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  • In this week's Nine Innings column, SI dives in on the Blue Jays' positive start to 2018, an under-the-radar bat in the Yankees' lineup and a 100-word review of the Mariners' offering at MLB FoodFest.
By SI.com Staff
April 23, 2018

BLUE JAYS STICKING WITH THEIR YOUTH AMID HOT START

By Stephanie Apstein

NEW YORK — The most recent evidence that the Blue Jays believe they are in this thing stood quietly in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium on Friday, touching the nameplate on his blue No. 13 GURRIEL JR. jersey.

“It’s the first time that I saw my name on the back of a jersey here,” says 24-year-old infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. through interpreter Josue Peley. “In spring training it doesn’t have it.”

Gurriel awoke on the morning of April 19 a member of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Toronto’s Double A affiliate. He hit a home run in his team’s win over the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and, rounding third, reached over to celebrate with his manager, John Schneider, who was serving as third-base coach. Gurriel went for the handshake, Schneider went for the fist-bump, and they ended up with an awkward timeout gesture.

Schneider called Gurriel that night. You have to work on your fist-bump technique, the skipper told him. “If it happens in the big leagues, [third-base coach Luis] Rivera is gonna want you to do that.”

“OK,” Gurriel said.

“No, no,” Schneider said. “Tomorrow, when you go there, if you hit a home run—“

The team Gurriel joined is now 13–8, in second place in the AL East even after losing three of four to the Yankees this weekend. The Blue Jays signed Gurriel to a seven-year, $22 million deal in November 2016 after he and older brother, Yulieski, defected from Cuba, but there was no particular rush to get Lourdes Jr. to the majors. He missed two months to injuries last season and compiled an OPS of only .608. Toronto opened the season with Gift Ngoepe as the backup infielder; even when he scuffled and it appeared that Gurriel had rediscovered his stroke, veteran Danny Espinosa, waiting at Triple A, seemed like a logical choice for the call-up.

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But that’s where that record comes into play. With a tough divisional stretch coming up—after the four against the Yankees, the Jays were scheduled to host the Red Sox for three—Toronto faced a plum opportunity … which brings us to the second–most recent evidence that the Blue Jays believe they are in this thing, standing half a dozen lockers to the right of Gurriel’s.

Baseball is theoretically a meritocracy, but given the complexities of constructing a roster that accounts for performance, salary and number of minor league options remaining, it doesn’t always play out that way. Outfielder Teoscar Hernández, 25, opened the year at Triple A even after tearing the cover off the ball in spring training. If Toronto had started the season the way most analysts expected—fighting to stay out of the cellar—he might still be there. But more-heralded outfielder Randal Grichuk went 3 for his first 39, and DH Kendrys Morales hit the DL with a right hamstring strain, and the Jays were 2 1/2 games out of first. Hernández promptly hit .323, slugged .677 and forced the front office’s hand. The team is currently carrying five outfielders. Only Hernández has options left. Yet he remains in the clubhouse and in the lineup.

“We’d be crazy not to have him in there,” manager John Gibbons said this weekend.

Hernández insists he isn’t checking the roster every morning to make sure he’s still on it, and no one in baseball operations has called to tell him how long he is likely to survive in the big leagues. But he knows what they know: As long as the Blue Jays are playing this well, they can’t afford to trot out anything short of their best lineup.

Much of the Blue Jays’ success thus far comes from the schedule they have played: second softest in baseball, behind the Tigers. Toronto has mostly beaten up on the White Sox, the Rangers, the Orioles and the Royals, who averaged a .266 winning percentage entering Sunday. The test will come when the Blue Jays face teams actually contending for a playoff spot. Still, nearly a third of the league is punting on 2018. There are a lot of bad teams out there.


BEST THING I SAW THIS WEEK: AGELESS SPEEDSTER BARTOLO COLON BEATS DEE GORDON TO FIRST BASE

Bob Levey/Getty Images

By Jon Tayler

Don’t let his rotund physique fool you: Bartolo Colon is a top-notch athlete. Despite being 44 years old, weighing close to 300 pounds and looking like a bathysphere on legs, Colon is adept at fielding his position, even pulling off the kinds of Globetrotter-esque plays that men half his age would flub. Want proof? Here he is racing (and beating) reedy speedster Dee Gordon to first base despite being roughly twice Gordon’s size.

Keep in mind that, by Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, Gordon is the fifth-fastest runner in all of baseball this year, motoring at 29.7 feet per second. There are few if any players in the game who can beat Gordon in a footrace. Yet here’s Colon dusting a man 14 years his junior and 115 pounds lighter (albeit with a minor head start, given that Colon was coming off the mound and Gordon was running from home plate). If you saw this happen in your copy of MLB The Show, you’d throw your PlayStation controller against the wall. Yet here it is, a real-life glitch manifesting before our eyes.

