After entering the 2022 season as favourites to lead the American League in wins, the Toronto Blue Jays arrived at the All-Star break with a rather underwhelming 50-43 record.
Toronto occupies the third and final wild-card spot but has spent much of the season underperforming from either a pitching or hitting perspective given the talent on the roster. The overall underachievement led to manager Charlie Montoyo's firing on July 13.
FanGraphs is still high on the Blue Jays, giving them an 87.7 percent chance to make the playoffs. There's still plenty of reason for optimism, but there are a number of important questions they'll have to answer over the second half of the season if they want to fulfill their potential.
How will the front office approach the trade deadline?
This is the major question hovering over the Blue Jays. General manager Ross Atkins has a little under two weeks before the trade deadline to patch up several areas of the roster.
The wish list would be as follows:
At least one hard-throwing, high-leverage reliever — and ideally multiple
Another starting pitcher
A left-handed bat to balance a righty-heavy lineup
It's probably not realistic to expect Atkins to address all those needs, but the team as currently constructed does not appear good enough to make it to the World Series, which was the expectation heading into the year. There's work to be done.
What's the plan for Kikuchi?
The biggest disaster of the year thus far has been the play of Yusei Kikuchi, who is in the first season of a three-year, $36-million contract. The left-hander has shown flashes of brilliance, especially over a five-start stretch in May where he posted a 2.36 ERA.
But his entire body of work in 2022 (5.12 ERA) has been abysmal and it got to the point where he was unplayable. He failed to make it out of the third inning in four starts, which heavily taxed the bullpen and snowballed into even more pitching struggles.
Kikuchi finished the unofficial first half of the season on the injured list with a neck strain, and it's unclear what his role will be when he returns. He'll likely get another chance to start, but a move to the bullpen isn't out of the question, even though that seems like an odd fit for a player who has trouble throwing strikes. Wherever he ends up, the leash should be a short one since the Blue Jays have lofty goals down the stretch.
What version of Berrios will show up?
Jose Berrios had been one of the most consistent starters in baseball since 2017, which led to the Blue Jays giving him a seven-year contract extension last winter. The right-hander has been a major disappointment in his first full year in Toronto, posting an ugly 5.22 ERA through 19 starts.
His past four outings have been more encouraging as he's surrendered three runs or fewer and rediscovered his strikeout form. With Kikuchi already a major question mark, the Blue Jays can't afford to have another one in their rotation moving forward.
If Berrios pitches like his former self more consistently, a top three of Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and Berrios could be lethal in a playoff series.
Can Bo and Vladdy heat up?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is enjoying another strong season but nowhere near the production that saw him finish as the MVP runner-up last year. He's slashing .271/.346/.484 with 20 home runs through 92 games. Those numbers would be excellent for most major-leaguers, but the bar for Guerrero is higher. A hot month or two from the phenom would go a long way.
Similarly, Bo Bichette hasn't looked like himself over the first four months of the season, as evidenced by his career-worst .720 OPS. Perhaps his recent move to the cleanup spot will give him a spark at the plate.
Can Schneider push the right buttons?
Interim manager John Schneider took the keys from Montoyo and has gone 4-1 in his first five games at the helm. He's already shuffled the lineup and has tried to put more baserunners in motion to apply more pressure on opposing pitchers and defences.
MLB managers don't shoulder as much responsibility as they used to as teams employ a more collaborative approach, but the pressure is still on Schneider to return the Blue Jays to their winning ways. His long-term relationships with some of the club's most important players should serve him well.
Can two unlikely All-Stars maintain their production?
Two of Toronto's biggest surprises this season have been Alejandro Kirk and Santiago Espinal, both of whom were rewarded with their first All-Star appearances.
Kirk has led a productive Blue Jays catching corps with a .315/.395/.487 slash line with 11 home runs. Espinal has cooled down after a hot start but still ranks as an above-average offensive player who offers sturdy defence up the middle.
The Blue Jays' lineup is considerably deeper when Kirk and Espinal are at their best and it takes a bit of pressure off the likes of Guerrero Jr., Bichette and George Springer.
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