The Toronto Blue Jays have endured a mostly rough first half of the season after a series of high-profile acquisitions in the offseason made them the favorite to win the AL East. Injuries and underperformance followed, and the Blue Jays spent the bulk of the first half running away with the division, but in the opposite direction.
Now, after a strong run over the last two weeks, the Jays are nudging back to the fringes of contention. Are the expected Blue Jays finally ready to show up?
STARTING PITCHING WOES
Toronto’s problems begin with starting pitching. This is a team that’s 14th in the American League in starters’ ERA and the prime culprit is R.A. Dickey. The Cy Young Award winner from last year with the Mets has turned into the man with the 4.90 ERA now that he’s in the American League. Josh Johnson, acquired from Florida, has only been healthy enough to make seven starts and has a mediocre 4.38 ERA.
I suppose you can call Dickey and Johnson disappointments, and by mainstream standards you’d be right. But as one who never drank the Toronto Kool-Aid, I don’t see why an aging knuckleballer in a tougher league starting to fade, and an injury-prone pitcher getting hurt add up to a big surprise.
The rest of the rotation has been worse. Mark Buehrle’s ERA is in the high 5s, and Brandon Morrow first pitched poorly, then got himself on the disabled list. The same goes for J.A. Happ.
Toronto has found some signs of hope from two unlikely sources. Esmil Rogers was pulled out of the bullpen and given four starts. Rogers has a 3.14 ERA. Then an even more unlikely move came when Toronto signed Chien-Ming Wang. It’s been five years since Wang was the ace of the Yankee rotation before injuries felled him, and his comeback efforts have been largely unsuccessful. But he’s gotten two starts and also has a 3.14 ERA. If Wang can keep himself healthy and keep his velocity up, he can be a functionable part of the rotation.
What’s happening with the starting pitching is wasting a good year from the bullpen. It’s ironic, because the pen has the no-names, while the rotation has the stars, but Toronto is 4th in the American League in bullpen ERA, and has closed 72 percent of their save chances, a figure above the league average.
Casey Janssen is the biggest reason, and the closer is 16/17 on save opps with 2.28 ERA. The Jays are getting good work from Steve Delebar, Aaron Loup and an old reliable in Darren Oliver. Even a brief stint on the DL by Oliver opened up some work for Neil Wagner and Juan Perez, and they were both lights-outs. If the starting pitchers can hand this group more leads, they can get on win streaks—not unlike the one they’re on right now.
WHERE ARE THE BASERUNNERS?
On the offensive side, it’s getting on base that’s the problem. Toronto is 10th in the AL in on-base percentage and only three players—Edwin Encarcion, Jose Bautista and Adam Lind—are really effective and getting aboard consistently. Given the importance all three have in the power game, you can see the Jays can’t afford having their run producers reduced to table-setters.
Much like the starting pitching is wasting the good relief work, the failure to just get on base steadily is wasting some good power hitting. Encarcion has gone deep 19 times. Bautista and catcher J.P. Arencibia have each hit 15 home runs. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus has 13. Lind is slugging .555. If this team gets runners on base, they can put up some big innings.
That’s where Jose Reyes comes in. The shortstop has been about almost the entire year with an ankle injury, but he’s rehabbing in the minors and his return is imminent. Reyes is capable of being the man with the .380 on-base percentage that can set the table for the offense. Although he could use some help from Rasmus and Arencibia, who are right now prototypes of the player whose only valuable when he’s hitting the ball out of the park.
Brett Lawrie is also out with an injury, though the highly-touted third baseman is having his second straight disappointing year at the plate. He’s still young, but it bears wondering why can’t at least give something like a .337 on-base percentage—the figure that Reyes fill-in Muneri Kawaski posted, making one wonder if Toronto will still find him some playing time when Reyes comes back. With Lawrie still injured and second baseman Emil Bonifacio not hitting, there’s certainly room for Kawaski somewhere, presuming he’s versatile enough to handle those positions.
THE ROAD AHEAD
I guess we’re back to square one when it comes to prognostication with Toronto. If you believed in this team at the start you look at the win streak, Reyes coming back, the fact they’re only 4 ½ games out of the wild-card and a reasonable 7 ½ back of first place, and think that we’re about see a real contender in action. If you share the view of TheSportsNotebook, the win streak per se doesn’t surprise you—most every team has one—but you certainly don’t see it as a harbinger of things to come.
The offense will likely produce, and if Reyes can keep himself in the lineup, they’ll score runs and with the good bullpen, that will be enough to at least ensure Toronto doesn’t look as awful as they did when the year began. But I don’t buy anything about this starting pitching—I think Dickey and Buehrle are finished, Johnson’s too brittle and the rest unlikely to sustain success or good health. At the start of the year I had Toronto finishing a little bit over .500, but missing the playoffs. This current win streak doesn’t change that.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL EAST: Boston continues to hold a slight lead over Baltimore, and the margin on New York is up to 3 ½ games. But the Red Sox sent Clay Bucholz to the DL, and while it doesn’t look long-term, Bucholz does have an injury history. Tampa Bay has slipped six games back and David Price’s rehab start tomorrow can’t come too soon.
AL CENTRAL: Detroit must like the idea of a competitive division race, because the Tigers still dink around and keep teams in it. The Tigers are 39-31 and 3 ½ back of a Cleveland team that’s only a game over .500.
AL WEST: Last week’s MLB coverage featured the Oakland A’s, and they are holding a two-game cushion on Texas. The prospect for the Rangers getting their injured veteran pitchers back by next month isn’t looking real promising and there’s potential for Oakland to open this up.