Three years ago, the Blue Jays hosted the Orioles in the AL Wild Card game, a pair of 89-win teams who outpaced the “rebuilding” Yankees while the Sox won their first of three straight division titles.
How quickly can times change? Chris Davis hit 38 home runs for Baltimore in 2016. Reigning MVP Josh Donaldson was fourth in the ’16 AL race for Toronto, just ahead of Manny Machado. The Jays’ staff was the AL’s best, posting a 3.78 ERA with first-year starter Marcus Stroman bringing up the rear.
Jose Bautista had his last great season, capped by slugging the first of three home runs in an extra-inning classic most notable for who didn’t pitch in it.
The Jays won another round that season, then went quietly in the ALCS to Cleveland. The next year, the two flocks slid in concert down the AL East: 76 wins for Toronto, 75 for Baltimore. You know how the Orioles cratered last season, but you might have missed the 2019 Jays are themselves racing toward 100 losses even after getting a chance to party on Thursday night.
Why do I bring all this up? To marvel at how quickly it all turned, mostly, for both of them. Baltimore’s complete collapse in a lot of ways obscures Toronto’s, which went from back-to-back ALCS trips in 2015-16 to a couple 70-odd win seasons and something likely worse. Thursday night ended a seven-game home losing streak for the Jays, and was just the team’s sixth victory in its last 22.
Even understanding that that 2016 team was the end of a run, with Edwin Encarnacion hitting free agency and Bautista’s magic ending, the nosedive has been striking.
The Blue Jays (27-48) now come to Boston and follow the three here with three in New York, their AL East rivals back to being heavyweights who’ll welcome their arrival. These Jays slapped around Chris Sale in the Sox home opener; he figures to get some revenge on Friday, given he’s held hitters to a .171/.232/.307 line in his 11 starts dating to April 23 — 116 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings, if you were curious — and the Blue Jays as a whole are hitting a scarcely better .217/.282/.387 against everybody in that same stretch.
Three of baseball’s 32 worst regular hitters (by wRC+, anyway) are on Toronto: Randal Grichuk, who’s been having this kind of year, all year; Rowdy Tellez, whose OPS (.710) as a DH/1B matches that of the average second baseman, baseball’s least offensive position; and Freddy Galvis, the shortstop whose .714 OPS — Xander Bogaerts, for comparison, is second among AL shortstops with a .928 — would represent the best of his eight-year career.
The pitching is better, especially with closer Ken Giles coming off the injured list this week, but is limited. Lightning rod Marcus Stroman (4-9, 3.23) goes on Sunday afternoon against Rick Porcello, rookie Trent Thornton (2-5, 4.36) draws the Sale straw on Friday, and they’ll use an opener on Saturday. (Their only other regular starter is Aaron Sanchez, the 15-2 wunderkind of that 2016 team, who’s allowing 10 hits and five walks per nine innings this season. He’ll miss the Sox this time around.)
All this ignores, of course, the names you now think of with the Blue Jays. This will be Fenway Park’s first taste of not only young Vlad Guerrero Jr., but of Cavan Biggio, the son of Hall of Famer Craig whose plate discipline is already among the best in the majors. (His .203/.349/.449 slash line 22 games into his career gets a big boost from 16 walks.) They were part of a headline attraction with Bo Bichette during their time at Double-A Manchester (N.H.), and they’re certainly among the best things going at Rogers Centre at the moment.
Boston’s grinder of a schedule stretch finished up in Minnesota, their 33 games in 34 days producing an 18-15 record after they won 11 of the final 17. (The aforementioned Bogaerts hit .347 with 20 extra-base hits in that run, turning his sixth-place standing in All-Star voting all the more criminal.) Now comes the breather, which includes 10 of the next 21 games against these Blue Jays, seven of those at Fenway Park — Toronto, just 14-23 on the road this year, lost 8 of 9 in Boston a year ago.
The inference here is clear: Make the most of these against a team that treats itself like a small-market squad despite playing in North America’s fourth-largest city. The Jays (at 26.6 years old) have the lowest average position-player age of any team in the majors and the lowest 25-man payroll. They could, with more payroll flexibility than anyone in the division, quickly throw their weight around and threaten the Boston-Gotham megalopolis as early as next year.
That’s a potential problem for later. Their current state, and the Red Sox start, stresses the importance of making hay now. This is a beatable team, and Alex Cora’s improving squad needs to keep piling on to stay in touch with New York.