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Olney: Slow start might force Blue Jays to tear down

If the Blue Jays don't get turned around soon, valuable veterans like Josh Donaldson might have to be traded away. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

THE BRONX, N.Y. -- The Toronto Blue Jays rotation had the best ERA in the American League in 2016 by almost half a run, and with that entire group intact and with Aaron Sanchez working free of innings restrictions this season, they could run off a week’s worth of wins and get back to .500.

But with nine losses in 11 games, the standings hole that Toronto has created for itself is enormous, compounded by the loss of MVP candidate Josh Donaldson to recurring calf problems. Rival evaluators already are beginning to size up the Jays as a possible candidate for an extensive midseason sell-off.

If Toronto cannot execute a performance U-turn as dramatic as its early-season plummet, evaluators say the Jays could focus on a rebuild and provide a lot of the more attractive players in the market -- particularly starting pitchers, a sparse commodity before last year’s deadline. For example:

J.A. Happ, pitcher. The left-hander is 34 years old and has a 2.97 ERA in 270 innings since he joined the Pirates after a late-season trade in 2015, so teams will be ready to buy into his value -- especially given his contract, which looks like a bargain now in light of his recent performance. Happ is making $13 million this year and will make $13 million next year, and if Toronto devotes itself to a rebuild, it could make sense for them to swap a valued pitcher in his mid-30s, with the knowledge that the team won’t be as competitive for the duration of his current contract.

Francisco Liriano, pitcher. He is the ultimate volatile asset among starting pitchers, with his performance varying from awful to dominant. Scouts thought that he was among the most overpowering starters in Florida this spring, but his first two starts produced more of the same inconsistency, with one very bad and one very good, and the left-hander allowed seven runs in seven innings between them. Liriano is making $13.7 million this year and is eligible for free agency in the fall. One question that any interested team would ask is this: How much of Liriano’s success is predicated on the presence of Russell Martin as his catcher? He has a 2.93 ERA in the 43 games that he and Martin have worked together, but he has had less success with others.

Marco Estrada, pitcher. Like Liriano, he is eligible for free agency in the fall after making $14.5 million this season, and Estrada, 33, is widely respected for his competitiveness and his ability to change speeds. But he has been hampered by injuries in his career, something that any interested team would have to dig into before making a deal.

Josh Donaldson, third baseman. As spring training began, the Jays were approaching that time when they needed to assess whether they will invest in the slugger or move him. That’s because Donaldson, 31, is moving closer to free agency; he will be part of an epic class in fall 2018 unless the Jays work out an extension. As an impact hitter under team control through next season, Donaldson would presumably have really good value in the market -- if he’s healthy. So Donaldson’s rehabilitation from his constant series of calf injuries is important for the 2017 Jays and perhaps in generating appropriate offers. Either way, Toronto needs him to be healthy.

Jose Bautista, outfielder. This is an extremely important time for Bautista’s earning power, and his slow start is undercutting his ability to improve on the contract he signed with the Jays, which includes vesting and mutual options for 2018 and 2019. Bautista looked great early in spring, driving the ball to all fields, but so far this year he’s hitting .150. If his struggles continue, it’s hard to imagine the Jays thinking about bringing him back for 2018, and because he’ll be 37 in the fall, a down year will cement industry concerns about his decline. However, if he bounces back and gets back to what he’s been in the past, Bautista might help the Jays’ ability to move him -- which would be complicated by the specifics of his contract.

Troy Tulowitzki, shortstop. Three years ago, he was considered one of the best players in the game, but the reality is that his trade value has almost evaporated because of his sizable contract and the decline in his offense. Tulowitzki is owed $58 million from 2018 to 2020, including a $4 million buyout on an option for 2021, and with a .740 career OPS as a Blue Jay, his year-to-year production since joining Toronto is merely a slice of what he generated in Colorado (.885).

If the Jays reach a crossroad where they feel as if it’s best to sell as many assets as possible, then they almost certainly would have to eat a large share of the money owed to Tulowitzki, or take a bad contract in return.

Privately, baseball executives will tell you that there is a small silver lining if your team starts badly: You have the flexibility to be decisive and to be aggressive in turning over assets rather than trying to keep up the pretense that you are contending.

The Jays may not reach that stage for weeks, or even months. Riding that pitching staff, they could quickly rejoin the pack in the AL East race. But other teams already are wondering what direction the Jays will take and who they might consider selling.

Around the league

  • Michael Pineda starts against the Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball (after Baseball Tonight at 7 p.m. ET, with first pitch at 8 p.m. on ESPN). He’s coming off one of the best starts of his tenure with the Yankees. He struck out 11 in 7 ⅓ innings against the Rays on April 10, allowing one run and walking none, avoiding the one bad inning or one bad sequence that tends to plague him. Pineda felt he had a good changeup when warming up in the bullpen, and he shook off catcher Austin Romine to get to that pitch repeatedly -- against right-handed as well as left-handed batters. But teammates also noticed that Pineda seemed to maintain his focus better: He wasn’t ambling around the mound between pitches or looking into the stands -- actions that can sometimes be signs that he’s not wholly locked in. When CC Sabathia sees him start to be that way, he’ll sometimes call out to the right-hander from the dugout to try to jar him back into the moment.

