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Betting on internal improvements, underwhelming off-season additions have created more questions than answers for struggling Blue Jays

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
21 days ago
Last winter, the Toronto Blue Jays doubled down on a roster that struggled to perform consistently and suffered a sweep in the post-season for the third time in four seasons — a gamble that has suddenly put their 2024 campaign at risk of falling to the wayside.
This franchise has reached a crisis point just two months into the season. At 24-29, the Blue Jays are firmly in the basement of the AL East, sitting 12 games back of first place with the slimmest of slim chances of catching the New York Yankees or Baltimore Orioles for top spot in the division. They have the fifth-worst record in the AL, behind the Houston Astros, Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Angels and Chicago White Sox.
Worst of all, Toronto has seen its playoff odds plummet to 17 per cent, placing serious doubt on the club’s ability to regain its post-season contender status.
Source: FanGraphs
The Blue Jays received a much-needed gift with this 13-game stretch versus sub-.500 opponents, a softer portion of the 162-game schedule that should’ve allowed them to pile up wins against lesser competition. Instead, they’re no better off than before it began after dropping three of four to the Detroit Tigers over the weekend.
If anything, their position in the standings has continued to worsen.
But how did we reach this point? Entering 2024, the Blue Jays were supposed to be riding alongside the Orioles and Yankees, competing for a division title — not fighting for their playoff lives in late May. However, avoiding a disastrous fate ahead of the July 30 trade deadline will be extremely difficult with how things have played out.
This roster has underperformed. That’s no secret. Only the starting rotation and a few surging offensive contributors have met or exceeded expectations early on. When the offence hasn’t shown up, the pitching has. But when the runs have come, the bullpen has, in most cases, failed to sail smoothly to the finish line — as evidenced in Sunday’s 14-11 meltdown in Motown.
It has been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act for the Blue Jays this season. There’s plenty of blame to go around for these prolonged struggles. The players, of course, are the ones impacting these games, while the coaching staff is responsible for putting them in positions to succeed. Roster construction, however, is firmly on a front office that, in retrospect, made an ill-advised bet six months ago.
After whiffing on Shohei Ohtani in free agency, internal improvements — a term most fans, if not all, are appalled by at this point — became last off-season’s theme for general manager Ross Atkins and his staff. Management felt this offence had more to give following its power outage. So, they essentially ran it back with the same lineup, hoping for a different outcome.
The Blue Jays swapped out Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt and Whit Merrifield for Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Justin Turner while re-signing Kevin Kiermaier, doubling down on the high-contact, low-strikeout identity they’ve favoured over the last few years. But instead of progressing forward from 2023, the offence has gone the other direction.
Through 53 games, Toronto sits tied with the Tampa Bay Rays — another scuffling lineup — and Pittsburgh Pirates for 23rd in runs scored per game at 3.96. Additionally, their offence is tied for 14th in wRC+ (100) and 19th in SLG (.378) while ranking 22nd in home runs (49) throughout the majors.
For context, this club finished tied for 14th in runs scored per game (4.6) last season, tied for seventh in wRC+ (107), 13th in SLG (.417) and 16th in home runs (188).
Many of the same issues that plagued the Blue Jays’ lineup a season ago remain in 2024. The situation has become even more dire, though, because their offensive production — and underlying metrics — have been even worse than a year ago. Who thought that was even possible? Certainly not the front office.
Promoting Don Mattingly to offensive coordinator was supposed to enhance Toronto’s hitting department, as was the addition of Matt Hague, who came well-regarded for his work in Buffalo last season. While there have been a small handful of success stories, such as Daulton Varsho and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. returning to form, plus continued production from Danny Jansen and Davis Schneider, other key contributors have struggled to deliver.
Bo Bichette, George Springer and Alejandro Kirk are three-fifths, with Guerrero and Varsho filling the remaining two spots, of a Blue Jays hitting core that desperately needed to lead the way in 2024. Two of those five are doing their part, while the others have not, at least as a whole.
Let’s start with Bichette. He’s been much better lately, hitting .365 with three home runs, a .571 SLG and a 179 wRC+ over his last 16 games. That has raised his overall wRC+ by 42 points. But, since he struggled immensely across the first six-plus weeks, he owns a 91 score on the year, placing him nine per cent below league average.
Then you have Springer and Kirk.
The former went 2-for-3 with a home run in his first-career start in the No. 7 hole on Monday but remains a mess offensively. He owns a career-worst 67 wRC+, his highest GB rate (53.4 per cent), his second-lowest pull percentage (35.1 per cent) and his lowest hard-hit rate (33.1 per cent) of the Statcast era (since 2015).
