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Top free agents Blue Jays should hope wind up outside the AL East

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Considering the Toronto Blue Jays possess a strong core and money to spend — as well as some notable holes — the offseason ahead presents fertile ground for rumours, speculation, and wishcasting.

There will justifiably be a lot of attention given to how this team finds upgrades, but its fortunes will also be determined by how its AL East rivals do the same. After all, the Blue Jays finished behind three teams within their division in 2021, which means they have some leapfrogging to do if they want to reach their goals.

Not only are the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox particularly worth monitoring throughout free agency based on the quality of the players they bring in, Blue Jays fans should also pay close attention to how those players mesh with Toronto’s strengths and weaknesses. The Yankees and Red Sox probably won’t be actively seeking Blue Jays killers this offseason, but they might well find them.

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Here are a few guys that could be especially damaging to the Blue Jays if they wind up in the AL East:

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Trevor Story

Age: 28

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Position: SS

2021 stats:.251/.329/.471 with 24 HR in 595 PA, good for 3.5 WAR

Why he’s got Blue Jays killer potential: Story is a difficult hitter to project from here on out because his production has slipped in recent years, and it’s hard to know how he’ll fare without the benefit of hitting at Coors Field. He’ll probably be above-average offensively, but not enough to strike fear into Blue Jays fans – even if his power is no joke.

Where Story could be a problem if he turned up in Yankee pinstripes, for instance, is his defence. Since he broke into the league his +69 DRS ranks third among all shortstops, while his UZR of +15.4 ranks eighth. Statcast’s Outs Above Average is all over the place with his work ranking him as high as 99th percentile and as low as 4th percentile at his position on a season-to-season basis, but the general consensus is that he can pick it.

The Blue Jays’ lineup figures to remain predominantly right-handed in 2022, and Story could take hits away on the left side of the infield, especially from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who gets more than his fair share of knocks on blazing-fast grounders. Story has the ability to soak those up, as he showed on this 112.3 mph Renato Nuñez sizzler:

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Also, Story is an elite runner who could pick on a Blue Jays’ catching corps that caught a mediocre 22 percent of base stealers last year — and could see that number decline as Reese McGuire gets less playing time. The shortstop wouldn’t be fun for the Blue Jays to see 19 times a year.

Marcus Semien

Age: 31

Position: SS/2B

2021 stats: .265/.334/.538 with 45 HR in 595 PA, good for 6.6 WAR

Why he’s got Blue Jays killer potential: Losing Semien would be a massive blow to the Blue Jays regardless of where he goes, but the added sting is that he’s particularly well-equipped to hurt the club he was an MVP finalist for in 2021.

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Last season, the star infielder refined his approach in a Jose Bautista-like way by focusing on pulling as many fly balls as humanly possible. The result was a season in which he absolutely peppered left field with hits and ranked fifth among qualified hitters in pull percentage (51.3 per cent):

That’s notable from a Blue Jays perspective because left field projects to be their greatest defensive weakness. Despite a puzzling mention as a Gold Glove finalist, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has poor range out in left. In his two years as a full-time outfielder his Sprint Speed has never risen above the 41st percentile and his Outs Above Average have never crawled above the 14th. His strong and accurate arm makes up for some of his issues, but a guy like Semien could benefit from his presence out there – when he’s not clearing the wall altogether.

Max Scherzer

Age: 37

Position: RP

2021 stats: 11.84 K/9, 1.81 BB/9, 1.15 HR/9 with a 2.46 ERA and 2.97 FIP in 179.1 innings, good for 5.4 WAR

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Why he’s got Blue Jays killer potential: Scherzer is a killer, period, and no fanbase wants to see him show up in their division. That’s particularly true for the Blue Jays because of the way he handles right-handed hitters.

Last season he held righties to a .177/.211/.330 line with 128 strikeouts against just 10 walks, a level of dominance only matched by Corbin Burnes. The veteran’s slider is a devastating pitch, and he’s not afraid to dabble in right-on-right changeups to keep same-handed hitters off his fastball. A lineup centred around George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez, Bo Bichette, and Guerrero Jr. would be in tough against Scherzer and the last time he faced the Blue Jays — in 2020 when they had a similar core — he held them to three hits and no runs over 7.1 innings.

Beyond the platoon splits, Scherzer has made himself at home in his relatively few trips to Rogers Centre. His ERA there (2.16) is his third-best in any stadium in which he’s pitched at least five times and his K/BB ratio (42:6) is truly absurd. It’s probably all small-sample noise, but it’s possible the mound in Toronto suits him nicely for whatever reason.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Kendall Graveman

Age: 30

Position: RP

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2021 stats: 9.80 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 0.48 HR/9 with a 1.77 ERA and 3.19 FIP in 56 innings, good for 1.1 WAR

Why he’s got Blue Jays killer potential: After completely committing to a relief role for the first time in 2021, Graveman saw his velocity spike and became a late-inning force.

