Josh Hamilton flipped the bat back and jogged around the bases with his eyes fixed to the ground. There was no fist-pump, no pointing at the dugout, not even a wave to the fans. That’s not how you react when you expect to win games, and Hamilton and the Texas Rangers certainly expect to do that every time they take the field. Boasting the best run differential in the American League, Texas certainly deserves the respect it's being given this year.
But look just two ticks below them in the run-differential standings, and you’ll see a team that may surprise you: The Toronto Blue Jays, the very team that Hamilton beat with his walk-off home run on Saturday afternoon.
Toronto certainly had some hype coming into the season. With the two-time defending home-run king, Jose Bautista, to build around, things up north were only getting better. Add in a full season of emerging superstar Brett Lawrie, who looked like a legitimate All-Star during his brief time in the majors last year, and there seemed to be no reason why the Blue Jays couldn’t find themselves playing October baseball, especially once Bud Selig announced the addition of a second wild-card team in each league.
Well, two months later Bautista is hitting only .234, Lawrie has a meek .672 OPS, and the man who protected Bautista in the lineup over the past two years, Adam Lind, isn’t even on the major league team. Knowing those three facts alone, one would predict that the season hasn’t exactly gone as general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell imagined. Yet even after Saturday’s heartbreaking 13-inning loss to the Rangers, Toronto sits only 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with a 24-23 record.
Like almost anything else in baseball, success starts with the starting pitching. Toronto’s top four of Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez all have ERAs of 3.86 or lower, with at least five quality starts apiece. That type of production will keep any team afloat.
Morrow in particular has been brilliant. The ex-Mariner was always plagued with command issues that limited his success as a starter. His 8 percent walk rate this year is a full 3 percent lower than his career mark, and would seem to indicate that he has finally gotten a grip commanding his stuff.
Unfortunately for Toronto, each of these four pitchers has a higher FIP than ERA, indicating that all of them are probably due for some regression as the season continues. Don’t be surprised to see the Jays in on any starters who might become available as the trade deadline gets closer, with Zack Greinke as the ultimate prize.
Although Bautista has been struggling, Edwin Encarnacion has been a revelation for the Jays. He has already jacked 15 home runs, only two fewer than he did all of last year, with a robust .929 OPS. That being said, his power is likely to slide off a bit over the coming weeks. His current HR/FB rate of 18.8 percent is much higher than his 12.4 career mark.
Bautista, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten any breaks this season. His .211 BABIP means his average will bounce back soon enough, and it’s not like he’s experiencing a power outage -- he has 12 homers on the year. On top of that, his fly-ball and ground-ball rates are right around his career averages, reflecting that he hasn’t changed anything fundamental with his swing. Just give him time, and there’s every reason to believe Bautista will return to form.
At the moment, the Blue Jays have two big problems besides Bautista’s struggles. The first is their bullpen, something that was supposed to be a strength coming into the season. When Anthopoulos acquired Sergio Santos from the White Sox over the winter, many believed that the Blue Jays had finally found a consistent closer, a position that had been in flux over the past few years. Instead, Santos blew the first two save opportunities he had before being placed on the disabled list with an injured shoulder. The man Anthopoulos acquired to be Santos’ setup man, Francisco Cordero, took over; he was even worse. Casey Janssen has since assumed the role and has done remarkably, not allowing a run since being named the closer. Still, the Jays’ bullpen has almost no depth, with the ageless Darren Oliver as the only other consistent option. This is another area that Toronto will be looking to fix come the end of July if it wants to contend.
The other main obstacle Toronto faces right now is, of course, the division it plays in. The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, if not all of sports. Having to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees every year is tough enough, but now that Tampa Bay is a legitimate power and Baltimore is looking better and better every day (and in first place), there are five legitimate playoff contenders vying for three spots. Toronto is 7-12 against teams in its division, and 17-11 against everyone else. The fact that the Jays have to play 18 games every year against four teams with so much talent is almost unfair.
With a fourth of the season done, Toronto is still very much in the playoff race. Farrell would surely tell you that this team can do better, and the numbers would back him up. Although the Jays saw a sure victory turn into a mirage in the Texas heat Saturday, their future is still bright.
If Toronto acquires an ace and some bullpen depth at the deadline, it should have more than just playoff aspirations. That sort of reinforced Jays club could have championship aspirations. Blue jays traditionally start heading south when the October winds blow in, but this just might be the year where those traditions begin to change.
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