Kirk has also struggled to generate hard contact, as his 35.4-per-cent clip is a career-low. Regarded for his elite plate discipline, he carries a higher strikeout rate (13.3 per cent, career-high, excluding 2020) than walk rate (11.4 per cent). And his 10.1 per cent pop-up rate is, by far, the highest of his career.
It’s now consecutive seasons where those two have been below-average hitters, an indictment of Toronto’s revamped hitting department. Those struggles, however, have been magnified by the lack of production from three of the club’s off-season additions: Turner, Kiermaier and Daniel Vogelbach.
Most expected Kiermaier to regress from last season, although few probably guessed he’d be as bad as 20 per cent below league average per wRC+. Turner’s rough stretch has been the biggest surprise, though, especially given his early-season offensive surge. Now, amidst his current 3-for-46 skid, he and Vogelbach have paired as one of the worst DH duos in baseball, ranking 21st in SLG (.338) and 23rd in wRC+ (84).
Moreover, Turner’s 10 wRC+ is last out of 175 qualified big-league hitters since April 26, with Springer’s 33 score just a few spots ahead in 173rd.
The Blue Jays entered this season after an off-season where the front office didn’t acquire enough middle-of-the-order thump, and they’ve seemingly swung and missed on three DH types (Turner, Vogelbach, Joey Votto) thus far. That failure should be placed squarely on Atkins, who decided against signing one of the more impactful bats available at the time.
Adding insult to injury, many of the free-agent hitters this team was reportedly connected to have enjoyed promising starts.
HRRBIAVG/OBP/SLGwRC+
Matt Chapman (SFG)827.236/.306/.418110
Cody Bellinger (CHC)723.253/.324/.443114
Joc Pederson (ARI)616.303/.397/.538166
Rhys Hoskins (MIL)927.233/.340/.474133
J.D. Martinez (NYM)310.276/.317/.429118
Jorge Soler (SFG)615.212/.299/.37298
Another disadvantage to Turner and Vogelbach being on the roster is it means Spencer Horwitz — who’s raking in Buffalo to a .317/.433/.456 slash line and a 138 wRC+ — is likely stuck at triple-A as long as both remain with the team. And it doesn’t appear they’re ready to cut either loose just yet.
But the Blue Jays didn’t just bet on internal improvements and marginal free-agent additions last winter — they were also counting on the pitching staff repeating last season’s success. While that strategy may be paying off in the starting rotation, it hasn’t for a bullpen that enters Tuesday’s slate with a 28th-ranked ERA (4.95) and 30th FIP (5.00).
Home runs have been their biggest weakness this season. Granted, they were also a problem last year, as the ‘pen was tied for 20th in HR/9 (1.15). But balls have been flying out of the yard at a much higher frequency in 2024, courtesy of their MLB-worst 1.58 HR/9.
Part of the issue has been health — or a lack thereof. Jordan Romano and Erik Swanson started the year on the IL, and both probably returned sooner than they should have. Bowden Francis, Chad Green and Yariel Rodríguez have all missed considerable time, and even Yimi García — Toronto’s saviour in the ‘pen — was briefly unavailable due to a minor ailment.
Injuries, unfortunately, are a massive piece of the puzzle, especially for pitchers. As is volatility amongst relievers, which the Blue Jays have endured their fair share of through Romano, Swanson, Tim Mayza and Génesis Cabrera — all of whom have struggled mightily compared to ’23.
While Nate Pearson and Zach Pop have thrown valuable innings, they’ve had to assume roles outside their typical comfort zones of low-to-middle-leverage situations out of necessity.
Toronto’s triple-A pitching depth also hasn’t been as dependable as several perceived it to be heading into the year, as injuries and inconsistent performances have held back a wave featuring top pitching prospect Ricky Tiedemann, Chad Dallas, Hagen Danner, Connor Cooke, Mason Fluharty and Hayden Juenger.
In fairness, the Blue Jays probably couldn’t have predicted all these blows to their pitching staff occurring within the first few months of the season. Still, other teams have had depth crises like this in past seasons, and that’s why management should’ve done more to shore up the back end of the ‘pen, even after inking a versatile arm like Rodríguez.
The areas of need are simple for this team. They need another power bat or two and a late-inning shutdown arm. Now, those are items that should be available around the trade deadline. But to be in a position of buying rather than selling, the wins need to start coming in bunches — like immediately.
If not, we’ll likely look back to the shortcomings of last winter as possibly Atkins’ biggest regret.

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