Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
Why aren't more people talking about this Blue Jays pitching staff?
All right, maybe that's an awkward question on the heels of Roberto Osuna and Brett Cecil both getting Jose Ramirez'd in an objectively entertaining series against the Indians over the weekend (Ramirez hit the game-tying homer in the ninth to hand Osuna a blown save Friday, then hit a go-ahead two-run blast off Cecil in the eighth on Sunday).
But it's still a question worth asking.
Toronto has the best starting staff ERA (3.68) in the American League, with Marcus Stroman (2.45 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in August) recently reclaiming his front-end stuff and two AL Cy Young Award candidates in Aaron Sanchez (142 ERA+) and J.A. Happ (139). Marco Estrada (133) would be in that Cy conversation, too, with a few more innings under his belt.
Sanchez's Cy case will ultimately be hindered by the late-season manipulation of his innings, which necessitated his "demotion" to Class A Advanced Dunedinon on Sunday (he'll have a start skipped while enduring the mandatory 10-day waiting period). But the Blue Jays' decision to work off how Sanchez is feeling and looking rather than yank some arbitrary innings prescription out of the clear blue sky is oddly revolutionary in its simplistic brilliance.
The key to Toronto's October viability might be the additions of Jason Grilli (1.57 ERA in 30 appearances since coming over from Atlanta, where he had a 5.29 ERA) and Joaquin Benoit (no runs allowed in 10 innings since coming over from Seattle for Drew Storen in a swap of struggling setup men) to the bullpen. Those guys have had the dual effect of improving the 'pen performance while also ensuring the Blue Jays are able to float guys like Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Bo Schultz between Triple-A and the big leagues, basically making Toronto's roster deeper than the 25 you see at any given time.
The backbone to all of this, though, is not a pitcher but a catcher. Russell Martin's game-calling and ability to get low strikes has proved to pair well with Benoit's splitter and the sinkerballs of Sanchez and Liriano. Martin hit six home runs between Aug. 13-20 to further make his miserable start at the plate a distant memory, but it's his work behind the plate that matters most, because he's helped Toronto put together the AL's most underrated pitching staff.
"I don't want to take anything away from the pitchers," general manager Ross Atkins said, "but Russ doesn't get enough credit for the impact he's had on these guys."
2. A Giant series you don't want to Dodge
"For the Giants so loved the baseball world that they sacrificed the months of July and August so that we could have a legitimate race in the National League West…"
Well, hey, that's at least more artful than saying, "Man, the Giants sure blew a good thing."
That good thing, of course, was a season-high eight-game lead in the NL West after play on June 26 -- and it's funny how the season cooperates with certain landmark dates, isn't it? Because if you've been doing your baseball homework, you know that June 26 was the day Clayton Kershaw made his most recent start for the Dodgers.
Who would have thought that, in the 46-game sample following June 26, the Dodgers would go 27-19 without Kershaw and the Giants would go the exact opposite at 19-27 to basically knot things up (the Dodgers have a half-game lead entering Monday)?
Well, on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, what has become, once again, a legit division rivalry is renewed when San Francisco and L.A. meet for the first time since mid-June. These will be the first three of nine remaining games between these two clubs, so the West could legitimately be settled head-to-head.
If that's the case, then the Dodgers have to get more quality work from their injury-riddled starting staff. Julio Urias tossed a gem Sunday in Cincinnati, but, in the nine games leading up to that game, Dodgers relievers accounted for more innings (39 2/3) than the starters (38 1/3). The Los Angeles bullpen has been tasked with more innings than any other since -- you guessed it -- that June 26 date. This series will finally bring us the Dodgers debut of Rich Hill, who was acquired at the Trade Deadline but has been saddled by blister issues (which now have a new victim in the recently activated Brett Anderson… it's never easy in the L.A. rotation this year).
As for the Giants, the expected lineup boosts from Hunter Pence and Joe Panik after their late-July returns from the disabled list have not yet materialized (both guys entered Sunday with second-half OPS marks hovering around .600). Nor has the anticipated rotation boost from trade acquisition Matt Moore (4.70 ERA, 1.48 WHIP in four starts for his new club), who gets the nod in Thursday's series finale.
The best hitter in baseball, hands down, is Second Half Joey Votto.
We saw that last year. Votto had a solid-but-not-superstar .277/.392/.484 slash before the break, then lost his mind afterward with a .362/.535/.617 mark.
This year? Same thing. Votto in the first half had an abnormally awful April en route to the .252/.386/.446 marks he took into the break. And since then, he's at .451/.552/.699 with six homers, eight doubles and a triple. He's hitting nothing but line drives, and that's not an exaggeration. Joey Votto is hitting Nothing. But. Line. Drives. Every single ball in play in the second half has been sprayed, as evidenced by this fun and statistically accurate chart:
Now, if only the Reds could further aid their rebuilding effort this winter by unloading Votto's gargantuan contract while he's still at peak performance.
Like, say, to a team in his native Canada that has two superstars (Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion) approaching free agency, perhaps?
4. On the clock
Plenty of big-picture topics were discussed at last week's owners meetings, and Commissioner Rob Manfred's goal of picking up baseball's pace of action (which, remember, is different than a discussion about time of game) has brought up plenty of controversial talking points
The majority of these ideas aren't likely to stick. Limiting defensive shifts? Didn't we all agree that was a terrible idea when the Commissioner first broached it in early 2015?
Limiting pitching changes? It has value, in theory, but good luck getting the players' union to sign off on anything that affects jobs. (As one veteran reliever said, "You have guys who have made a living off of coming in and getting left-handers out.")
But a pitch clock? Now you're on to something. A 20-second clock has been utilized at the Minor League level the past two seasons, and the world has, in fact, not closed in upon itself. Indeed, there is no better way to improve baseball's flow without fundamentally altering the way the game is managed.
"Even some of the things that myself or other people at first [are wary about], players seem to adapt quickly," Indians manager Terry Francona said.
There's no doubt pitchers would have to adapt. FanGraphs keeps track of the average number of seconds between pitches for everybody in the bigs. And as of this writing, 74 of 85 qualified pitchers are taking north of 20 seconds between pitches. Yikes.
5. From left out to left field
The Rangers are already the defending AL West champs and already hold an 11-2 season series lead and nine-game division lead on the Astros.
If they fix Carlos Gomez, that's just rubbing it in.
For now, the aggressive announcement that Gomez will be Texas' everyday left fielder after a brief Minor League tune-up (his last game for the Astros before getting DFA'd was on Aug. 9) adds a fascinating subplot to this in-state rivalry.
Gomez has looked totally lost this season. It's not just the eye-catching .210/.272/.322 slash. It's swings like this…
"Did you fall in your place or somebody else's?" pic.twitter.com/42IF4fDUjs- MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) July 2, 2016
…and defensive gaffes like this…
Scouts say Gomez appeared to be pressing in his regrettable time with Houston, which produced an adjusted OPS+ of 71 (compared to a 110 mark in six years in Milwaukee). Or maybe Gomez really does have a hip issue, as the Mets believed when they scuttled a swap for Gomez last summer.
In any event, the Rangers are going to take a look not just in a part-time role but a regular one. They'll move Jurickson Profar back to an infield utility role and hope Gomez can replace some of the production lost by Shin-Soo Choo's injury-marred year.
Maybe there is no fixing Gomez at this point. Maybe, at the ripe old age of 30, he's Texas toast. But with the Astros footing the bulk of the bill, it doesn't hurt to find out.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.