  • After a circuitous start to the Cubs’ season -- with exhibition games in Houston, a rain-soaked six days in St. Louis and a weekend in Milwaukee -- the Cubs players were back at renovated Wrigley Field for only a few hours before playing their home opener, with little chance for assessment of the ballpark alterations. But now that the Cubs have settled in and seen the latest changes, they've had the chance to make some direct observations that should inform some future tweaks, which are inevitable.

    1. With the bullpens taken off the field and placed under the stands in right-center and left-center field, the Cubs added 500 new seats, fronted by a brick facing along the foul lines. The Cubs have already discussed the possibility -- the inevitability, really -- of padding that brick, given the likelihood that players will sprint toward those walls in pursuit of foul balls.

    Keep in mind that the two most coveted (and valuable) members of the franchise are both corner infielders -- third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Padding on the walls could help reduce the risk for injuries for those cornerstones and others.

    2. The Plexiglas that covers the front of the bullpens in left-center field and right-center field creates a much more significant ricochet than the Cubs expected: It’s as if any ball struck off that surface has been launched by a trampoline. The Cubs will work to find a surface that will generate bounces more in line with how the ball rebounds when it hits the ivy-covered brick walls.

    3. The bullpens are a nice, warm haven, but almost too antiseptic, too enclosed. There is talk of finding a way to open the bullpen areas to more crowd noise, and to adjust the glare from the lighting.

  • Players felt free to express emotion during the World Baseball Classic, their joy showing through shouts, pumped fists and bats happily flipped. Some evaluators agree that there has seemingly been some carry-over into the start of MLB’s season, with players being more demonstrative. One example: When the Padres’ Wil Myers homered off Johnny Cueto, a pitcher who had dominated him in the past, he looked toward the first-base dugout and shouted happily. The Padres trailed 5-0 when Myers hit his homer, but the reaction was sincere and a compliment to Cueto -- a hitter expressing relief over finally solving a great pitcher. Last weekend, Keon Broxton of the Brewers responded excitedly after taking a home run away from the Cubs’ Jason Heyward, and Heyward tipped his batting helmet in Broxton’s direction -- long enough to make sure that Broxton saw his acknowledgment. “If we are seeing more of that kind of thing, I think that’s awesome,” one executive said. “It’s good thing for the game, in general. I would think [MLB] would encourage the players to do that ... If it’s genuine, that’s great.”

  • Newlywed Kris Bryant has learned more about collaboration, cooperation and negotiation. He is getting a replica of the Cubs’ championship trophy for his new home, and he mentioned to his wife, Jessica Delp, that he thought it would look good in the foyer of their home. Bryant laughed as he related her reaction: No, maybe it would be better if it was upstairs.

  • Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio likes the fact that other than Koji Uehara, every member of the team’s bullpen has history as a starting pitcher, because that means each has a more fully developed repertoire. One example is that Justin Grimm pitched out of a jam against the Dodgers last week by going to his fastball after he initially struggled to throw his curveball for strikes.

  • The Giants’ Matt Cain is facing a similar transition to the one that CC Sabathia has had to go through -- adjusting to the reality that he cannot throw as hard as he used to and learning to mix his pitches differently. In Cain’s most recent start against Arizona, he did what catchers and pitchers refer to as pitching backward -- by throwing breaking balls in counts in which pitchers typically throw fastballs and using his off-speed stuff to set up the less frequent use of his fastball. Cain allowed one run in five innings. Sabathia recalled an at-bat in which he pitched to Russell Martin a couple of years ago, when the left-hander had it in his mind that he would bust a fastball past his former teammate -- but the best he could do was 90 mph, which Martin clubbed for a homer. Sabathia says now that he wishes he had started altering speeds with his pitches earlier in his career.

  • From Elias: Aaron Judge has two of the three hardest-hit balls in the majors this season, and perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. At 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, he’s the first hitter in MLB history to be at least that tall and weigh that much.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: Indians manager Terry Francona talked about the increased show of emotion in the game, the possibility of a four-man outfield and the slow start of Edwin Encarnacion; White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson described growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the one thing he really wanted to purchase after signing his new $25 million deal; Karl Ravech and Justin Havens discussed a surprising decision by an agent; plus, Jackie Robinson’s Hall of Fame speech.

Thursday: Doug Glanville on the Cubs’ new championship ring and the possible use of a four-man outfield; Jayson Stark on the face of baseball; Boston play-by-play man Dave O’Brien on the illnesses that have crushed the Red Sox traveling party -- including O’Brien, who got sick midgame.

Wednesda: Twins catcher Jason Castro on pitch presentation (or framing); Tim Kurkjian on the value of Mike Trout and Yoenis Cespedes; Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer on whether the Phillies will target Manny Machado or Bryce Harper -- or both.

Tuesday: Keith Law on early-season surprises and the Cubs’ ceremonies; Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information presents the Numbers Game.

Monday: Jerry Crasnick on Francisco Lindor and some season openers; Andrew Marchand on the Yankees; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz, and the No. 25 logo of all time as he counts down the Top 30.

Plus, a special Call To The Legend podcast with Batting Stance Guy, aka Gar Ryness, who tells the backstories of doing his impersonations for hitters, including the reactions of David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter, Ichiro and others -- and the backstory from his first appearance on David Letterman’s show.

And today will be better than yesterday.