Unexpected factors plaguing Blue Jays as the season nears midway point

Toronto Blue Jays v Texas Rangers
Toronto Blue Jays v Texas Rangers / Ron Jenkins/GettyImages

Things haven’t gone according to plan for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2023 season, approaching the halfway mark.

Like any team, question marks were heading into the campaign: How will Yusei Kikuchi return from an ugly second half that included a demotion to the bullpen? Fellow starter José Berríos was almost as big of a concern, having led the AL in both hits and earned runs allowed in 2022.

There were also some anxieties about the bench, the bullpen’s ability to accumulate strikeouts, and the health histories of veterans like Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer. With a sizeable sample size available, it’s fair to say those pre-season worries haven’t come to fruition and aren’t the reason for the poorer-than-expected results so far.

Kikuchi has surrendered an MLB-high 19 home runs but has also pitched to a 6-2 record with a 4.31 ERA, numbers any Jays fan would happily take heading into late June. Berríos has bounced back wonderfully, going 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA over his last eight starts before Monday night.

However, Alek Manoah, the Opening Day starter and supposed staff ace, has regressed horribly, going 1-7 with a 6.36 before being demoted to the Florida Complex League in Dunedin. While the reset button on Manoah’s career had to be pushed, it has left the team in shambles, particularly regarding pitching depth.

With no worthy starters at Triple-A, Bowden Francis was called up and has teamed with Trevor Richards and Mitch White to deliver some bulk out of the bullpen. While the results of that trio have been varied, the situation has also forced the likes of Yimi García and Adam Cimber into high-leverage roles, which seems ill-suited given the considerable drop in the effectiveness of those two.

Overall, thanks to the arrival of Erik Swanson, the re-emergence of Nate Pearson, and the revival of Richards, the bullpen ranks second in the majors in SO/9 with 10.35.

While the bench has had its ups and downs, Danny Jansen and Cavan Biggio lead the squad in home run percentage, and the latest call-up Spencer Howitz had a sparkling debut in his first MLB game on Sunday.

The biggest surprise thus far must be the relative power outage of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He has nine home runs, all on the road and just two over his last 25 games, including one hit-off Rays outfielder Luke Raley.

In that stretch of games, the 24-year-old is hitting .265 with two doubles and a .686 OPS. He’s also compounded that by making mistakes on the basepaths, including a pair of miscues during the series in Texas. He appears to be pressing and likely misses the more friendly confines of the dugout of the last couple of seasons, flanked by friends Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

The trades involving those players improved the bullpen and run prevention. The environment is more serious after the abolishment of the home run jacket, one in which Vladdy has not thrived.

The objective of the offseason re-tooling was obvious; upgrade the bullpen, improve the outfield defense, and add more versatility to the lineup. All three of those goals has been met, and instead it’s been a series of unforeseen developments that have plagued this team.