3 Things to Watch For in the Blue Jays Series Against the Brewers

Written by Matt Gwin, Nick Dika, and Jenn Smith

1. The Return of Eric Thames

For the first time since September 11th 2012, Eric Thames will be playing at the Rogers Centre. Not a Jay as we remember him, nor as the Mariner he was during his last trip to the dome, but as a Brewer. Milwaukee signed Thames this offseason, getting his power prowess at the cost of three years, $15 million. Thames has spent the past three years dominating the KBO as the starting first baseman for the NC Dinos. He averaged 41 home runs and 31 steals a season while putting up a 1.172 OPS. It’s a different league in a different country, but the only season in MLB history that matches all three totals is Larry Walker’s 1997 season in which he hit 49 home runs and stole 33 bases while putting up the exact same 1.172 OPS.

While the Brewers were confident enough in Eric Thames video game-esque numbers in Korea to sign him to a three year contract, the MLB market as a whole was clearly skeptical of his transition back to a higher level of play. Dave Cameron wrote an interesting article at FanGraphs about Thames’ Steamer projection, which predicted him to be baseball’s seventh best power hitter. That’s quite a ways away from the player of Blue Jays yore, when he lost his left field job to Rajai Davis and was traded for relief depth.

The Eric Thames that you’ll realistically see in this series won’t be as good as the KBO dominator, but will be much better than the 2012 outcast. Regardless, Thames’ power is something to be afraid of; J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman better watch out.

2. Changing Statistics

It happens more often than not. The Jays can’t seem to get out of the gate on the right foot and we start to worry about the start of the team and its players before a single person has been over-served at the home opener.

You’ve heard the reasons you don’t have to worry a million times: Both team and individual performance take time to stabilize; if the team hit this type of skid in midseason, we would hardly even notice. There’s plenty of time to right the ship, though there is the always applicable “a game in April is as important as a game in September”.

But maybe another way to be reminded exactly why we don’t need to worry is to look back at 2016 and see just how different the season looked at the end of September than it did at the end of week one.

After one week of baseball in 2016:

  • Tyler White (1.308) and Brock Holt (1.083) were second and fourth in all of baseball in slugging percentage. White finished 2016 slugging .378 in 276 at bats. Holt slugged .383 in 324.
  • Angel Pagan was tied for the Major League lead in runs scored with 6. He finished outside the top 75 (91st).
  • Drake had not yet released Views. It’s barely been out for a year. Doesn’t feel like it.
  • Chad Bettis had more strikeouts than Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard would finish 2016 with 80 more K’s in 3.2 fewer innings pitched.
  • Jeremy Hazelbaker was hitting .429. His average dropped to .235 by the end of the season.
  • Donald Trump was not yet a serious candidate to be the President of the United States. He has barely been a politician for a year. Doesn’t feel like it.

You get the idea: it’s early. It’s not that a lot can change. It’s that a lot will change.

3. The Revolving Injury Door

The Blue Jays dropped their third straight game Sunday at Tropicana Field, a 7-2 loss in which the Jays could muster up just three hits in their worst-played game of the young season. To add injury to insult, Josh Donaldson left the game with right calf tightness after running out a ground ball in the sixth inning.

No doubt the sight of the former MVP limping off the field struck a chord of fear within the Jays’ organization and fan base alike: although the sample size is miniscule at this stage of the season, Donaldson has been the most productive Jays’ hitter by far. In twenty-seven plate appearances he is batting .348/.444/.652 with two home runs. The off-day Monday bodes well a quick recovery. Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi reports that Donaldson has responded well to treatment and thinks it’s “realistic” that he will play in tonight’s home opener, though John Gibbons was reportedly guarded regarding Donaldson’s return when addressing the media on Monday.

Donaldson was already sidelined once this spring with calf tightness and also spent time on the disabled list last season for the same injury, although Donaldson says that it was his left calf that caused an issue in 2016. In any event, there is never a good time for a team to lose its most productive offensive player from the lineup, but it is particularly troublesome when the other eight are off to a slow start. One hopes that Donaldson will be ready to face the Brewers this evening and that his calf will not become the type of nagging injury that rears its ugly head throughout the season.

Meanwhile, closer Roberto Osuna is expected to return for the home opener after spending ten days on the DL with neck spasms. Osuna, who incurred the injury towards the end of spring training, threw a simulated game in Florida on Saturday and expects to be ready for tonight’s game.

His return could not come a moment sooner. The Jays’ bullpen has been charged with three of the five losses, two of which came in extra innings. It isn’t necessarily a function of Osuna himself being unavailable; his absence has altered the role of everyone at the back end of the ‘pen. His return means that Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini will once again pitch in situations they’ve become accustomed to, and a guy like Casey Lawrence won’t be called upon in a big situation. Osuna’s return lengthens the bullpen.

One thing to keep an eye on is Osuna’s velocity. After averaging 96 mph on his fastball the past two seasons, Osuna experienced a drop in velocity this spring, sitting around 93 mph. His dip in velocity was made an even greater point of discussion when the radar gun mysteriously stopped working during one of his outings, suggesting that the organization did not want to make public any potential struggles he was experiencing. One hopes it was simply a function of a spring training interrupted by the WBC alongside the neck injury, but should he be unable to regain his velocity over his first few outings, it will indeed become cause for concern.

Lead Photo: © Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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