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Series preview: The Blue Jays are rolling

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Kevin Pillar returns to his old diving grounds just as they seem to have turned things around.

Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

We were promised Vladimir Guerrero Jr. There were rumors — tweets — and then denials. Then reversals of denials. And then, well, he was in the lineup for the Buffalo Bisons yesterday and the rumor mill swung around to suggesting that the Blue Jays were delaying his call up until the end of the week to avoid a conflict on the Blue Jays’ cable channel with the Maple Leafs’ playoff game and, well, does any of that mean Giants fans are getting to watch the debut of the most hyped prospect in baseball?

In a word: no.

We’re not getting Vlad.

Giants fans never get Vlad.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. looks to be the most talented prospect of the 21st century. A quick glance at the numbers and the scouting reports suggests that he’s better than any prospect the Giants have had this century.

They didn’t get him through the draft — he was an international signing. The Giants have made attempts at signing these young, big-time international talents, and maybe last year’s big signing, Marco Luciano, can be their Oracle Park’d version of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but in the meantime, no five tool prospects are ready to excite us. And, in the case of this series, no five tool prospect will be making his debut.

The Blue Jays are supposed to be in near the beginning of a rebuild, but after taking 6 of 7 from the Twins and A’s on the road and with a soft-for-the-moment AL East, they look to be much farther along in that rebuild cycle.

They’re 11-12 after a 4-10 start and 7-2 since they traded Kevin Pillar to the Giants for Alen Hanson, Derek Law, and Juan De Paul (uh... let’s not read too much into that for the moment), and their 88 runs allowed is the sixth-best mark in the AL (9th in MLB).

Yeah, that pitching staff has been a hammer. Marcus Stroman, Matt Shoemaker, and Aaron Sanchez have combined for a 2.01 ERA in 85.1 innings (15 starts) this season. The top of their bullpen — closer Ken Giles and the Giant who got away, Joe Biagini — are locking down the end of games with a combined 2.43 ERA in 22.2 innings pitched, 12 games finished, and a 29:8 strikeouts to walk ratio.

That is a strong enough group and performance to pitch any team into a playoff chase, but after Matt Shoemaker’s ACL tore on Sunday, Toronto might be back to soberly assessing their spot in the rebuild cycle. And on that note, they’re in a very good position for a talent-infusing sell-off.

They have a lot of interesting players under 30 years old with lots of major league experience. Freddy Galvis has resurfaced in Toronto following a year in San Diego — he’s got 28 hits, the most of any Blue Jay, along with an .856 OPS. He’s a 29-year old switch-hitting shortstop on a one-year deal. Teoscar Hernandez is a 26-year old left fielder who came over in a trade back in 2017 along with Nori Aoki (the Blue Jays sent Francisco Liriano to the Astros — gotta tell ya, don’t remember this deal at all) and has 10 hits and an .806 OPS in the Blue Jays’ last 10 games . Randal Grichuk is just 27 years old, signed to a cheap extension, and is coming off a 25-homer season.

And then there’s old man Justin Smoak. The 32-year old switch-hitting first baseman has hit 68 home runs since the start of 2017 along with a .500 slugging percentage and 131 ERA+. He’s sort of aged like a fine wine, and given that he’s in the final year of his deal, might be an affordable upgrade for a playoff-hunting team looking for a power upgrade down the stretch. None of that helps the Giants today or tomorrow, though, as all of these working parts will be driving Toronto’s machine right at them.

The Blue Jays also have a new manager this year. Charlie Montoyo had been the Rays’ bench coach since 2015. He was signed to a three-year deal this offseason. He has a really interesting story. He’s the winningest manager in the history of Triple-A Durham Bulls (633) and he led their 2010 team to a single season Triple-A record of 92 wins. He won over 1300 games as a minor league manager and was Puerto Rico’s manager in the 2009 WBC.

It used to be that managers would work their way up through the minors much like players. That fell out of style about 5-10 years ago, but there’s something to be said about getting these decision-making reps in lower-leverage situations. It would also seem like a good way for a rebuilding team to get their raw, inexperienced players into a situation with a leader who understands that the team isn’t fully formed and has some learning to do. Montoyo is 53, so he’s not green, and if either of these games are close, it’ll be interesting to see if he and Bochy wind up matching each other move for move even with the AL context.

Hitter to watch

Alen Hanson has appeared in 12 games since the Blue Jays acquired him back on April 2nd and has received a steady flow of playing time. The opportunity hasn’t led to much production — .393 OPS in 37 PA with 13 K:1 BB — beyond what we saw from Hanson in the second half of last season — .558 OPS in 140 PA with 41 K:1 BB — but with Freddy Galvis having sustained a knee injury, we’re likely to see him play both games this series, and a revenge surge seems very possible.

Pitcher to watch

Sam Gaviglio was acquired from the Royals for a PTBNL in the offseason of 2018, and after a rocky 2018 in the rotation (79 ERA+ in 123.2 IP and 24 starts), he was moved to the bullpen. He’s struck out 16 in 15 innings so far and pairs his 1.20 ERA with a 2.43 FIP. He’s allowed all of 7 hits (1 home run) and walked just two.

He’s primarily a sinker, slider, cutter pitcher, and per Statcast, not one of his pitches averages above 89 mph (his sinker). Otherwise, everything else is in the mid-to-high eighties. He’s all about movement and location. Sort of a Nick Vincent but with strikeout stuff. Watching him frustrate the Giants hitters will be a frustrating experience.

Prediction

Somehow, the Giants have a 10-9 series edge dating back to 2002. The last time these teams faced off was May 2015, just before the Giants turned into the team they are now, and when they still had the best record in baseball (at the time). Toronto took two out of three and the Giants’ one winning pitcher was A. Suarez. That’s Albert Suárez.

Despite that 10-9 all-time mark, they’ve won just 3 of the last 10 in the matchup. The last three Giants pitchers to get a win against Blue Jays are: Albert Suárez (2016), Tim Lincecum (2013), and Denny Bautista (2010). I mention this because, well, why not? Those are some names to remember, and, well, on paper at least, the Blue Jays have more talent; yet, somehow, the Giants will split this two-game series.

I do have one more prediction, based on this:

I predict that we’ll get a story about Kevin Pillar showing his new teammates some of what Toronto has to offer.