AL East Report: Toronto Pitching Gets Torched

The Toronto Blue Jays’ struggles last week can’t be considered unexpected—not when your schedule is six games against Tampa Bay & Texas, two teams you can make a credible argument are the top two in the American League. But each team has its own set of issues—the Rays are missing Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings from the lineup and the Rangers, as TheSportsNotebook noted in this past Saturday’s AL West report, had hit a bit of a sluggish stage. If you aspire to make the playoffs, like Toronto does, you shouldn’t be overmatched. But the Jays were, especially the pitching.

Blue Jay pitching finished with the worst ERA in the American League last week and there were few who could escape blame. 24-year-old Kyle Drabek was hammered by the Rangers, 21-year-old Henderson Alvarez only pitched 10.2 IP in two starts and gave up ten runs. Ricky Romero’s been mediocre in two of his last three outings, while the bullpen, with plenty of opportunity to work, surrendered 19 runs in 29 innings. The only silver lining we can find is that Drew Hutchison, the 21-year-old, who was rocked by Tampa, finally stopped the bleeding with a quality outing yesterday in a home win over Baltimore. Was this just a bad week against teams that are still pretty good, in spite of any current form misgivings, or is it a bigger problem.

I’ll give the bold answer—I don’t know. I certainly think Romero will get settled back down. He’s still 5-1 with a 3.86 ERA on the year, his outings weren’t horrible, just shaky and he’s got a good track record. Beyond that…well, you saw the ages listed next to Drabek, Hutchison and Alvarez. There’s a lot of reasons for manager John Farrell to be pleased with what he’s seen from them in the first two months, and also reason for fans to be concerned how many more bumps they’ll take on the learning curve. Normally I would be outright pessimistic, but Farrell’s background is as a pitching coach and he seems to have a good handle on this team over the past year-plus he’s been the skipper. I think his expertise cancels out the inexperience and gives the kids at least a puncher’s chance of winning the 87-88 games it will probably take to earn a wild-card game spot in the American League.

The bullpen doesn’t have the same youth problems, but it raises the question if you prefer veteran mediocrity to youthful talent, at least in the short term. Francisco Cordero failed in the closer’s spot, Sergio Santos got hurt and now Casey Janssen is in the ninth-inning role. The Jays are getting good work from Darren Oliver, but whether he can progress from being more than a situational pitcher and into someone who can just take the seventh or eighth inning and lock it down is doubtful. If Luis Perez keeps up his solid year, Toronto’s got a shot to survive. Otherwise, they have to give too many key outs to Carlos Villaneuva and a pitcher who couldn’t hack it with Milwaukee in the NL Central is not going to turn lights-out in the AL East.

A lot of questions and a lot of possibilities are out there for Toronto in this year’s AL East. The Jays are sitting at 25-24 in fourth place. They’re only four back of Baltimore/Tampa for the division lead…and only a ½ game up on Boston as we enter Tuesday’s play.

Around the rest of the division…

Tampa Bay (29-20): It was a solid week for the Rays, who won the aforementioned series with Toronto and also took two of three in Boston, primarily on the strength of their pitching. I called out Matt Moore yesterday on my podcast with Greg DePalma at PrimeSportsNetwork—more accurately I called out all of us who just assumed that his handful of sharp innings in 2011 meant he would seamlessly transition into an AL East rotation this year. Moore’s ERA was 5.71 on May 6, but we do have to note that the kid has lowered that number each of his last four starts. He’s still going to be very good, but we need to give him time to experience the growing pains.

Baltimore (29-20): The Orioles hit a bump in the road this week, dropping home series to Boston and to Kansas City, with Xavier Avery coming down to earth offensively and Matt Wieters staying mired in what’s now a two-week slump. Pitching-wise, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter were hit hard. I’ve been high on Hunter, but this period between now and the All-Star break is important if he’s going to live up to his promise. Whatever the short-term holds in Baltimore, the long-term got a big boost with the signing of Adam Jones to a long-term contract extension and keeping him off the free-agent market this winter.

NY Yankees (26-22): A series sweep in Oakland capped off a good week for the Pinstripes, as they also took two of three from Kansas City. Mark Teixeira finally realized the season had begun, and went 11-for-21 with four home runs. It was a great week for the first baseman and I’m sure he’ll get on his usual summer hot streak, but is it fair to ask how much of a slow start one should put up with from a guy pulling in $20 mil per year, particularly when those slow starts get longer each season?  The Yanks have reason to be pleased with the bullpen. Not because Rafael Soriano closed all three save chances. That’s not a huge surprise. What’s noteworthy is that Joe Girardi is getting good work from David Phelps, Cory Wade and Boone Logan, the depth areas that are most vulnerable after injuries to Mariano and David Robertson.

Boston (24-24): In a strange way the Red Sox split of six games last week against Baltimore and Tampa Bay was almost as a good a news as the hot streak we documented in last week’s AL East report. Why? Because the Red Sox have been hot or cold or all year. We knew they could get hot, we just didn’t know if they could stabilize when things weren’t falling their way. At least for one week against the division co-leaders, they did. Although I have to wonder how long Mike Aviles and his porous on-base percentages can continue to hit leadoff.