At least one person knew this could be real life, and that’s Bartolo Colon, who will forever make his living taking advantage of your disbelief. He throws 88-mph fastballs all the time and is just a year younger than 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Chipper Jones, and just for fun, he’ll out-run the man who’s led the majors in stolen bases in three of the last four seasons. Doubt him all you want, but Big Sexy knows that he’s more than good enough to hang with the kids.


ROUNDTABLE: WHICH PLAYOFF TEAM FROM LAST SEASON IS OFF TO THE MOST CONCERNING START?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Stephanie Apstein: Three weeks in, I continue to expect the Big Seven—the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers—to be back in the playoffs this year, so in that sense I'm not concerned about any of them. But New York is probably in the most trouble, which is strange to say about a team that's on pace to win 89 games despite almost no production (.195 average, four home runs) from its offseason prize, Giancarlo Stanton. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Boston is playing .810 ball. And there will be few opportunities to make up ground; the AL East will probably be the toughest division in baseball yet again. I still think New York makes the playoffs, but maybe it's a wild-card team, rather than the division-winner most of us predicted.

Michael Beller: I think it has to be the Dodgers. They’ve been bad offensively, at least for a team that was supposed to dominate its division, ranking 15th in runs, 18th in wOBA, 16th in OBP and 17th in slugging. A thinner-than-you-might-assume offense is trying to make due with slow starts from Corey Seager and Chris Taylor, and it just isn’t getting there. Rich Hill is already on the DL with a split fingernail. Kenley Jansen has surrendered six earned runs and three homers in 8 2/3 innings. The Dodgers simply don’t have the depth that the Cubs and Nationals do, and it is showing this April. On top of that, the Diamondbacks have stormed atop NL West with 14–6 mark through 20 games. I still expect the Dodgers to end up in the postseason, but if forced to pick between the Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals to miss the postseason, the Dodgers would be it. Based on what we’ve seen thus far this year, that conviction has only strengthened.

Kenny Ducey: It feels odd to say, because of just how bad their division is, but I’m concerned about the Indians. They’re hovering above .500, and without Jose Ramirez carrying them to this point they might not even be leading the AL Central. Edwin Encarnacion and Jason Kipnis have not started the year off well, and there’s reason to believe the aging veterans might not be able to provide what is needed out of them. Mix in a bullpen lacking key cogs Joe Smith and Bryan Shaw from last season, and sure, I can hop aboard the panic wagon.

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Molly Geary: It's the Twins, if we're framing this as who appears to have the toughest road back to the playoffs. A lot of last year's contenders are off to slow starts, but this is less about Minnesota's record and more about what the AL playoff picture might look like come summer. The Yankees have pitching concerns for sure, but it's hard to imagine that offense not being enough to get back to October. Meanwhile, the Angels' early emergence behind the Astros out west could potentially put a squeeze on the AL wild-card race. If you assume the AL East will earn one wild-card spot and Angels sneak into the second, it might be division title or bust for Minnesota (and likewise, the Indians, but my money's on them in the Central.) Of course, that's a lot of "ifs."

Connor Grossman: It's hard to put too much stock into twenty-something games after seeing both the Indians' 22-game winning streak and the Dodgers' miraculous stretch last season rock the standings more than anyone could have expected. But assuming Los Angeles can't mirror its historically successful 61-game stretch in 2017, it's looking like the Dodgers face the trickiest road back to the postseason. The Diamondbacks' admirable start to the season coupled with sluggish showings from key contributors like Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, and Chris Taylor has the foundation set for the Dodgers to lose out on the division title for the first time since 2012.

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Max Meyer: The Dodgers harbor several concerns that make them appear more vulnerable than the division-winning squads of years past. Outside of an offensive explosion in a three-game sweep over the lowly Padres, the Dodger bats have consistently been subpar. Justin Turner’s injury absence is glaring, but Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig and Chris Taylor need to step it up at the plate. Rich Hill struggled mightily on the mound before being sidelined with inflammation in his finger, but the pitcher most in question resides in the bullpen. Kenley Jansen’s cutter velocity has been down, and it’s resulted in some disastrous numbers early on, most notably a 6.23 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. He's pitched an inning in relief eight times thus far and allowed a baserunner in all eight, including multiple in half of those appearances. Meanwhile, atop the division standings, the Diamondbacks became the first NL team to win its first seven series of the season since 2003. It’s highly unlikely that the Dodgers will be able to uncork another 52-9 stretch like in 2017, so they’ll need to play better baseball in a seemingly stingy National League.

