TORONTO — What isn’t happening with the Toronto Blue Jays?
Not only are they one of the more entertaining teams in baseball on the field these days — for better or worse sometimes — there’s also the potential for major roster changes over the next two weeks, a monster statistical season from a 22-year-old all-star to follow, and, of course, that long-awaited return to Toronto that’s in the offing.
Heading into the second half three games above .500 and firmly tucked into — at the very least — the American League wild-card race, the Jays have managed to keep their head above water and stay within striking distance with 75 games to go.
Whether they’re a team ready to go on a run or a young ballclub that will use this season as a learning experience in 2022 is a debate with no wrong answer at this point.
There’s two and a half months of baseball left for that to play out and no shortage of major storylines surrounding this organization heading into the second half.
THE RETURN TO TORONTO
The Jays made it clear this week they’ve once again started pursuing a National Interest Exemption with the federal government to skirt the remaining border protocols and return to Rogers Centre for the start of a 10-game homestand on July 30.
Time is obviously tight, and the club was hoping to get a decision by today (June 16), which would give them two weeks to mobilize and work through all the logistical issues, as well as get the MLBPA to sign off on a modified quarantine that would see unvaccinated players and staff on both teams quarantine inside the stadium footprint.
A decision is coming soon, but if the door closes on July 30, the Jays’ next homestand starts on Aug. 20, which seems like a very reasonable date and timeline for all parties involved.
As we learned last July when the Jays waited until the final minute for a decision from the feds, public health and politics matter, so there are a lot of variables at play and loose ends to tie up.
The cancellation of a game between the Yankees and Red Sox on Thursday night due to positive COVID tests likely didn’t help speed up a decision.
THE TRADE DEADLINE
While Jays president/CEO Mark Shapiro is focused on getting his club back into Rogers Centre for a game for the first time since Sept. 2019, GM Ross Atkins has exactly two weeks to tweak his roster for the stretch drive.
The Jays jumped out ahead of the pack in a low-key way recently by adding bullpen depth in Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards, but more is needed if playing deep into October is the goal.
It’s hard to predict which players will truly be on the market leading into the July 30 trade deadline, but sellers are starting to emerge, led by the Chicago Cubs.
Third baseman Kris Bryant and closer Craig Kimbrel are clean fits with the Jays, but the price will be high and there will be competition, likely from a pair of long-time AL East rivals.
An impact starter, a late-inning reliever, a left-handed bat, and a third baseman with some versatility are all scribbled on Atkins’ shopping list.
THE TRIPLE CROWN CHASE
As the second half gets underway Friday, here’s where Vladimir Guerrero Jr. stands in the triple crown race:
First in batting average: .332 (Michael Brantley second at .326).
First in RBI: 73 (Rafael Devers second at 72).
Second in home runs: 28 (Shohei Ohtani first at 33).
Even though this is a chase that usually doesn’t happen often, something tells me Vladdy Jr. will make this a conversation a lot more regularly than we’re used to, and he’s got a great chance to turn the trick in 2021.
The hit tool is elite, giving him as good a chance as anyone to claim the batting title, especially with the way he’s been controlling his at-bats and finding that one elusive good pitch to hit in every plate appearance.
With how good this Jays lineup is, the RBI will be there.
Catching Ohtani might be the toughest task.
THE POSTSEASON RACE
If the first three go the Jays’ way — they return home, add talent at the deadline and Vladdy becomes the club’s first-ever Triple Crowner — this one might fall into place.
With the way the four AL East contenders are positioned roster-wise, the next couple of weeks will be crucial and telling as far as who is all-in, but there’s a very good chance the wild-cards aren’t settled until the final week of the season.
The Jays will see the Yankees seven times and the Rays six times in September alone, and also have a key three-game set with the contending Oakland A’s to start the final month of the season.
Amazingly, 10 of 15 teams in AL have 45 or more wins heading into the second half, leaving a lot of teams with dreams of contention at this point.
This September could be reminiscent of 2016, when the Jays had to fight tooth and nail on the final weekend of the season to claim their wild-card berth.