By Rob Ficiur
As the Toronto Blue Jays season passes the half waypoint – it is time for my third annual Blue Jays Surprising stars (so far). In the past two years, the surprising stars have been: 2015 Steve Delabar, Chris Collabello and Kevin Pillar; 2016 Michael Sanders, Ezekiel Carrera, Darwin Barney and Joe Biagini. Before announcing the 2017 surprises there are several patterns when looking back at these players. Delabar and Collabello have both since been suspended by Major League baseball for using illegal substances. With the host of Blue Jays injuries Carrera and Barney have been called up on to be regular players. When they were over used, their play dropped off to non star levels. Since Sanders played like all star form the first half of last year he has been released by two teams for poor play. This past week the Jays signed him again, hoping he can surprise everyone once again.
Kevin Pillar and Joe Biagini continue to play and impress Blue Jays fans (most days). Pillar has become the highlight reel defensive center fielder. If he could regain some of his early season hitting numbers, he could be a real all-star. Biagini was an all-star caliber reliever early in the season. When injuries forced him to learning the world of a starting pitcher his play dropped off considerably. In April Biagini was a star on a weak pitching staff posting a 2.12 earned run average in 13 games. In June his star crashed as he posted a 5.88 ERA in five starts. Fans hope that as he returns to the relief core this week we can see the old Joe pitching again.
1. Justin Smoak – is the most surprising Jays star in years. During pre-season fans were calling for the team to release Smoak. Fans suggested promoting a AAA prospect rather than playing Smoak. Fans feared that his dismal batting average from last year (.148 in June; .200 in August) would continue this year. At best the media saw him as a capable platoon player at first base.
As of today Justin Smoak, who was left off the Blue Jays playoff roster last year, leads the team in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Smoak’s previous career high batting average was .238 but right now he is batting .300. His 23 home runs is three more than his career high; his 55 runs batted in are three shy of his personal best with 80 games to go. With all these improved numbers fans were surprised when Justin Smoak was voted to the American League all-star team. A deserving surprise star.
2. Devan Travis is the Blue Jays second baseman for the future. After a slow start in April (hitting only .130) Travis hit all-star form with a .364 batting average scoring 19 runs and batting in 17. When Devan Travis got hot, the Jays became the best team in baseball. This surprise turned sour after June 4 when Travis went on the injury list. His departure co-incited with the Jays terrible June.
The best surprise Blue Jays fans could have in July (or even August) is to see Devon Travis playing. The team said he had knee surgery – but no further details have come forth since. The longer we hear nothing, the more we will be surprised if we see Devon Travis at all this season.
3. Danny Barnes – In August 2016 Danny Barnes made his major league debut. Since then rookie has been a pillar to the oft-injured Toronto Blue Jays relief corps. His 2.36 earned run average ranks him second only to closer Roberto Osuna for team lead. Barnes did not make the team’s opening day roster. He spent two weeks in the minors before they needed him back. He has made thirty relief appearances allowing no runs in 26 of those games. One fan observed that it is rare to see Danny Barnes on a highlight package. Usually he come in and pitching one (often two) innings without much fan fare. Nothing special happens, he just gets the batters out. No highlight material there.
Experts did not count on Barnes to be a pillar to the Jays pitching staff – they are pleasantly surprised.
Next week’s article will update you on how (and where) former Blue Jays players are playing. Are they all stars? Does the team miss their production? Find out next week.