Photo credit:Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports
The 2023 Blue Jays Season Retrospective – Part III: Vladdy wins the Home Run Derby, three trades with the St. Louis Cardinals, and more
By Evan Stack1 month ago
With 2023 winding to an end, let’s take this time to look back on the year that was for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Part I looked at Spring Training and the team’s exciting April and then Part II dug into the struggles with the American League East and Alek Manoah’s demotion to the Florida Complex League. In Part III, we’ve got Manoah’s return, the All-Star break, the trade deadline, and more!
A storyline-filled series in Detroit
It didn’t jump off the page when the 2023 schedule was released, but the final series of the 1st Half in Detroit proved to be one of the most riveting clashes of the season. All three of the games in the series had a storyline of their own, and it started with a much-anticipated return of Alek Manoah.
Manoah had spent the previous month in multiple levels of Toronto’s minor league system, making one start with the Florida Complex League Blue Jays and another one with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. With the FCL, Manoah pitched 2.2 innings, allowing 10 hits, 11 earned runs, two home runs, two walks, and striking out only three batters. Naturally, as soon as those stats were released, Manoah was subject to a lot of slander on social media. Of course, that game would be against the Yankees minor league complex affiliate, hence one of the loudest fan bases couldn’t wait to make their thoughts known.
Manoah rebounded in his one New Hampshire start, however, allowing three hits, one run, three walks, and ten strikeouts over five innings of work. That was all the Blue Jays needed to see, pencilling him in for a July 7th start against the Tigers. Manoah dazzled in that start, pitching six innings and allowing five hits, one run, no walks, and striking out eight. Toronto would win the game 12-2, marking his second win of the season and a lot of positivity heading into the All-Star break.
The vibes from Manoah’s start were quickly shot down, as the Blue Jays were the victim of the Tigers’ ninth no-hitter in franchise history one day later. They did draw three walks, but Toronto was unable to register one base hit against starter Matt Manning and relievers Jason Foley and Alex Lange.
Hilariously enough, Whit Merrifield hit a leadoff single in the series finale the next day, but it was a game in which the Blue Jays were held scoreless until the 7th inning. The Blue Jays trailed 3-1 entering the 9th, but Danny Jansen smoked a two-run home run to tie the game and send it to extra innings. This opened the door for Nathan Lukes, who arguably still hadn’t had his signature moment in the MLB yet, to drive in the winning run in the 10th inning.
Getting that win was a huge response to being no-hit the day before, and also very important heading into the All-Star break.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. wins the Home Run Derby
Record-wise, the 2019 season for the Blue Jays was not one to remember. However, we did get to see the next generation of Blue Jays – Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette – make their debuts, and it gave us a chance to be hopeful for future successes.
One of the memories we have of 2019 is Guerrero’s utter dominance of the Home Run Derby, a contest in which the rookie hit 91 total home runs and dropped the jaws of MLB players and fans alike. Unfortunately, he was ousted by Mets rookie Pete Alonso in the final round, but Guerrero’s performance has not and will not be forgotten.
He had a chance to redeem himself last year when he was named to the 2023 Home Run Derby bracket, facing Mookie Betts in the first round. Guerrero had no issue with Betts, defeating him 26-11, but his next two opponents presented daunting challenges. Julio Rodríguez, fresh off of a 41-homer round and swinging in front of his home fans and his home stadium, was next up. Rodriguez only put up 20 homers, a number that Guerrero was able to surpass during his 30-second bonus time.
Guerrero posted 25 homers in the championship round, but he had to watch anxiously as AL East foe Randy Arozarena tried to match or exceed that number. Arozarena struggled to start the round, and only had eight homers with one minute left. However, he smoked 13 homers in that minute, trailing 25-21 heading into his 30-second bonus time. Arozarena was only able to hit two home runs during that time period, and Guerrero had claimed his first Home Run Derby Championship.
Guerrero’s longest home run of the tournament was 456 feet, and his hardest exit velocity was 112 mph. Guerrero and his father, Vlad Sr., became the first father-son duo to win the Home Run Derby.
Hoping that his performance would spark his power once the regular season resumed, Guerrero homered in his first at-bat after the Derby against the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 14th. He is the first Derby champion to hit a home run in his first plate appearance after the All-Star break, and the fifth champ to homer in his first game back.
Guerrero, Whit Merrifield, Bo Bichette, and Kevin Gausman were all named All-Stars, however Gausman opted out of playing in the game. Jordan Romano was also named an All-Star, however he was the replacement for Framber Valdez of the Astros.
The Jay Jackson game
Maybe this is more of a personal preference to be throwing this game into this article, but Toronto’s 6-3 win on July 24th against the Dodgers was one of my favorites of the season. It was also a game that would not have been won without the clutch outs recorded by journeyman reliever Jay Jackson.
