Coming into the 2010 baseball season, Canadian baseball fans (specifically Blue Jays fans) did not have much to be hopeful for. Over the last few years, the Jays went from being perennial third-place finishers in the vaunted AL East to perennial fourth-place finishers with the emergence of the youthful Rays. In 2008, Rogers Communications owner Ted Rogers died and since then ownership interest in the Jays has dwindled, leading to speculation that the media giant is considering selling the team.
Trust me, as a Canadian sports fan, I know how easy it is for Canada to lose a team because of an apathetic ownership group (see the Montréal Expos, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Grizzlies, etc, etc.), and the loss of the Jays to an American market would be absolutely devastating for me and millions of Canadian baseball fans. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Before 2009, Jays fans watched as A.J. Burnett twirled a career year that finally justified his massive contract, only to see him opt out the final two years of said contract for the greener pastures of the division-rival and hated Yankees. And finally in December of last year after the team’s first sub-80-win season since 2004 and only the third since 1997, the Jays dealt the franchise’s best-ever player in Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies for a package of prospects, signaling an era of rebuilding brought on by more than a decade of mediocrity.
Couple all of these things with the fact that the Jays get very little media coverage outside of Canada and you really can’t blame the average baseball fan for forgetting the Jays exist until they show up on the schedule to play their team.
Now let’s take into account what the Jays are doing in 2010. They were left for dead by anyone who bothered to forecast their season (including myself who predicted they would lose 94 games and finish last behind the Orioles in the AL East), but here they are in late August with a more than respectable 66-61 record.
Sure, they’re still fourth in the ridiculous AL East, but considering this team traded its best player for a package of prospects who have yet to sniff major league time, that’s pretty impressive. (They did get Brett Wallace in the deal, and he is now in the majors; however it’s with the Astros who acquired him for A-ball outfielder Anthony Gose.)
So, let’s ask the obvious question. Is this a fluke? There are several reasons to think it is. There are also several reasons to think this could be a sign of things to come. Let’s go over each of them, starting with the flukes.
With his save on Wednesday against the Yankees, Gregg now has 29, which places him firmly in fifth in the junior circuit. Closers tend to be thought of only in terms of saves, but let’s look a little further. Yes, Gregg is having a career year—he’s on pace for career bests in saves and ERA—but his 1.28 WHIP is the highest of anyone in the top 10 in the AL in saves, and his 3.26 ERA is solid but worrisome for a closer. He’s never been a truly shut-down closer, and he has a tendency of walking far too many batters.
His season last year with the Cubs was downright awful. It was so bad that the Cubs opted for the erratic and unreliable Carlos Marmol as the ninth-inning man late in the year. Gregg is working out nicely as a cheap option who has done a nice job this season, but to think this is a sign of things to come for years down the line is foolish; both the Marlins and Cubs knew that.
Pundits and Jays fans alike have been praising the return of Vernon Wells to prominence since his red-hot start, but I am a realistic Jays fan, and when I look at the season Wells has had, I’m not convinced he’s fully the player he once was. Yes, he’s better than his ’09 version, but he has tailed off dramatically after a torrid start.
On May 9, Wells was hitting .339 with a .409 OBP and a surreal .661 SLG. He had nine home runs and 25 RBI in 33 games and was homering once every 14.1 at-bats. These are the types of numbers we Jays fans were used to seeing from Wells earlier in his career.
Since then, however, it’s been a different story. In the 91 games starting May 10 through to August 26, Wells’ numbers have plummeted to .249/.294/.453 with 14 HR and 41 RBI. In that time frame he’s homering once in every 24.4 at-bats. Now, these numbers are nowhere near as bad as his ’09 numbers, but overall, Wells has not returned to prominence.
On the plus side, this season may give other general managers around the league the incentive to trade for Wells and his huge contract that currently makes him one of the highest-paid players in the game.
Bautista has been one of the biggest stories this year in the majors (made all the more impressive by the fact that the Jays get no coverage). As of last night, he leads the majors with 41 home runs and is third in all of baseball in RBI with 96. He’s been the crown jewel of the homer-happy Blue Jays. But where did this come from?
Bautista was a journeyman utility player who has the dubious distinction of being the only player in history to appear on five different major league rosters in one season back in 2004. When the Jays traded catching prospect Robinzon Diaz to the Pirates for Bautista in August of 2008, even the most diligent of baseball fans barely twitched.
What Bautista has done this year is simply incredible, and there’s no doubt that he is a better player than most people thought a couple years ago. But is this going to be a permanent thing, or a one-year aberration? His disturbingly high flyball rate would suggest that eventually some of his home runs will stop leaving the yard.
According to Hit Tracker, Bautista leads the AL in home runs that were “just enough” with 11. Now, he also leads the league in “no-doubt” home runs with 16, but when you consider the sheer number of home runs he’s hit, that number becomes less impressive.
Is Bautista a legitimate everyday player capable of middle-of-the-order power? Yes, and he very well could be for a few more years, but players like this who come out of nowhere at the age of 29 and destroy every personal record they once had don’t tend to do it for long. Chances are Bautista is a guy capable of 20-25 home runs a season with a .250 average and an on-base percentage that may top out at about .300. I hope I’m wrong.
