A logical, knowledgeable person could have sat down prior to the season, inspected the rosters and pedigrees of the teams in the American League East, and predicted an order of finish that read like this: Tampa Bay, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Toronto. This wasn’t particularly damning to the Orioles or the Blue Jays, because this is annually the toughest division in baseball, what with the spend-as-much-as-you-can Yankees and Red Sox annually buying the parts they don’t have.
And yet, the standings as we enter the weekend: Toronto, Baltimore, New York, Boston and then Tampa Bay (perhaps the most disappointing team in baseball). On Thursday night, J.A. Happ pitched 7-2/3 innings of scoreless ball to help the Blue Jays to a 7-0 victory over the White Sox, a game that marked Toronto’s halfway point in the season.
It’s time the Blue Jays were considered not just as the early-season surprise in the American League, but as potentially game-changers for the rest of the year, offering a presence in the postseason that has been missing for 20 Octobers.
This was supposed to happen in 2013. Remember? The list of imports for Toronto last year included shortstop Jose Reyes, outfielder Melky Cabrera and right-handers Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young winner. The return on that investment – which cost them top prospects such as pitchers Henderson Alvarez (now with Miami) and Noah Snydergaard (Mets) – was minimal. Reyes and Johnson got hurt, the knuckleballing Dickey came back to earth (4.21 ERA), and Buehrle (12-10, 4.15 ERA) wasn’t a difference-maker. The Blue Jays finished 74-88 – last.
Now, Johnson is gone (to San Diego, where he again got hurt), Dickey remains so-so (6-7, 4.24 ERA), and Reyes (.262) is hitting 30 points below his career average coming into the year. Sure, Buehrle, who hasn’t won more than 15 games or posted an ERA below 3.59 since 2005, is 10-4 with a 2.52 ERA. But the reason the Blue Jays are surging has more to do with the players who were already in Toronto than it does the players they brought in.
Right fielder Jose Bautista has been a fixture for six seasons, and until he suffered a mild hamstring strain this week – the Blue Jays hope he returns by the end of the weekend – he was his normal, powerful self (15 homers), but leading the league in walks and on-base percentage (.433), too. First baseman Edwin Encarnacion, acquired in a 2009 trade with Cincinnati for Scott Rolen, shares the major league lead in homers with 25 and is posting career bests in slugging percentage (.599) and OPS (.960).
Those two players provide the base for Toronto’s success: pure power. Entering play Saturday, no other team was within 10 homers of the Blue Jays’ major league-leading 107. Encarnacion and Bautista lead six Blue Jays already in double figures (joining Brett Lawrie and Juan Francisco with 12 and Cabrera and Colby Rasmus with 11).
Will that be enough to hold off the Orioles, who reached the playoffs two years ago, and the aging Yankees, who haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1992-93? It’s not even the all-star break. But at the midway point, it would appear that this could be the best Toronto team since the Blue Jays last appeared in the playoffs – in 1993. Then, Joe Carter ended the World Series with a home run off Philadelphia reliever Mitch Williams. The powerful Blue Jays have plenty of players who could play that role this season.