Rosenthal: Now was a curious time for the Blue Jays to fire Charlie Montoyo

Eleven days ago, the Blue Jays suffered an awful tragedy. Julia Budzinski, the 17-year-old daughter of first base coach Mark Budzinski, died in a tubing accident. 

Charlie Montoyo left the dugout with Budzinski upon learning of Julia’s death during the second game of a doubleheader against the Rays. Two days ago, Montoyo and other club representatives attended Julia’s funeral in Glen Allen, Va.  

And yet, now is the time the Jays picked to fire Montoyo as manager.

Yes, the Blue Jays are underachieving. Their current 2-9 stretch, when viewed in a vacuum, provided ample justification for club president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins to make the decision they did on Wednesday. But the greater context matters, especially when that context also includes the team finishing 91-71 and just missing the playoffs last season despite playing home games in three different cities.

Maybe the Jays will be proven right about Montoyo. Maybe the team finally will take off under interim manager John Schneider, who will draw the immediate benefit of a four-game series against the lowly Royals leading into the All-Star break. But this move, coming so soon after Julia Budzinski’s death, seems rather cold, even as managerial firings go. 

If the front office has all these compelling reasons for dismissing Montoyo — reasons we have yet to hear — then they should not have brought him back this season, much less given him on April 1 a one-year extension through 2023 with club options for 2024 and 2025.

The Jays, 46-42, held the third American League wild card when they announced Montoyo’s firing. The team on Sunday completed a stretch of 40 games in 41 days, capped off by a doubleheader on July 2, and then a West Coast trip to Oakland and Seattle with no off-days. So maybe, if the Jays beat the Phillies for a second straight day on Wednesday night, then beat up the Royals this weekend ace right-hander Kevin Gausman returns to the rotation Thursday after missing a start with a bone bruise in his right ankle that will be the fuel they need entering the break.

Perhaps such a view is overly optimistic. The offense, 11th in the majors in runs per game, has been disappointing. The bullpen, 21st in ERA (worst of any contender except the Giants), is thin beyond closer Jordan Romano, Adam Cimber and Yimi Garcia. It certainly was not Montoyo’s fault that the front office has yet to reinforce the bullpen, something it already had done by this point last season, adding Cimber on June 29 and Trevor Richards on July 6.

So, what was it? What exactly was the problem with Montoyo? 

It could not have been the call Montoyo challenged Wednesday night against the Phillies despite first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. motioning toward the dugout that he shouldn’t bother (the Jays nearly picked off Matt Vierling on the next play, but could not dispute the call because they already had lost their challenge.) It could not even have been the team’s 1-6 record in Oakland and Seattle, which the front office, if it was in a forgiving mood, could have excused because of the difficulty of the recent schedule.

No, it had to be something deeper, more fundamental. I always got the sense the Jays’ front office viewed Montoyo as something of a place-holder, a baseball lifer who paid his dues in the minors and deserved a major-league opportunity, but was not necessarily the manager to lead them to a World Series title. That very well could be the case, and perhaps the friendly, engaging personality that endears Montoyo to all those who know him prevented the team from making a harsher decision sooner. Still, Jays executives preach the importance of culture. With a move like this, they will need to explain how the culture Montoyo helped create was not the vibe they were seeking.

Again, I’m not dismissing the possibility that the team might benefit from Montoyo’s departure. One rival official was not surprised by the elevation of Schneider, saying the front office has been grooming him for the position. Perhaps Schneider will offer greater presence than Montoyo. Perhaps he will prove more — warning, front-office buzzword coming — “collaborative.” If everything works out, few will mourn Montoyo’s dismissal.

The Phillies certainly ignited after replacing Joe Girardi with Rob Thomson on June 3. Some of that probably was due to the schedule. The Phillies were coming off an 8-12 stretch against the Dodgers, Padres, Braves and Mets. After Thomson took over, they went 14-5 against the Angels, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Marlins and Rangers. But at the very least, the move snapped the players to attention.

The Angels did not enjoy nearly the same benefit after their managerial change — they were 27-29 under Joe Maddon, and are 11-21 under Phil Nevin. The Blue Jays’ roster, though, is better than the Angels’. Few in the game would be surprised if the Jays held onto the third AL wild-card spot, or ascended to the first or second.

With Gausman returning, Alex Manoah making his first All-Star team and José Berríos finally getting it together in his last three starts, it’s not out of the question the team will get on a roll — if the back of the rotation stabilizes, and the front office both fortifies the bullpen and finds another left-handed bat to balance the lineup. From Guerrero to Bo Bichette to Teoscar Hernández, so many Jays hitters are performing below their expected levels. At any moment, that could change.

The Jays entered the season with high expectations, stemming in part from their $171 million payroll, the highest in franchise history. They play in the most competitive division in the majors, and they have not played especially well. If the front office viewed the season as slipping away, then perhaps urgency was warranted.

It was easy to find reasons to fire Charlie Montoyo. It would have been easy to find reasons to keep him, too.

(Top photo: Cole Burston / Getty Images)

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