The Week Ahead: Moment of truth for Blue Jays

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wells-vernon-blue-jays-100530.jpgThe Yankees, Red Sox, and perhaps, the Rays. That was the common thinking on how the AL East race would go entering the season.

The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t listen to those projections and enter the week at 30-22. They’re only in third place and 4 1/2 games back. But their record would be good enough for at least second place in any other division, and would lead the AL West and NL East.

How are the surprising Jays doing it? Quite simply, they are hitting the ball very, very hard. Led primarily by Jose Bautista (15 home runs), Vernon Wells (pictured, 13) and Alex Gonzalez (10), Toronto leads all of baseball with 85 home runs. And it’s not even close, with the Reds and Red Sox tied for second with 67. They also rank first in doubles, first in slugging percentage and second in runs scored.

The offense has survived slow starts by Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, and more than offset a pitching staff that has been predictably mediocre.

They’ve also been somewhat fortunate with the early season schedule, playing 20 games so far against the Orioles, White Sox, Royals, and Indians, and going 16-4 in those contests.

But things change a bit this week things change a bit, as the Blue Jays play host to the two best teams in baseball – who also happen to be division rivals – in the Rays and Yankees. After that, they head to Tampa for three more games before embarking on an interleague road trip to Colorado and San Diego.

It’s a tough couple of weeks to be sure, and will probably bring the Jays back down to Earth a bit. But get through this stretch with a decent showing and maybe we’ll start to believe.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Phillies at Braves, May 31-June 2:
The Phillies have been struggling to score runs and now must face Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. The NL East is getting pretty interesting.

Rockies at Giants, May 31-June 2: In addition to the Ubaldo Jimenez-Tim Lincecum matchup on Monday, we get Jeff Francis vs. Matt Cain on Wednesday. Both teams remain in the thick of the NL West race. 

Reds at Cardinals, May 31-June 2: Cincinnati enters the week with a one-game lead over the preseason favorite Cardinals atop the NL Central. Watching Albert Pujols smash three bombs on Sunday can’t help the Reds’ confidence that they’ll stay there long.

Braves at Dodgers, June 3-6: Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Dodgers have been playing much better of late, climbing within two games of first place in the NL West. On top of that, they’re scheduled to get Andre Ethier back on Monday, who has been on the disabled list since May 18 with a fractured pinkie finger, yet still leads the team in home runs and RBIs. Things are looking up in Los Angeles.

Padres at Phillies, June 4-7: Guess which of these teams has a better record entering the week? I’ll give you a hint: The notoriously thrifty Padres are actually considering adding payroll via the trade market instead of trading away star slugger Adrian Gonzalez.

ON THE TUBE
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Phillies at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:15 p.m.: Reds at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Marlins at Mets (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Brewers at Cardinals (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Rays at Rangers (FOX)
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.: Brewers at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Reds’ manager Bryan Price extended through 2017

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 28: Manager Bryan Price #38 of the Cincinnati Reds looks on during the fifth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 28, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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The Reds will roll with manager Bryan Price for at least one more season. Per MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, Price has been extended through the 2017 season with a club option for 2018. He won’t be the only familiar face leading the team, as the Reds have reportedly asked the entire coaching staff to return as well.

This is Price’s second consecutive season with 90+ losses since Cincinnati signed him to a three-year contract back in 2014. While he hasn’t been able to replicate the same kind of success that former skipper Dusty Baker found in 2012 and 2013, he’s been saddled with a team that’s still in the throes of rebuilding, not one that looks on the cusp of playoff contention. It is, after all, the same team that has not seen a healthy season from Homer Bailey since Price’s arrival, one that unloaded Jay Bruce for a pair of prospects earlier this year and one whose pitching staff set a single-season record for most home runs given up by a major league team.

Justifying Price’s extension requires a different kind of yardstick, one that measures player development and individual success over the cumulative win-loss record. Here, Price has overseen solid performances from contributors like Adam Duvall, who is batting .244/.297/.506 with 2.9 fWAR in his first full major-league season, as well as young arms like Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, and Michael Lorenzen, among others.

From comments made by Reds’ CFO Bob Castellini, Price’s success within a rough rebuilding process appears to have cemented his place within the club, at least for the time being.

I like the young, aggressive team Walt and Dick have put together with players from within our system and from recent trades. […] Bryan has been here seven seasons now. He’s comfortable with the direction we are heading with our young players, and we are comfortable with him leading us in that direction.

Dusty Baker calls the Nationals “a baby making team.” Whatever that means.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 31: Manager Dusty Baker #12 of the Washington Nationals looks on before the start of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on August 31, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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When the Nationals fired Matt Williams a year ago, it might’ve been a safe assumption that they were going to go with that new breed of young, handsome recently-retired player-turned-manager who, despite a lack of experience, allegedly knows how to deal with modern players better and knows how to handle a clubhouse. Those assumptions have proved largely off with these guys — Williams was a disaster, Matheny wins despite himself and Ausmus looks like he’s perpetually on the verge of a breakdown — but that’s the all the rage these days anyway.

Instead, the Nats hired Dusty Baker. Though Baker had tremendous success as a manager everywhere he went, he was maligned by some for some pitcher handling stuff in Chicago (which said pitchers have long denied was an issue, but let’s let that lie). He was also, more generally, thought of as a “retread.” Which is what people who prefer younger folks for jobs tend to call older people, even if the older people know what they’re doing.

And yes, I will cop to thinking about managers that way a lot over the years, so I’m not absolving myself at all here, even if I was pretty OK with the Dusty Baker hiring. I’ve evolved on this point. In no small part because of how Dusty Baker has done in Washington. Flash forward a year, the Nats are division champions and Baker may be a top candidate for Manager of the Year. That, in and of itself, should show you how wrong the haters were.

But if it doesn’t, this sure should:

I have no earthly idea what that means and Castillo gives no further context. All I know is that it sounds cool as hell and of any current manager, only Dusty Baker could say that and pull it off.

Because he’s Dusty Baker and has nothing to prove to you. And if you don’t like it, shoot, he’ll just go back home to his winery or whatever and live out the rest of his days being cooler than you.