Toronto Tries To Hang In The AL Wild-Card Race

The Toronto Blue Jays occupy a unique status in the MLB landscape right now and not one that other teams would admire. Of the teams playing .500 or better, and thus viable playoff hopefuls, Toronto is the only one with zero shot at a division title and reduced to playing for a one-game wild-card shot by mid-May.

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There’s simply no way the Jays will beat out both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox this year and even finishing ahead of one is highly unlikely. But get Toronto into a one-game shot in either the Bronx or the Fens, and then a lightning best-of-five against the other if they win that? That’s doable.

The Blue Jays are currently sitting on a 21-21 record and if you believe—as I do—that the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners are unlikely to play at the 95-plus win pace they’re currently on, that means the bar for the second wild-card is probably going to be in the 88-90 win range and Toronto would need only a modest upgrade in performance to reach that level.

Toronto has used opportunistic hitting and pitching to keep themselves afloat in this early portion of the schedule. They’re a respectable sixth in the American League in runs scored despite being substantially worse in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Why? They hit with runners in scoring position, ranking third in the AL when runs are out there. On the pitching side, their staff ERA is a woeful 11th, but it rises to 5th with men in scoring position. That will enable you to steal some wins that you probably shouldn’t have gotten.

Manager John Gibbons has overseen a stellar bullpen, that ranks second in the league. Two veteran journeymen, Tyler Clippard and John Axford have been the keys, working the most innings of anyone in relief and posting sub-2.00 ERAs. That’s enabled Toronto navigate through some subpar starting pitching, where Aaron Sanchez’s 4.08 ERA is the best in the rotation, while Marcus Stroman, Jaime Garcia and Marco Estrada have been hit hard.

Taken on its face, that’s not sustainable—the opportunistic play is likely to come and go through the long season and banking on veteran bullpen castoffs to cover for poor starting pitching is an even worse bet. But fortunately for Toronto, that’s not the entire story.

Josh Donaldson, the one-time MVP third baseman, can be expected to show some sharp improvement. His early season has been marred by injuries, but he’s healthy and in the lineup now. Kevin Pillar, already one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball, is showing a bat to match, as he’s ripped 17 doubles and I don’t believe that’s a fluke.

Teoscar Hernandez, an outfielder acquired last year from Houston in a trade deadline move for Francisco Liriano, is an exciting talent who’s slugging .537. Even with Toronto having parted ways with Jose Bautista and Kendry Morales in decline, there’s plenty of reason to think this offense will be consistently productive. As far as the starting pitching goes…well the ERAs are 7.71 (Marcus Stroman), 6.28 (Jaime Garcia) and 5.32 (Marco Estrada). I don’t really see how it gets worse.

Having to compete with the American League’s two financial heavyweights puts Toronto in a rough position with no margin for error. But I still like them over the other candidates on the American League’s wild-card fringe right now.