In baseball, it is often said that you really don’t know what you’ve got as a baseball team until at least 60 games into the season. Well, the Toronto Blue Jays have now played 66 games so it seems like a good time to see what they’ve got (or, as their .485 record -32 wins and 34 losses- would suggest, don’t have).
It is safe to say that things, so far, have not gone as planned. Their starting pitching, which was strongly considered to be their strength entering the season, has become their Achilles heel. That was no more evident than this past weekend when Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek gave up more than 8 earn runs each in less than 6 innings of work as the Blue Jays were swept by the Boston Red Sox with a combined score of 35 to 6. Brett Cecil (the team leader in games won last year) failed to get his speed up past 90 MPH or keep the ball down in the strike zone- he lost his mental edge and earned a quick demotion to the minors. Morrow’s inability to throw quality strikes and change speeds effectively, the failure of Drabek to throw any type of strike at all, Jo Jo Reyes’ tendency towards multiple 2 or 3 run innings before the 6th. All this has contributed to a starting staff ERA of 4.79. The weakness of the starters (often out of the game in 6 innings or less) has resulted in an overuse of the bullpen and a pitching staff ERA of 4.34, second last in the American League (the average is 3.96).
The bright spots on the Jays’ beleaguered starting staff are Ricky Romero, who’s delivered solid and consistent performances all season, and the emergence of Carlos Villanueva as a steady, crafty starter rather than a long reliever. In the bullpen, Marc Rzepczynski’s dependability as a lefty has helped softened the blow of David Purcey’s underwhelming performance in the late innings.
The trade of Shawn Marcum during the winter was made easier because the GM Alex Anthopoulos felt that he was trading from strength. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is just the opposite. Pitching is the key to any successful baseball team and, quite frankly, the Jays are lucky to only be two games under .500 with the second worse pitching staff in the American league.
Injuries always play a part in the success or lack thereof for any ball club. The baseball season is a marathon and every team will inevitably experience injuries. This year, the Blue Jays have already had a number of their key players miss a considerable number of games. Rajai Davis, Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, Yunel Escobar, John McDonald and Jason Nix have all missed more than 8 games each due to injury in the first 60. Fortunately, the pitching staff, for the most part, has avoided the injury bug (a giant relief considering the lack of immediate depth in the minors).
Offensively, despite the injuries, the bats have produced and the Jays are currently ranked 3rd for runs scored in the American League. Jose Bautista is continuing the success he had in 2010 and leads the league in home runs, OPS (On-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and is second in batting average. J.P. Arencibia is among the league leaders for rookies with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs. Yunel Escobar has also produced offensively and is one of the top three shortstops in the American League. Corey Patterson has been a pleasant surprise in left field after the disappointing performance by Travis Snyder (who was sent back to AAA to rework his swing and confidence). Adam Lind has also had a nice bounce back season, but Aaron Hill continues to struggle to find any semblance of the Silver Slugger of 2009. The team is not hitting home runs at the pace they did last year, but they are showing an increase in overall team speed which has helped contribute to their increased run production over last year.
As the Jays enter into the second 1/3 of the season, there are lingering questions to be answered. Can the starting pitching sort itself out by throwing strikes and pitching longer into games? Can Adam Lind continue to swing the bat and produce enough fear in pitchers so they don’t continually pitch around Jose Bautista? Can J.P. Arencibia grow defensively as a major league catcher while continuing to produce offensively? Will Aaron Hill ever start to hit the ball consistently and with power again? Will Rajai Davis improve his on-base percentage so that he can fully utilize his tremendous speed? Will Travis Snyder ever fulfill his potential and the expectations that were placed on him when he first came up to the big leagues two years ago? What will Anthopoulos do, make trades to improve the ball club for this year or trade marketable commodities for future returns?
Pitching is the heart and soul of any major league baseball team and is the Blue Jays’ biggest weakness 1/3 of the way through the season. And there does not appear to be any prospects in the minors that can produce immediate relief. So unless Anthoploulos can pull a rabbit out of a hat or the starters we have finally start finding the strike zone, the summer for Blue Jay fans will be longer, hotter and more frustrating than we expected.