The anchors at ESPN and sportswriters around the league have been quick to highlight the exploits of this season's most surprising franchises, namely the Padres, Reds, and Athletics. But one team, which has been more or less the equal to all of them, has gone largely unappreciated: the Toronto Blue Jays.
As we enter the season's seventh week, the Jays have the fourth best record in the American League. They are also fourth in run differential and tied for third in scoring. Yet they are faced with a familiar conundrum. Against the behemoths in their own division - the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox - they have gone 2-7 (.222), against everybody else they are 21-10 (.677).
For the past four seasons, I've tuned in to Toronto's games on a weekly basis, because they were home to my favorite player, Roy Halladay. I figured in 2010, however, as my Doc fix would be fulfilled by Phillies broadcasts, and the Jays were beginning what could be a prolonged rebuilding process with their new GM, I would find myself looking at that mouthwash green Skydome turf far less frequently.
So far, that hasn't been the case. Certainly, they are no substitute for Halladay, but Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero are both on the list of young, high-upside pitchers who I enjoy watching develop. In truth, all five members of the Toronto rotation pique my curiosity. Toronto leads the American League in strikeouts (by a rather sizable margin). Brandon Morrow has the best strikeout rate (11.85 K/9) among AL starters, and Romero (9.43 K/9) isn't terribly far behind. Kevin Gregg has gone 11-for-12 in save opportunities and Scott Downs leads the league in holds.
As Cecil showed last week when he got shelled by the Rangers, these young arms are going to have their ups and downs, but the Blue Jays are developing a pretty stellar collection of pitching talent. Waiting in the wings are Kyle Drabek, Dustin McGowan, and Marc Rzepczynski, among others, so there is quantity as well as quality.
On offense, the Jays have been even more impressive, as they are one of the six teams in baseball who have already scored upwards of 200 runs. Behind surprising power surges from Jose Bautista, Alex Gonzalez, and Vernon Wellls, they lead the league in homers and total bases, and trail only Philadephia in overall slugging.
There aren't many signs that this pace is unsustainable. Certainly, Gonzalez, who in a dozen seasons has hit 20+ HR only once (in 2004), probably won't maintain his 40 HR pace. And we could see less significant regressions from Wells and Bautista also. But while those players started hot, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill started cold. They will undoubtedly improve significantly on their sub-700 combined OPS from the first six weeks. The Jays could also get offensive infusions from Edwin Encarnacion, who'll be activated from the D.L. today, and Brett Wallace, the top prospect who's already blasted 11 HR at AAA.
The Jays are near the bottom of the AL in batting average and OBP, despite their run-scoring, but they are also second-to-last in the AL in BABIP (batting average on balls in play). They are near the middle of the pack in walk rate. All these factors combine to suggest that while the Jays may not be able to keep pace with the Rays and Red Sox (as they have so far), they will easily stay in the top half of the league in total offense.
I'm utterly against it, but for those who would make the case for some kind of radical realignment, their argument would have to start in Toronto. Over the past five seasons, the Jays have been near the middle of the pack in total expenditures and, the Wells and Alex Rios megadeals aside (everybody makes mistakes), they've spent the money wisely enough to be a very respectable team. They've scored more runs than they've allowed in every season since 2005 and are 17 games over .500 during that span.
Yet the truth of their unfortunate geographical situation cannot be denied. Against the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox they have gone 128-152 (.457). Against everybody else they've gone 306-265 (.536). That pretty much tells the story. If they'd played in any other division, they'd probably have managed at least one or two playoff appearances during the last decade. As it stands, they haven't made the postseason since they won back-to-back World Series in '92 and '93.
Of course, Tampa Bay faces the same competition and has an even smaller budget, yet found their way to the World Series as recently as 2008 and look primed to make a deep run again this year. Alex Anthopoulos is no doubt using the Rays as his model. The Jays are stocking the system with prospects, are buying up the arbitration years of their top young players, and probably won't be signing any more $100 Million contracts for the foreseeable future. Although 2012 is probably the soonest Jays fans can expect to see a potential contender, there is reason to get excited about the product they're putting on the field currently, and there will be even more reason once the Jays start turning the page on their few remaining mediocre veterans (I'm looking at you, Lyle Overbay).
The fairy-tale ending is this. In 2014, fresh off collecting a handful of rings with Philadelphia, a 37-year-old future Hall of Famer, Roy Halladay, returns to Toronto on a relatively short and cheap contract. He's no longer "the best pitcher in baseball," but with his deep repertoire, excellent control, and implacable demeanor he continues to provide quality innings at the back end of the rotation and is a Maddux-esque tutor for the likes of Drabek, Romero, and Cecil, now in their late-twenties and on the cusp of free agency. If they get to the playoffs, there will be a frightening combination of power and experience on the hill.
There are still some familiar faces. Vernon Wells, now the left-fielder, is in the final year of his contract. Aaron Hill and Adam Lind are also nearing the end of their option years (Hill's final Toronto option is '14, Lind's is '16). But the lineup and defense have also been buoyed by several years of good drafting and development. Wallace provides legit power from first base. The speedy Kenny Wilson is batting leadoff and roving center field. J. P. Arencibia has developed into a premium backstop. The Jays are a team to be respected and feared, even by the powerhouses in their division.
If you're a Jays fan, or merely somebody who's sick of the Yankees and Red Sox, it's a pretty picture. Is is realistic? Well, look at where the Rays were four years ago. During Joe Maddon's first season, 2006, Tampa Bay lost 101 games and were outscored by nearly 200 runs. The Jays have a much better basic foundation to build upon. They'll need Anthopoulos to prove himself capable of good decision-making, first and foremost. They'll need the Yankees to show some age. They'll need the Rays rebuilding process (which likely begins either this offseason or next) to be a little slower than expected. And they'll need a little luck. But, hey, don't we all.