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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider


The surging Toronto Blue Jays have won eight straight games and 11 of their last 12. The winning streak started on the last game of a series against the Baltimore Orioles in Toronto, then picked up steam with a three-game sweep of the Oakland A’s – one of the teams that were in front of the Jays in the wild-card race.

After beating Oakland, the Jays went on the road to New York and swept the Yankees in a four-game series for the first time since 2003. The Jays out-homered the Yankees 11-2 in the series and never trailed in any of the four games. It is the first time that the Yankees never had a lead in a four-game series since 1924. 

The Jays have leap-frogged the Mariners and A’s during the winning streak and find themselves within a half-game of the Yankees for the second wild-card spot and 1.5 games behind the Red Sox.

The Jays now head to Baltimore to take on the lowly Orioles, playing four games in three days. The Yankees play the Mets on the road and the Red Sox go to Chicago to play the White Sox. There is a real chance by Monday that the Jays could be the top team in the wild-card race. They will throw Robbie Ray, Hyun Jin Ryu and Steven Matz in the series, all of whom were outstanding in their last outings.

George Springer may be back in the lineup over the weekend, having recovered enough from his knee bruise. He will join a red-hot lineup where every player has gotten a big hit during the win streak. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has heated up again after pedestrian month of August. He is currently one homer behind Shohei Ohtani for the AL lead, just four RBI behind Jose Abreu and Salvador Perez, and leads the AL in batting average. The Triple Crown watch is back on.

The best news of all is that the Jays have the best starting pitching ERA in the AL since the All-Star break and the bullpen has stabilized with four or five solid options for manager Charlie Montoyo. This gives Toronto the ability to win even if the offence isn’t clicking.

What seemed like a nearly impossible task now appears more than doable. The Jays are back in it and have their destiny in their own hands.

Eight is great but nine is better.


Making the money work for Ray, Semien

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Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien continue to reinforce their values as the two best free-agent signings from last off-season.

Ray threw six shutout innings against the A’s last Sunday and is now 11-5 with an AL-best 2.60 ERA. He is tied with Yankee starter Gerrit Cole with the best WHIP (0.99) and is second to Cole in strikeouts and opponents’ batting average. Semien has hit six homers and driven in 13 runs in the past seven games. He now hitting .272/.342/.547 with 38 home runs, 99 runs scored and 90 RBI.

Both players have been huge parts of the Jays’ success this season, particularly the team’s recent push back into the wild-card race.

I wrote last week that the Jays have a very good chance to resign both players this off-season as they head back to free agency. The Jays’ payroll is currently about $149 million, which includes about $27 million in retained salaries of players no longer with the team. This includes Tanner Roark, Troy Tulowitzki, Shun Yamaguchi, Tyler Chatwood, Brad Hand, Joe Panik, Tommy Milone, Jonathan Davis and a few other smaller contracts. That money will clear off the books at the end of this season, which means the front office will be building off a $122 million payroll. 

There will be an increase because of the arbitration process for Guerrero (Arb 1), Danny Jansen (Arb 1), Trevor Richards (Arb 1), Teoscar Hernandez (Arb 2), Tim Mayza (Arb 2), Adam Cimber (Arb 2), Jose Berrios(Arb 3), A.J. Cole (Arb 3), and Ross Stripling (Arb 3). That could bump the payroll by about $25 million. Of course, the Jays can make decision to not retain some of those players and non-tender them. The arbitration increase effectively takes over the money identified above on players who are no longer there. 

There is plenty of payroll flexibility still available, whether the new collective bargaining agreement has a luxury tax threshold of $185 million, as was recently proposed by the owners, or remains at the current $210 million.

Semien signed a one-year deal with the Jays for $18 million last off-season. That is good news because his salary is already a line item in the budget. His number is already included in the payroll numbers above.

His value in free agency will be interesting. Teams that need a shortstop and/or a second baseman will consider him, but the market is likely to include a tremendous pool of other infielders like Rockies SS Trevor Story, Astros SS Carlos Correa, Dodgers SS Corey Seager, Mets SS/2B Javier Baez and 2B/3B Eduardo Escobar.

The Yankees retained infielder DJ LeMahieu last off-season for $90 million over six years. He is a year older than Semien. It is completely reasonable to believe that the Jays can resign Semien for six years at $108 million. This keeps his line item in the budget the same as it is now.

Ray is making $8 million this season. The Jays will certainly extend the qualifying offer to him if that is still an option under the new CBA. The Jays have an in with Ray since he flourished under their employment and readily acknowledges how much pitching coach Pete Walker has helped him. He will be inclined to listen intently. It is going to take a big raise.  He will cost in the range of $20 million a year for five or six years.
There is plenty of room available to keep this roster and watch it grow. And there is also room to sign their young core to contract extensions with gradual increases similar to their arbitration and then free agent values. The Jays will win, and they will draw big attendance numbers. The money will be there. Spend money wisely to make money abundantly.


Spitting Seeds

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- The San Diego Padres have fought their way back into the second NL wild-card spot, but it seems highly unlikely they will stay there. They don’t have another game against a sub-.500 team for the rest of the season. They have 10 games against the San Francisco Giants, six against the Los Angeles Dodgers, four against the Atlanta Braves, and three against the St. Louis Cardinals. That is an impossible gauntlet through which to run to the playoffs.

- The Commissioner’s Office moved quickly to refute claims made by Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe that MLB told the team to stop testing for COVID-19 because of the club’s outbreak, which has led to nine positive tests and 11 others who have been quarantined due to close contact. Renfroe made the claim during a radio interview, and it spread like wildfire. League sources have said, “He (Renfroe) is completely wrong and inaccurate.” The Red Sox responded as well by clarifying that they have followed the league’s health and safety protocols all season long. I can’t imagine how Renfroe’s claims can be true as MLB and the MLBPA have been in lockstep on these issues.

- I don’t think there have ever been three better speeches given by players at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown. Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons showed why they were great players and leaders on the field and high-character men off the field. I was struck by the importance that Jeter attached to meeting Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson and all-time great Henry Aaron. Remarkably, basketball icons Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing were in attendance to support Jeter. Simmons acknowledged the coaches who impacted his career as well as the role that fellow inductee, former MLBPA president, Marvin Miller, had on the game.  Larry Walker humbly thanked all those who helped him along the way and showed he has never forgotten his Canadian roots and his start in the Montreal Expos organization.  It was a fantastic ceremony.