He’s on this list for the same reason as Verlander, broadly speaking, because he absolutely erased right-handers with his newfound power sinker-slider combo on the way to allowing a .117/.222/.126 line against them. Out of the 117 righties to face Graveman in 2021, just one got an extra-bases hit, and that knock was this slashing 87 mph liner that barely stayed in bounds:

The fact that Graveman gets righties isn’t the only issue he’d present as a divisional opponent for the Blue Jays, it’s how he gets them. The high-leverage reliever uses his 96.6 mph sinker 62.8 per cent of the time, and while Toronto hits fastballs well, they are much better against four-seamers.

In 2021, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer were the top two fastball hitters per 100 pitches according to Statcast’s run value metric. Against sinkers, they didn’t crack the leaderboard. When you look at last year’s Blue Jays (who are under contract for 2022) the majority were more vulnerable against sinking fastballs than four-seamers on a per/100 pitch basis last season:

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Although Biggio looks like a half-decent matchup for Graveman, much of this team’s lineup would be far better off avoiding a pitcher who ties right-handers in knots by pounding sinkers that run like this:

The former Toronto prospect has serious Blue Jays killer potential, as well as Blue Jays’ target appeal.





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NBA pre-season roundup: Raptors maintain perfect record with win over Celtics

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BOSTON (AP) — Pascal Siakam and Precious Achiuwa scored 13 points apiece and Toronto used an early burst in overtime to beat Boston 125-119 on Wednesday.

Josh Jackson also had 13 points for the Raptors. Siakam recorded six rebounds and Achiuwa seven boards as the Raptors improved to 2-0 in the preseason.

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 23 points and Sam Hauser had 22, connecting on 8 of 12 shots, including 5 of 8 from outside the arc. Jayson Tatum finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds for Boston, now 1-1 in the preseason.

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Payton Pritchard scored 17 points and had five assists

The teams were tied at 110 at the end of regulation after Jeff Dowtin (10 points) converted a 9-footer for the Raptors. Pritchard’s 18-footer was off the mark as time in regulation ran out, sending the game to the extra period.

The Raptors outscored the Celtics 11-4 to open overtime and never relinquished the lead.

76ERS 113, CAVALIERS 112

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Joel Embiid and James Harden were done with their preseason debuts long before Montrezl Harrell scored the go-ahead basket with 26 seconds left to lift Philadelphia over Cleveland.

Embiid had 12 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes before taking a seat after halftime. Harden played 19 minutes and scored nine points, going 3 of 9 from the field but adding five assists.

Tyrese Maxey, who had 20 points in Monday’s win over the Nets, continued his good start to the preseason, leading Philadelphia with 21 points in the first half. He went 9 of 11, making all three of his 3-pointers. Harrell, who signed a two-year contract with Philadelphia during the offseason, scored 13 points.

Mitchell scored 16 points in his first game since being traded from Utah, while Darius Garland and Raul Neto each had 12. Dean Wade and Sharife Cooper finished with 11 points apiece.

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Cleveland played without second-year big man Evan Mobley, who is expected to be out a couple of weeks with a right ankle sprain suffered this week.

The Cavaliers got an optimistic glimpse of the backcourt tandem of Mitchell with Garland in the first half. Mitchell was 6 of 9 for the game, including 3 of 4 from outside the arc to go with five assists. Garland, meanwhile, made 4 of 7 shots and handed out four assists.

Shake Milton had 12 points for Philadelphia, while De’Anthony Melton, picked up from Memphis in a draft night trade, had 11 points, four rebounds and three assists.

PACERS 122; HORNETS 97

Aaron Nesmith scored 16 points, rookie Benedict Mathurin, the No. 6 pick in the draft from Arizona, added 15 and Indiana beat Charlotte.

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Isaiah Jackson finished with 13 points for the Hornets, while Myles Turner and Chris Duarte contributed 12 points apiece. Mathurin was 5 of 10 from the field, despite missing all four of his 3-pointers over 19 minutes.

Terry Rozier led the Hornets with 18 points and P.J. Washington finished with 13. Kelly Oubre Jr. had 11 points and nine rebounds, while LeMelo Ball scored 12 points and handed out seven assists.

MAVERICKS 98; THUNDER 96

Jaden Hardy scored 21 points, Christian Wood finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, and Dallas used a fourth-quarter rally to beat Oklahoma City.

Dwight Powell finished with 13 points and five rebounds for the Mavericks in their opening game of the preseason.

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Josh Giddey led the Thunder with 13 points, shooting 6 for 10. Rookie Jalen Williams, the 12th overall pick out of Santa Clara, finished with 10 points.



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After a long season grind, the Blue Jays are ready for another

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BALTIMORE – There is achievement in baseball by simply completing the grind, showing up day in and day out, putting in the work, getting after it on the field and fighting through the cumulative toll. The relentlessness of the schedule makes finding and sustaining success all the more difficult, so to be among the last teams standing at the end really means something.

