Thursday, September 8, 2011

Don't Get Blue, Toronto

The Toronto Blue Jays are 0.3 runs per game better than the average team on a daily basis.  Not impressed? Then consider this; only the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Rangers, and Phillies are better.  So by this measure, Toronto is tied for the sixth best team in major league baseball (along with the Tigers, Angels, and Braves).  This success doesn't translate to the standings, though, where they are treading water with a .500 record, exactly 72-72 after taking three of four from the visiting Bosox, while equal and lesser teams are already playoff bound.

So what gives?  Obviously playing in the AL Beast hurts, but the Blue Jays have plenty of talent to compete. Just look around the diamond.  Rookie backstop J.P. Arencibia has already ripped 22 home runs while driving in 72 in just 390 at-bats, and if he cuts down on his strikeouts he can be the next Mike NapoliAdam Lind has missed some time and struggled mightily (ice cold .175/.211/.328 since July 15th) during the second half, but the 2009 breakout is no slouch in the power department with 24 round trippers and 79 ribbies on the year.  Aaron Hill was swapped out for Kelly Johnson, who is slightly younger and better than his predecessor.  Shortstop Yunel Escobar has settled in nicely with a .292 batting average and 59 walks after battling slumps and injuries last season, while 21 year-old call-up Brett Lawrie has been raking at the hot corner.  And all of these guys are under 30, meaning they're in the prime years of their careers.

The outfield's been a bit messy, and that's why Colby Rasmus was a great addition.  He's been on the DL since August 23rd, but hopefully the 25 year-old can fulfill his potential next year now that he has a breath of fresh air and no more Tony LaRussa.  Either way, at least the lineup has been anchored by MVP candidate Jose Bautista in right.  Joey Bats is undoubtedly the best hitter in baseball this year and has already cleared the fences 40 times despite drawing 113 free passes, 21 of which have been intentional. Unfortunately  Corey Patterson (departed in the Rasmus trade) and Travis Snider are too streaky to be reliable, and Rajai Davis can't do much else besides run.  Edwin Encarnacion has quietly done a fine job providing some thump with 35 doubles and 16 longballs. 

Put it all together and Toronto has an above-average offense; they rank fourth in the AL in homers, fifth in runs, stolen bases, total bases, SLG and OPS, and sixth in hits and doubles.  Clearly there is no shortage of runs north of the border, especially since the Rogers Centre is such a hitter's palace.

But despite all this thunder, Toronto has only scored one more run than it's allowed.  Therefore, the main culprit must be the pitching.  No one in the starting rotation is older than 27, which bodes well for the future but means they still have some kinks to work out in the present.  Southpaw Ricky Romero has developed into the staff ace with 14 wins, a nifty 3.01 ERA and 164 punch outs.  Number two starter Brandon Morrow is even more electric with a whopping 10.4 K/9 rate, but his ERA is over five.  He's not alone in that department, though, as he haas company in rotation mates Jo-Jo Reyes and Kyle Drabek, both of whom allow far too many baserunners to be effective.  Brett Cecil has been somewhere in between, but he serves up more than one gopher ball per start and needs to keep the ball in the park.  The loss of Roy Halladay was bad enough, but they could have really used Shaun Marcum this season, too.

The bullpen has also been a mixed bag; it lacks a shutdown closer (Frank Francisco is not the answer) and as a result six different pitchers have earned saves this season.  Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor have pitched well but are canceled out by horrendous seasons from Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp.  None of these guys are spring chickens, either, since most of them are on the wrong side of 30.

So with a shaky rotation and unreliable crew of relievers, it's no surprise the Blue Jays rank below average in just about every pitching category not named strikeouts (don't think of blaming the fielders for this deficiency because Toronto's defense is league average).  And when you're competing with the pitching-rich staffs of Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay for a third of your season, winning games will be difficult.  That's why they're 17-29 against the big three, and 55-43 against the rest of the league, a 91 win pace over the course of a full season.  Luckily for Toronto fans, the team is still pretty young (especially in the rotation) and the lineup can mash with the best of them, so hopefully some time to grow and mature will do the Blue Jays some good.  Plus they have the very shrewd Alex Anthropolous manning the GM hot seat, which always helps.

So don't get blue, Toronto.  You have a good baseball team; just give it some water and sunshine and watch it grow.  Hopefully it will be at its peak if the Sox, Yanks and Rays ever wilt.

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