving target right now. There are a number of different categories that pitchers fall into:

No. 1 starters: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Trevor Bauer, Indians
No. 2-No. 3 starters: Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays; Madison Bumgarner, Giants; Noah Syndergaard, Mets
No. 3-No. 4 starters: Mike Minor, Rangers; Matt Boyd, Tigers; Zach Wheeler, Mets
No. 4-No. 5 starters: Tanner Roark, Reds; Jordan Lyles. Pirates; Danny Duffy, Royals; Andrew Cashner, Orioles; Mike Leake, Mariners

There is uncertainty as to whether the Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians would trade Scherzer and Bauer respectively. It would benefit the Jays if neither was on the market because it would propel Stroman to the top of most teams’ wish list, which would translate into a good return for the Jays. If the Nats and Indians do trade their starters, then the Jays will have to wait to make their deal on Stroman. He is clearly a Plan B guy alongside Bumgarner.  

The only other strategy that might work for Toronto is to dangle Stroman out there right now. If the Jays let teams know they’re going to move him in the next week, before the Nationals and Indians decide on Scherzer and Bauer, it would create a sense of urgency that wouldn’t be there once the two aces are on the market. If teams aren’t sure they can get the No. 1 starters, they might be inclined to move on Stroman because if they lose out on him they might have to settle for a lower-tier pitcher.  

I expect the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies and the Rays to all inquire on Stroman and the other available starters.                                                         

SPITTING SEEDS

-The rich get richer as the Yankees added former Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion in a trade last weekend with the Seattle Mariners. Encarnacion is leading the American League in home runs and is still one of the most feared run-producers in the league. He came at a fairly cheap price considering that the Yankees only sent the 27th-ranked prospect to Seattle. It isn’t like the Yankees had a gaping hole in their lineup that needed to be filled. They were still scoring plenty of runs despite the injuries to Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. Stanton is back from the injured list and Judge should be back soon. Adding another big run producer, however, protects them in case they can’t add a quality starting pitcher. They have built in more margin for error offensively for their pitching staff. Yet, there was nothing about this deal that will limit them from making a deal for a starter. They gave up very little for Encarnacion and still have a stockpile of talent at the minor league level. 

-Nationals starter Scherzer cemented himself, in my mind, as the toughest guy in the game. He fouled a bunt attempt into his face in batting practice and broke his nose on Tuesday afternoon and still made his scheduled start on Wednesday. He already has heterochromia, the condition where a person has different coloured eyes. He has one blue eye and one brown eye, and now he has a black eye, too. He looked intimidating on the mound. He pitched with energy and vigour and delivered seven shutout innings, striking out 10 in a 2-0 win, as part of a doubleheader sweep over the Phillies. In fact, the average velocity of his four-seam fastball in his game on Wednesday was the third highest of his career. He is an inspiration. Over his last six games, he is 4-0 with a 0.88 ERA. He has struck out 59 and walked only 8 in 41 innings pitched. He is trying to carry his team back in the NL East race. He can pitch for my team anytime. 

-The most underrated rookie this season is Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds. He was a second-round pick by the San Francisco Giants in 2016 out of Vanderbilt University. He was traded from the Giants in January of 2018 in the deal that sent outfielder Andrew McCutchen from Pittsburgh to San Francisco. Reynolds has hit over .300 at every level of the minor leagues and has carried that over to the majors. He’s currently leading rookies (with at least 150 plate appearances) with a .362 batting average and .418 OBP and is fourth in slugging as well. He’s a switch-hitter who has a great swing from both sides of the plate and has a chance to be a batting champion someday.