5 burning questions as Toronto makes playoff push
TORONTO -- Life couldn't be much better for the Blue Jays right now, but there's still a full month left in the regular season, so the road to the postseason is far from over.
Toronto has become a front-runner in the American League thanks to a 31-11 record since the All-Star break, which is the best in baseball. It has been mostly smooth sailing for the past six weeks, but with this much time left, there is bound to be some adversity and tough decisions ahead.
Here's a look at five burning questions the Blue Jays face over the final month of the regular season:
1. Should Marcus Stroman return as a starter or a reliever?
Stroman officially began his rehab assignment on Tuesday night for Class A Lansing, and all of the reports were positive. He tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings and more importantly, he felt good while consistently hitting 93-94 mph on the radar gun and using all of his pitches. Stroman's next step is to pitch for Triple-A Buffalo on Monday with a limit of approximately 80-90 pitches.
Toronto's bullpen was a weakness in the first half, but it has since turned into a strength. Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez are responsible for the eighth and ninth innings, but the club also has a reliable core in middle relief with LaTroy Hawkins, Mark Lowe and Brett Cecil. Stroman would provide manager John Gibbons with yet another late-inning option and make the bullpen even better. But is it really necessary? Probably not.
If Stroman is able to enter the rotation and regain his old form -- which is still a pretty big if -- then ideally he could be used as another front-end starter. He would slot in nicely on a potential postseason staff behind either David Price or R.A. Dickey, but he also needs to pass a series of tests before that can be officially considered.
2. Will a heavy workload finally catch up to Mark Buehrle?
This question has probably been asked each season for the past 10 years, and every time Buehrle seems to be hitting a wall, he finds a way to bounce back. Even so, the Blue Jays have to worry about keeping the veteran lefty fresh not only deep into September, but into October as well. Buehrle isn't hurt, but he's admitted to not feeling 100 percent recently, and that has to at least be a mild concern for the organization.
That's one of the reasons why Buehrle's next start was pushed back from Saturday to Sunday afternoon. It gives the 36-year-old an additional day of rest, and it's something the Blue Jays likely will look to do a couple of more times before the end of the year. Two additional off-days later this month will help, and the return of Stroman could give Gibbons the ability to get creative with how he deploys his staff.
3. What can the Blue Jays expect from Ryan Goins?
Goins' role on this team wasn't expected to include much in the way of offensive production. He made the team for his glove, and when Devon Travis went down with a shoulder injury, the Blue Jays were fine handing the second-base job to Goins, because the league's best lineup had enough offense at other spots to offset any dropoff at second.
The surprising thing in all of this has been the way Goins responded since be began playing every day. Since July 28, Goins is hitting .297 with a .409 on-base percentage and an .849 OPS in 31 games. All of that is from a player who had a .264 OBP in 119 at-bats during the 2013 season and a .209 OBP in 181 at-bats last year.
The logical assumption here is that Goins' hot streak won't last, and that's OK for an organization that has plenty of offense elsewhere. But if there's one thing that leads fans to believe in the new-look Goins, it's his new-found plate discipline.
According to Fangraphs, Goins swung at 45 percent of all pitches during the first 2 1/2 years of his career. Since the All-Star break, that number has dropped to 35 percent. His swings on pitches outside of the strike zone have dropped from 36 percent to 26 percent. That's led to 18 walks since July 28, and if that keeps up, perhaps the Blue Jays have found something after all.
4. The Blue Jays control their own fate. How will they respond?
With all of the positive news surrounding the Blue Jays these days, one might assume they are running away with the AL East, but that's simply not the case. The Yankees have been playing almost as well, and New York bounced back from a rough series against the Astros to win five of its next six games.
Toronto has 29 games remaining, and all but three of them are against division rivals. There's seven games against Baltimore, six against Boston, six against Tampa Bay and seven against New York. Those two series vs. the Yanks will go a long way in deciding the top spot in the division.
5. When will Troy Tulowitzki start playing like Troy Tulowitzki?
The Blue Jays have been borderline unstoppable since Tulowitzki made his debut on July 29. Since that time, Toronto has posted a stunning 26-6 record, and while there's no question that Tulowitzki solidified the defense up the middle, his offensive contributions have been less than anticipated.
In 31 games, Tulowitzki is batting .242 with four homers, 13 RBIs and a .713 OPS. He's far too good for those numbers to continue, and there have been a few positive signs of late that Tulowitzki might be turning things around. The veteran shortstop is riding a six-game hitting streak, and dating back to Aug. 23, he has a .310 average and a .375 OBP. Those are the types of numbers Toronto expects down the stretch.