Jon Tayler: I won’t go as far to say that I’m worried about any of the Yankees, Nationals, Cubs or Dodgers. All four teams have youth, money and time on their side. Instead, I’m not feeling too hot about the Rockies, who are 12–11 despite (or because of, depending on how you look at it) a -22 run differential, a 75 OPS+, and a 4.79 team ERA that ranks third worst in the NL. You could look at that and say that those numbers are bound to improve. But Colorado’s offense was quietly mediocre last year aside from Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, and while those two are once again blistering opposing pitching, the rest of the lineup is once again doing little. That puts a lot of pressure on a young rotation lacking in experience and short on depth—not a winning proposition, especially in a division featuring the Diamondbacks and Dodgers and with the Phillies, Brewers, Cardinals and Mets looking like contenders.


JAVIER BAEZ TAKES AIM AT CAREER YEAR AFTER HOT START

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

By Michael Beller

It’s hard to say exactly what was the best moment of Javier Baez's week. It could have been in the second inning on Sunday when he sent a pitch from German Marquez sailing 418 feet to straightaway center for his seventh homer. It could have been five innings later, when his two-run double locked up an eventual 9–7 Cubs win over the Rockies. Or it could’ve been even earlier in a week that saw Baez go 12-for-25 with three homers, six extra-base hits and nine RBIs.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint when the previous week reached peak Baez, it’s much easier to see the transformation taking place with the 25-year-old this season. Baez, long a magician with the glove, is becoming the hitter the Cubs believed he could be.

After going 2-for-5 with the homer and double on Sunday, Baez is up to a .292/.363/.736 slash line. That .736 slugging percentage? It's second the majors. The 23 RBIs? Tops in baseball. Prefer advanced metrics? Well, Baez has a .449 wOBA and 189 wRC+, placing him 11th in the former and 10th in the latter. The names around his on the leaderboard confirm this is heady company. Bryce Harper. Aaron Judge. Charlie Blackmon.

The power numbers are great. Homers are fun. I mean, just watch this one from Sunday and tell me it isn’t both a literal and figurative blast.

Here’s the thing, though. Baez has always hit for power. He drilled 23 homers and posted a .480 slugging percentage in 508 plate appearances last year. The pop has never been an issue. Everything else about his game at the plate has been in question. He’s starting to put all those to rest, once and for all.

The clear starting point is the strikeout department. Baez entered this season with a career 29.3% strikeout rate. This year, that's down to 20.3%. He’s even nudged his walk rate up to 7.6%, despite never seeing a pitch he didn’t want to swing at over the first four years of his career.

Next up is Baez’s performance against righties. He always struggled without the platoon advantage in his career. Even with his breakout April, he’s only hitting .248 against righties in his career. In just this year, however, he’s mashed them to the tune of .360/.418/.940 (yes, .940), with six of his seven homers. That means he has a daily slot in the Cubs’ lineup at the No. 2 spot, regardless of who is opposing them on the mound.

Baez was already one of the most exciting players in the majors, even when he was striking out nearly 30% of the time and flailing against righties. Now he’s just as fun with the bat as he has always been with the glove.


FORGET AARON JUDGE AND GIANCARLO STANTON; MIGUEL ANDUJAR LOOKS LIKE THE YANKEES' CATALYST RIGHT NOW

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

By Kenny Ducey

If the Yankees’ misfortune keeps the fire inside of you raging, it may time to look elsewhere for the energy to get out of bed every morning. It was a nice run—Giancarlo Stanton getting booed off the field, Gary Sanchez starting the season 2-for-36 and Boston’s Joe Kelly handily defeating Tyler Austin in a scuffle—but a turbulent start to the season is smoothing out.

All eyes turned to New York on Sunday with the arrival of top prospect Gleyber Torres, but it wasn’t his debut, or the Yankees’ fifth win in seven tries, that stood as the biggest story of the day. Miguel Andujar, the 23 year old who had just three hits in his first 28 at-bats this season, turned in a career-high four hits to give him 13 in his last 24. Over that span, he’s racked up seven doubles, two homers, a triple and seven RBIs.

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Entering the season, the Yankees had no clear plan at third base after watching Todd Frazier ink a deal with the Mets in the offseason. It stood out as the team’s biggest hole on the roster: Brandon Drury was acquired from the Diamondbacks to be an option, but hope remained that Andujar, who hit well in his short time in the majors last season, would take control of the job. It may have taken a while—and the Yankees had to run Ronald Torreyes out more than they would have liked—but it appears Andujar is finally emerging as the team’s best option. His hot stretch has vaulted New York into the top half of the league in production at the position.

Andujar’s success is no fluke, either. Just under 11% of his plate appearances have resulted in a barreled ball, which puts him inside the top 25 in the major leagues, and he’s picked up nine hits in 26 at-bats against offspeed pitches. He is punishing pitchers who attack him down in the zone, something he didn’t do much of last season, and his contact rate is up to 81%.

