Blue Jays have ingredients for legitimate AL East run
Sluggers in Toronto no longer hampered by unfortunate division placement
It's all there for the taking for the Toronto Blue Jays.
For the last two decades, this club has been tormented at least as much by geography as any self-inflicted wound. The Blue Jays reside in the American League East, and that simple fact was often enough to account for the frustration in their own little corner of the Wild Card era.
Theirs is not a pre-2013-Pirates-like condition. Toronto has had eight winning seasons since its 1993 World Series win, but the demands of the division ensured that the Blue Jays didn't finished higher than second place or closer than 4 1/2 games back in any of those otherwise-encouraging campaigns.
And sure enough, when MLB expanded the October format in a move that seemed tailor-made for the brutal AL East's also-rans, Toronto turned in arguably the most disappointing season in franchise history -- a luckless, injury-prone and rotation-plagued 74-88 squad financed by the franchise's first nine-figure payroll.
Well, as is often the case, last year's results and a winter's worth of transactions had a direct effect on expectations, and the simple fact of the matter is that little was expected of the Blue Jays this year.
But because the game is capricious and even those of us supposedly "in the know" know pretty much nothing, it turns out Toronto might just have its best chance yet to win a once-daunting division.
The Red Sox, whose 2013 run is a fine precedent for the worst-to-first story the Blue Jays are trying to stage, just ended a 10-game losing streak. But the concern surrounding a Boston team likely drained from that very run is ongoing.
The Yankees' rotation, outside of Masahiro Tanaka, is in disarray, and their lineup is long in injury risk.
The Rays are still without three-fifths of their rotation.
The Orioles have just one starter (Bud Norris) pitching more than a modicum north of league average and are still unsure whether Matt Wieters will need season-ending elbow surgery.
None of this is to suggest the Blue Jays are free of faults. But they are the only AL East team that has had the decency, to date, to score more runs than it has given up.
So, yeah, the division is finally there for the taking. And a Toronto team with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion mashing in the middle of the order, with the ageless Mark Buehrle continuing to vex hitters with his 83-mph fastballs, with Jose Reyes playing every day and with Melky Cabrera carrying a beefed-up batting average has a really strong chance of taking it.
Baseball Prospectus likes these Blue Jays enough to give them a 42.5-percent chance of winning the division and a 59.2-percent chance of reaching the postseason.
The growing optimism is established by a loaded offense in which Bautista, with his .945 OPS, is an early AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate and Encarnacion, with his absurd 13 homers in the month of May, is Joey Bats' trusty slugging sidekick.
Indeed, the only team outslugging the Blue Jays is the Rockies, who, with all due respect, are a Coors concoction, a completely different ballclub in their home ballpark. The Blue Jays are probably more closely comparable to the A's -- a contender if ever there was one -- because of their ability to both create (.331 on-base percentage) and capitalize on opportunities with a lineup that is both deep and increasingly dynamic.
For Toronto, this is something that has evolved as the season has progressed.
"I'm seeing it," manager John Gibbons said. "Guys like [Steve] Tolleson, [Anthony] Gose and [Kevin] Pillar add to that. Look at the way we started the season, basically with a team of sluggers, so that's what we've been trying to address. We're better hitters than to just grip and rip it. We can take our hits the other way."
On the whole, the Blue Jays are not a particularly strong defensive team. Both Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved tally and Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency mark rank them below average on that front, and they've willingly embraced Juan Francisco's defensive limitations at third (and Brett Lawrie's ensuing move to second) in order to further aid the offense.
Pitching-wise, Toronto is vastly improved over 2013's feeble starting efforts. In fact, the current starters' ERA (3.76) is more than a full point better than last year's (4.81). But much of that is tied to Buehrle's early bid for the AL Cy Young Award (the Blue Jays are 9-1 on days he starts and 21-22 in all other games). R.A. Dickey's recent uptick after a tough April is encouraging, and it's tantalizing to envision Drew Hutchison, with his average fastball velocity of 92 mph and improving confidence in his slider and changeup, developing into a front-line starter.
Still, it's no secret that Toronto, as currently constructed, has a lot riding on a healthy and effective July return from Brandon Morrow, and the team will also likely need some bullpen help.
It's neither inventive nor outlandish to suggest this club, which already tried to lure in Ervin Santana with money deferred by his would-be teammates, needs to strongly consider trading for a starter this summer.
With all that said, the point remains that this is a club inherently capable of outhitting its mistakes, which makes it a rare club in the currently lackluster run-scoring environment.
The Blue Jays are scoring 4.92 runs per game at a time when their division foes are averaging a combined 4.16. They enter Tuesday's game against Tampa Bay with a two-game lead on the second-place Yankees, amid a growing sense that the ol' AL East simply ain't what she used to be.
The Blue Jays are no longer victims of their own geography but, surprisingly, beneficiaries of it. And they might just slug their way into October for the first time in a long, long time.