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Lots to look forward to in the season's second half for the Jays

Toronto Blue Jays Vlad Guerrero Jr. 3B (27) hits a grounder for a double In the ninth inning in Toronto on Friday April 26, 2019.
Toronto Blue Jays Vlad Guerrero Jr. 3B (27) hits a grounder for a double In the ninth inning in Toronto on Friday April 26, 2019.

While Vlad Guerrero Jr. was hitting out 91 home runs in his all-star derby delight on Monday, other Blue Jays were getting as far away from the action as possible — or at least attempting to.

Social media tells us that Justin Smoak was doing his favourite down-time activity, landing a massive fish in Charleston, S.C., and Randal Grichuk was battling a bad Air Canada experience. Can’t win ’em all.

Presumably, most of the team scattered for a well-deserved break just past the midway point of what is the most gruelling schedule in professional sports.

In most of the obvious, measurable ways, the first 91 games of the 2019 season, record-wise, were a trying disappointment for the Jays, a worse showing than even the gloomiest of projections suggested.

That’s been the case with the 2019 Jays (and likely the 2020 at minimum) though general manager Ross Atkins has acknowledged that the results so far this season have been even worse than expected.

Pitching has been a disaster at times, both with a rotation that is perpetually one man down, and an uneven bullpen. Injuries, especially to the pitching staff, haven’t let up since spring training.

The better news, such as it is, is that the young potential stars on the Jays have been fun to watch — when losses don’t reach blowout territory as they have too often — and already signs of growth are emerging.

You don’t have to look too deep to see that players such as Guerrero, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Danny Jansen have significant upside and are already capable of having an impact at the big-league level.

If the Jays do the right thing and add top prospect Bo Bichette soon, there will be even more incentive for fans to pay attention.

It’s certainly been a wear-and-tear four months for first-year manager Charlie Montoyo, especially when it comes to finding a way to get 27 outs a night with the ragged pitching staff he’s had at his disposal.

But Montoyo and his coaching staff have remained focused on the learning curve, as long as it may seem at this point.

It’s back at it on Friday night in the Bronx for the first of three versus the Yankees and a 10-game road trip to start the unofficial second half of the season. And with that, we’ll offer up a look back and ahead in a season of reconstruction.

VLAD GOES DEEP

A commonly held worry heading into this week’s home run derby was that the entire process would be counter-productive to the rookie Jays slugger’s development.

The betting here is that such concerns are a bunch of bunk.

Yes, the 91 home runs were a spectacle, a series of balls launched rather spectacularly from batting practice tosses grooved to near perfection by Jays major-league coach John Schneider. But thriving under that spotlight and receiving praise from the best players in the sport will only further strengthen Guerrero’s confidence.

The eight home runs in 61 real games is certainly below projections for the 20-year-old, but in fairness, no matter how voluminous the hype that preceded him, the need for an adjustment period can’t be a surprise.

Remember this, however: Guerrero (who has 13 doubles and a batting average of .249) hits the ball hard and will continue to do so. It would be no surprise if he started hitting home runs in bunches, especially after his coming out party in Cleveland where Vlad Jr. not only stole the show, but proved he belongs among MLB stardom.

LET THE RECORD SHOW

Yes it’s bad. Historically bad. The 34-57 mark and a .374 win percentage has the Jays on pace for 100 losses for just the fourth time in franchise history and the first since the record 109-loss 1979 campaign.

On one hand, it would be difficult to imagine the team struggling in the win column as poorly as it did over the first 91 games, especially now that younger players are gaining in confidence.

On the other, if starting pitching continues to be an issue and inconsistency at the plate rules the day, it can’t be counted out.

Of note, the previous time they finished the season below a .400 win percentage was the was in 1995 when they finished 56-88 (.389.)

FREE TRADE

With MLB finally coming to its senses and having just one trade deadline on July 31, speculation will swirl inside and outside the Jays clubhouse over the next couple of weeks.

At the top of the list will be starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, who is almost certain to be dealt, with closer Ken Giles not far behind in the expected selloff.

The Stroman talk has already escalated and will continue to do so with any number of suitors possible.

It’s tough to tell the veracity of the rumours suggesting that the Atlanta Braves have an interest in Stroman, but it’s fun to ponder the possibilities just the same. Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, of course, was running the show in Toronto in 2012 when he made Stroman a first-round pick

As for Giles, he has helped the Jays by pitching as well as he has at any point in his career and without the apparent drama that paved his exit from Houston. Given that the Jays are so rarely in save situations, he’s expendable, especially if the return price is reasonable.

Elsewhere, it wouldn’t be surprising if Atkins at least kicked the tires on first baseman Justin Smoak, though his quiet leadership is valued in the Jays clubhouse.

BO KNOWS

With so many of the young Jays stars already with the team, the focus on when Bichette gets his shot at the big leagues will be a dominant story line.

There’s little issue that the son of former all-star Dante Bichette and a kid who walked so many minor league steps alongside Guerrero and Biggio is ready.

Since returning from a broken bone in his hand in mid-June, Bichette has been on fire, batting .361 for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons, adding four home runs while also excelling on the infield.

A current issue, such as it is right now, is a crowded infield with veterans Freddy Galvis and Eric Sogard eating up innings and producing. Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if either were moved at the deadline if there are takers, freeing up playing time for Bichette.

The quicker Bichette joins his prospect pals, the better he’ll get acclimated to the big leagues and be part of the movement going forward. He’s motivated, he’s producing and he’s ready and his potential promotion to the highest level should happen soon.

And how intriguing would an infield of Guerrero at third, Bichette at short and Biggio at second be as a glimpse to the future?

WHO NEEDS TICKETS?

Very few, apparently.

Declining attendance at the Rogers Centre will continue to be a storyline over the remaining 21/2 months of the season. Through 48 home dates, the Jays are averaging 20,719 fans per night, down 8,000 from the complete-season nightly total in 2018.

It’s a massive tumble from 2017 and 2016 when the Jays had the highest attendance in the American League, averaging 39,554 and 41,878, respectively.

Of course, with a payroll that is little more than a third of what it was in 2016 ($64.68 million vs. $182.69 million according to Baseball Reference), profits aren’t exactly getting decimated here.

It’s also possible that the average will climb some with the summer months here and curiosity to see the young stars in action.

ON THE ROAD

Spend 34 games on the road with any team over the first half of the season, as we did, and you’ll see some things that aren’t always as visible at home.

Most notably with this group of young Jays, it’s how hard they work and how committed the players and the coaching staff have been to teach and develop. Be it watching video, working in the indoor cage or added field work, players and coaches haven’t let up.

A couple of memorable observations:

* In our first visit to Oracle Stadium in San Francisco back in May, we found the venue to live up to the rave reviews prior. As an added bonus, we spent some time talking to Guerrero in a quiet visitor’s dugout prior to the game.

After a brief interview through team translator Hector Lebron discussing what Vlad looks for in each new park he visits, we turned off the tape recorder and did a mock interview in English. Guerrero’s grasp of the language is better that it may seem on the surface and getting stronger. He understands what’s being said and has no trouble communicating with his teammates and coaching staff.

A few hours later, of course, the 20-year-old hit the first and second home runs of his big-league career.

* The highlight of the Jays annual visit to Houston was a pre-game visit with former manager, John Gibbons. Looking tanned and relaxed as he collects the money from his final year with the team, the man they call Gibby was quick with the wise cracks and clearly enjoyed catching up with some of his former players.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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