If Andujar can maintain a semblance of his current production while lurking in the lower third of the order, pitchers won’t get much of a break after facing one of the most fearsome first five in baseball.


QUICK HITS ON THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

By Molly Geary

1. The Red Sox’ 17–4 record speaks for itself, but the most important aspect of it is the four-game division lead they’ve already built, including a 5 1/2-game cushion on the team expected to be their biggest challenger, the Yankees. Last season, Boston didn’t earn a two-game lead in the AL East until July 1, playing catch-up for most of the first half before establishing control in August. It’s only April, and the Sox’ .810 winning percentage will inevitably descend (Sean Manaea already tugged them a little closer to earth, at least for one night), but getting out ahead of the pack this early is never a bad thing.

2. How about the early power surge of Blue Jays infielder Yangervis Solarte? Solarte has five home runs in 68 at-bats, one of just 17 players with five or more already. When he was traded to Toronto in January, the 30-year-old was coming off a season where he hit a career-high 18 homers in 128 games for San Diego, and the change of scenery has generated positive returns so far. With Josh Donaldson on the DL, Solarte has been able to slide in at third and provide some pop.

3. In 2017, the Yankees had the second-best run differential in MLB at +198. That year, the differential was at +35 after 20 games. Through 20 games this season, they’re at +13, and it flattened out to +1 as recently as Saturday morning. While there’s been a lot of attention on early slumps from Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez, the offense is running ahead of where it was at this point last year (113 runs scored versus 98 in 2017). On the flip side, the pitching staff has given up 100 runs already, compared to 63 a season ago. In particular, the early performance of starter Sonny Gray (8.27 ERA, 2.08 WHIP and just 16 1/3 innings across four starts) is of high concern.

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4. The Rays opened the season with about as bad of a start a team can have, losing 12 of 15 games. They’ve since rebounded to win five of six, including a sweep of Minnesota over the weekend. SI.com’s Michael Beller looked at the promising start of outfielder Mallex Smith, but also helping matters has been Blake Snell, who has won three straight starts and allowed just three earned runs across 19 1/3 innings, and the hitting of C.J. Cron, who went 11 for 48 (.229) with one home run in Tampa’s disastrous first 15 games but has gone 10 for 26 (.385) with four home runs and eight RBIs since.

5. It’s not a surprise that the Orioles have gotten off to a terrible start (6–16), nor is it that Manny Machado, in his walk year, has not. Machado has already bashed eight home runs and is hitting .356 with a .434 OBP and 1.147 OPS. With the injury-plagued O’s looking like it’s a matter of when, not if they’ll be out of the playoff race, it’s hard to fathom Machado staying in Baltimore past the trade deadline—that is, unless no one is willing to pony up what it takes to get GM Dan Duquette to pull the trigger. In the meantime, expect the shortstop to keep raking.


100 WORDS ON... THE MARINERS' TOASTED GRASSHOPPERS AT MLB FOODFEST

Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

By Max Meyer

“Three… two… one,” yet the toasted grasshopper remained in hand after the countdown concluded. The Mariners’ stomach-churning concession generated buzz at MLB’s first-ever FoodFest last weekend in New York, but the thought of “I’m about to eat an insect” hadn’t sunk in until facing the lime- and chili-seasoned critters. My eyes shut and face scrunched before finally chowing down. Quickly it became clear that the taste wasn’t nearly as extreme as the bugs’ appearance. They resembled a flavored chip. The crunch wasn’t bothersome and the spice added a pleasant kick. Lesson learned: When trying unusual foods, have patience, young grasshopper.​​


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FROM THE VAULT: REMEMBERING THE 1988 ORIOLES' HISTORICALLY BAD START 30 YEARS LATER

By Connor Grossman

It’s easy to get caught up in small sample sizes and the volatile nature of the standings in April. This season provides as good of an example as any given the unremarkable starts from most of last season’s playoff teams. But no matter how fed up you might already be with your team, just remember the 1988 Orioles and how much worse things could be in April: Baltimore started that season 0–21.

This week marks 30 years since SI published the cover above, depicting second baseman Billy Ripken looking less than thrilled to be playing baseball. By the time Baltimore finally found its way to the win column, it already sat 15 1/2 games out of first place.

SI’s Franz Lidz guided readers through the team’s first 18 losses, which you can read about here. Check out the excerpt below.

“The team that has come to be known as the Zer-O's is a sad shadow of the franchise that made six World Series appearances between 1966 and '83 and which for two decades was the closest thing baseball had to a dynasty. Since Aug. 5, 1986, when Baltimore was 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East, the Orioles have won 81 games and lost 155.”

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