“You know, 162 is tough,” interim manager John Schneider said after a 5-1 win by his Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, securing a final-day, doubleheader split with the Baltimore Orioles and a 92-70 finish.

“People that do it every day, they realize that and it’s something they don’t take for granted. So it’s a collective effort, from start to finish, today being the exclamation point. But 162 games, winning 92 of them, very, very proud of the guys, everyone that is here, everyone that has been here. Really looking forward to the post-season.”

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That was universal around the Blue Jays clubhouse, as was a sigh of relief that they had emerged unscathed from the unexpected – and unwanted – twin-bill. With Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Seattle Mariners set for Friday at Rogers Centre – and yes, Alek Manoah is starting, official and announced – covering 18 innings could easily have upended their plans, especially after clinching home-field on Monday.

Instead, everything unfolded as they had mapped out, with relievers Trevor Richards, Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano each throwing a shutout inning ahead of Mitch White in a 5-4 loss in the opener, while David Phelps, Anthony Bass and Tim Mayza getting an inning each in front of Casey Lawrence, Yusei Kikuchi and Trent Thornton in the nightcap.

Some, if not most of their primary bullpen arms would likely have been used Wednesday to stay sharp even if Tuesday’s contest hadn’t been rained out, but the key is that no one sure to be on the wild-card roster Friday was overextended.

The same applied on the position player front, as only bench players started both contests with Otto Lopez, with a combined five hits and three RBIs, and Gabriel Moreno, with four hits including his first major-league home run, leading the way.

“The pitchers were pretty efficient with their pitch count,” said Schneider. “Guys got the at-bats they needed. We’ve been talking and it’s such a different animal come Friday night, whether you haven’t played in four or five days or if you played 18 innings today, you’re going to be ready to go. But all things considered, we wanted to get guys in, stay sharp, get guys at-bats. That worked out well.”

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As did the ability to put players in different spots for a quick look, from Moreno playing catcher, left field, second and third, to Lopez getting reps at both second and shortstop, to Whit Merrifield at first. With Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (hamstring) and Santiago Espinal (oblique) flying back to Toronto early in order to get their work in at Rogers Centre on Wednesday, the Blue Jays still have to figure out which position players will be on their roster come Friday, which will impact how many pitchers are selected.

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Moreno is one of those calls, and while there are merits to carrying a third catcher, particularly with how Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk are used, a display of his versatility and offensive skill-set adds to the considerations.

“I had the feeling that could happen at some point during those two games and it happened and I was ready for that,” Moreno said of playing around the diamond through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Grateful to have the opportunity to play all of these positions. I can say I have the ability to play different positions and I worked for that. Just having fun, I’m full of emotions. But I did have fun.”

White, who allowed five runs in four innings, was optioned between games for Thornton, meaning he’ll be ineligible for the next 15 days, barring an injury. The same applies to Nate Pearson, who was reinstated from the 60-day injured list after his rehab assignment expired and optioned back to triple-A.

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Intriguingly, Kikuchi has put himself back into consideration for the post-season roster with four straight scoreless appearances, including 1.2 clean innings with two strikeouts in the second game versus the Orioles. Since moving to the bullpen in mid-August, he’s struck out 33 batters in 18.1 innings over 12 outings, although he’s also had a few rough ones in there as he’s adjusted to a new role.

The swing and miss stuff is tempting though, and “I feel like I’m able to attack and get in that attack mindset” as a reliever, Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando.

“We’ve all talked about it from the beginning of the year, but I just wasn’t quite able to do it,” he continued. “But now I really do feel like I’m able to focus on one pitch at a time, focus on that moment and that moment only, and just go out and attack.”

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Kikcuhi isn’t sure yet about his status for the post-season and Schneider was careful not to tip his hand, although his comments left things open to speculation.

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“Love how he’s looked against left-handed hitters out of the bullpen. He’s throwing strikes, striking guys out. Today was just another example of it,” he said. “What he’s proven down the stretch is, we’re not afraid to put him in spots that matter, spots that are big. He also provides length, too.”

The Blue Jays, barring a surprise, shouldn’t need that bulk from him in the post-season if their rotation pitches to expectation. Schneider didn’t divulge whether it would be Kevin Gausman, who left his last start with a cut on his right middle finger but was said to be fine, or Ross Stripling in Game 2, but either is a fine complement to Manoah, the obvious choice for Game 1.

“Seeing him in those really big moments and obviously the month of September that he’s had,” said Schneider, “like the way he matches up against anybody but confident in him just embracing the atmosphere and doing what he’s been doing all year.”

The same goes for the rest of the Blue Jays, who completed one grind and are now set for another.

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NFL Week 5 is here! Check out why you should place your wager on the Chiefs this week, along with other Week 5 betting trends.



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