The Surprising Toronto Blue Jays
Last year about this time, on July 29th to be exact, I wrote a piece here at Baseball Analysts wondering how close the Baltimore Orioles were to competing in the AL East. They were 13 games under .500 at the time with a solid young core and a fast-rising crop of top prospects. Since then, the O’s are 54-114. Well it’s that time of year again and as a loyal Red Sox fan it’s my obligation to give another AL East team, the Toronto Blue Jays, that same treatment.
No, but seriously, the Blue Jays are good. They won their 8th game in 11 tries last night, including two straight in the Bronx against the New York Yankees. Against baseball’s best lineup, Blue Jays starters Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero struck out a combined 13 Yanks in 14.1 innings, walking just 3 along the way. Romero tossed a complete game 2-hitter last night. For more on Morrow, check out Rich Lederer’s piece from Monday. The Blue Jays trail the Yankees by 9 games in the loss column for the Wild Card, and the Red Sox, who are in contention according to many, sit just 3 games ahead of the Jays in the loss column.
Coming into this season, without the services of Roy Halladay, things were supposed to be bleak north of the border. There seemed to be a consensus that the Jays would be the new Orioles, AL East doormats, while the Orioles would turn into the team the Jays have been for so long: the club that needed to just get the hell out of the AL East. Instead, both teams have held steady in their “rightful” 4th and 5th place in baseball’s toughest division. Looking around the Jays organization, there’s plenty to be excited about. The offense is pounding the ball, the pitching is young and promising, there’s lots of money coming off the books this year, prospects are on the way and the early returns on General Manager Alex Anthopoulos are terrific.
Let’s start with the offense. The Jays rank 26th in Major League Baseball in batting average, but rank 9th in the Majors in runs scored. Their free-swinging ways can cost them at times but on the whole, they’ve made it work thanks to a couple of big bats. Incredibly, Jose Bautista leads Major League Baseball with 33 home runs, 6 bombs clear of Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds. Vernon Wells, who hit .265/.317/.426 in 1,792 plate appearances from 2007 to 2009, has bounced back in a big way, slugging .534 this season with 22 round-trippers. He may not quite be earning that hefty contract, but this level of production for a couple of more seasons from Wells will ease the pain of one of the worst contracts in recent memory. Other highlights include the catching combo of John Buck and Jose Molina, one of the most effective backstop duos of 2010.
What’s most incredible about the Jays offense is its productivity despite lackluster seasons from Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. In 2009, his 27-year old season, Hill hit .286/.330/.499 and was one of the most productive second basemen in the game. Lind, just 25 last year, hit .305/.370/.562. This year Hill is “hitting” .213/.289/.395 while Lind has “contributed” a .219/.278/.379 line. Both are in their prime, both were productive last year, and both have been awful. As I think about what Hill and Lind’s catastrophic under-performance means for the longer-term hopes of the organization, I don’t worry too much. They both have track records and are young enough to straighten things out.
The overall run prevention has been just middle of the pack, but that’s due in large part to a mediocre defensive unit. The team’s FIP and xFIP ranks third and fourth respectively in the American League. Morrow’s peripheral statistics have been superb, while Romero has shown flashes of brilliance in just his second Major League season. Two more cost-controlled starters, Brett Cecil and Shaun Marcum, have turned in solid campaigns as well. This is a good young rotation, and one that figures to remain together for a few years:
Age AL xFIP Ranking Romero 25 7 Marcum 28 10 Cecil 25 31 Morrow 23 12
The future is bright for Toronto’s starting pitching staff. For depth, they have arms like Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart and Brad Mills on the way, and they could always dip into the free agent market for a 5th starter while they wait for their prospects to develop.
Speaking of the future, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos seems to be tending to it nicely. His swap of Alex Gonzalez and prospects for 26-year old Yunel Escobar was nothing short of a masterstroke. Sure Escobar had some problems in Atlanta, but he’s productive both offensively and defensively and cost-controlled. Anthopoulos parlayed a stopgap option like Gonzalez into his shortstop through 2013. The Jays GM will have some money to work with this off-season, too, as the team’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th highest paid players will all come off the books (assuming he does not offer arbitration to the inconsistent Edwin Encarnacion).
As it stands, the Jays will need to add depth at the corner infield positions and also determine if J.P. Arencibia is close enough to assume catching duties, as Buck will be a free agent after this season. Toronto does have a $1 million club option should they wish to retain Jose Molina.
But the core is in place. With continued development from the starting pitching, bounce back from Lind and Hill and a few more shrewd moves from Anthopoulos, the Jays could sneak into the AL East mix sooner than many think.