Jackson entered the game in the 9th inning with both teams tied at 3. Matt Chapman and Max Muncy had just traded solo home runs in the 8th inning, and the Dodgers had an opportunity to win the game in the 9th with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Will Smith due up. Jackson retired those three in order, and would also pitch a clean 10th inning while working around an intentional walk and a ghost runner at second.
The Blue Jays scored three runs in the top of the 11th to take a 6-3 lead, ultimately pinning Jackson as the winning pitcher of record. At that point in the season, it brought Jackson down to a 0.64 ERA through 10 appearances.
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This was just one of Toronto’s 89 wins, but helping secure a win at Chavez Ravine while facing one of the best top-of-the-orders in baseball and neutralizing them in the clutch earns some points in my book.
Trade deadline acquisitions & Bo Bichette’s injury
As the offence continued to prove inconsistent and the pitching staff continued to do the heavy lifting, it became obvious what the Blue Jays needed to look for as the trade deadline approached. At the same time, it also became obvious which team was willing to do business with the Jays.
In total, the Blue Jays made three moves with the St. Louis Cardinals that completed their deadline work, and although Toronto needed to focus on improving the offence, it didn’t stop them from acquiring two relief pitchers.
On July 21st, St. Louis traded recently DFA’d reliever Genesis Cabrera to the Blue Jays in exchange for minor league C Sammy Hernandez. Although the “stuff” was undoubtedly elite, Cabrera’s numbers were tainted by an elevated ERA (5.06), BB/9 (5.1), H/9 (9.0), and HR/9 (1.7). With the Blue Jays, Cabrera saw immediate success in all of those categories, posting a 2.66 ERA, 2.3 BB/9, 6.5 H/9, and 0.8 HR/9 through 23.2 innings in Toronto.
On July 30th, the Blue Jays acquired flamethrower Jordan Hicks in exchange for minor league pitchers Adam Kloffenstein and Sem Robberse. Similar to Cabrera, Hicks brought down his ERA, walks, and hits during his tenure in Toronto. While the strikeouts also took a dip, that is surely a price that the Blue Jays were OK with paying if Hicks could prevent runs. It still didn’t keep Blue Jays fans from seeing Hicks display his 100+ mph sinkers.
Through 24 innings in Toronto, Hicks posted a 2.63 ERA, 1.083 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, with a 3.0 BB/9.
On August 1st, the Blue Jays acquired shortstop Paul DeJong from the Cardinals in exchange for minor league pitcher Matt Svanson. Trading for DeJong was a quick pivot from what happened less than 24 hours prior to the deal; Bo Bichette suffered a right knee injury during a July 31st game against the Baltimore Orioles. Bichette rounded first base after a single to right field in the 3rd inning of the game, but he pulled up halfway to second base, realizing he might be out trying to turn it into a double. Unfortunately, he felt something in his knee, stopped, and was pulled from the game.
Fortunately, MRIs revealed no structural damage, and Bichette went to the 10-day IL with right knee patellar tendonitis. Bringing in DeJong was the short-term solution to Bichette’s absence, and with past success at the plate, DeJong had a chance to rebuild his value before his free agency during the upcoming offseason.
Following the deadline, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said, “A lot of the teams that speculated on potentially moving players didn’t…some of the players that were rumoured to be coming our way, or even available, didn’t seem to be as available to us. So, most of the deals today that were available to us were smaller in nature and more roster management.”
The legend of Davis Schneider begins
If you were disappointed or frustrated with the lack of offensive additions, there was an internal bat that had something to say about that. Enter Davis Schneider, a 24-year-old utility man who was called up to the major leagues on August 4th. In 87 games at AAA Buffalo, Schneider was batting .275/.416/.553 with a .969 OPS, 21 home runs, and 64 RBIs. The Blue Jays gave him a shot, and it really paid off.
Schneider made his major league debut on August 4th at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox. The Blue Jays had just lost three of four to the Orioles, and they had not beaten the Red Sox all season. With the Blue Jays already leading 2-0, Schneider came to the plate in the second inning against James Paxton, a pitcher he had faced before when Paxton was rehabbing in the minors. To the pleasure of Blue Jays fans everywhere, he homered in his first major league at-bat.
Throughout the three-game series in Boston, a series that Toronto swept, Schneider went 9-for-13 with two home runs, five RBIs, and a walk. Schneider went on a tear through the rest of the season, even adjusting to the high fastball, a pitch that he struggled with during his first several games. He turned into a bat that John Schneider couldn’t keep out of the lineup.
Schneider finished the season slashing .276/.404/.603 with a 1.008 OPS, 8 home runs, 20 RBIs, 12 doubles, and a triple.
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