Not a fluke
When the Jays traded Roy Halladay last December to the Phillies for a package of highly-touted, albeit not major-league-ready, prospects, most experts predicted the Jays would fall to the bottom of the American League in every pitching category and dip to the level of the Orioles in the AL East. Perhaps the biggest reason that hasn’t happened has nothing to do with the home runs the Jays have hit; it has to do with their impressive corps of young starting pitchers.
The Jays’ “big four” starters of Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, and Ricky Romero may lack the star power of the Becketts, Sabathias, and Lees, but all four have been among the league’s best this season. Even with Romero’s poor outing Thursday night against the Tigers, the quartet have a combined record of 41-27, which amounts to an impressive .612 winning percentage, with a 3.84 ERA while pitching mostly in baseball’s toughest division.
Typically, players coming back from Tommy John surgery say that it’s their control that takes the longest to come back, sometimes taking up to two years. That makes Marcum’s numbers this season all the more impressive. Not only did he flirt with a no-hitter on opening day, but Marcum has walked just two batters per nine innings on average this season.
Morrow was one out away from just the second no-hitter in Jays’ history when the Rays’ Evan Longoria hit an infield single to break it up. He went on to get the final out on a strikeout; his 17th of the game in what was one of the most impressive pitching performances in the majors this season (and yes, I’m aware of the other masterful performances). Considering the Jays acquired Morrow from Seattle this offseason for a struggling middle reliever in Brandon League and a low-level prospect in outfielder Johermyn Chavez, his performance this year has been great.
The Mariners gave up on the former first-rounder in part because the Giants selected Tim Lincecum five picks later in that year’s draft, and when comparing the two of them, it’s clear that Seattle, at least in the short term, made the wrong pick. But the Jays understood that Morrow just needed more time to develop, and he’s very quickly developing into one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League.
Cecil has been perhaps the most consistent of any of the Jays’ big four. His 11-6 record leads the staff, and he has a 7-1 record against AL East opponents this season (including a combined 5-0 record against the Yankees and Rays).
Romero finally broke out last year with 13 wins in his rookie season after years of going nowhere fast in the minors. The former first rounder did tail off toward the end of the year in ’09, but so far he has remained consistently solid in 2010. Although his record is only 10-8, he leads the Jays with a 3.54 ERA and is seventh in the AL with 172.2 IP. His ability to pitch to contact for a high groundball rate has made him one of the toughest pitchers to face in the AL.
W-L ERA IP Factoid Brett Cecil 11-6 3.80 139.2 7-1 Record Against AL East Opponents Shaun Marcum 11-7 3.70 151.0 4th in the AL with a 3.82 K/BB Ratio Ricky Romero 10-8 3.54 172.2 2nd in the AL in Ground Out/Fly Out Ratio Brandon Morrow 9-6 4.39 137.1 Leads Majors with 10.81 K/9
The Jays’ ability to hit home runs throughout their lineup has made them a tough team to beat. I’ve already discussed Wells and Bautista in terms of their ability to keep up what they’ve done this year, but there’s no denying that the Jays are not a fluke when it comes to the balance of their lineup.
The Jays lead the majors in home runs with 193. That’s 24 more than second-place Boston. They are only seventh in the AL in runs scored, but that’s enough when you consider how good their pitchers have been; and when you can hit the long ball, you’re never out of a game. This is made even more impressive by the fact that arguably their two best hitters, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, have not had good years.
I think most of us were surprised when John Buck made the AL All-Star team in his first year with the Jays. With the likes of Joe Mauer, Jorge Posada, Victor Martinez, and A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate in the AL, not many people could have predicted that Buck would be named, but he is having a terrific year.
But before you say fluke, let’s remember that Buck was once very highly regarded in both the Astros’ and Royals’ systems. He was dealt to KC as part of the Carlos Beltran deal and never fully materialized for the Royals. Many catchers, however, take a little longer to develop their defensive game, and Buck certainly has fallen under that category. With significant effort being devoted to learning how to call a game, handle a pitching staff, and play better behind the plate, Buck’s offensive skills were never quite refined while he concentrated on being a more well-rounded catcher.
The raw power existed, but he struck out way too much and his average was routinely among the worst in baseball. With Buck finally getting a handle on his defensive game, he can now concentrate on the offensive side of things, which he has. Buck, who came into this year with a .235 career average, is hitting .283 with an impressive .493 slugging percentage which is higher than Mauer, Martinez, and Posada.
The downside of this is that Buck is a free agent at season’s end and will likely sign elsewhere. On the other hand, uber-slugging catching prospect J.P. Arencibia may be ready to start for Toronto next season.
So where does this leave us? The Jays are clearly better than anybody would have predicted this season, but is it sustainable? Maybe. The Jays should not expect a repeat performance from Jose Bautista or Kevin Gregg, and they should probably try their best to trade the massive contract of Vernon Wells while his value has rebounded a little, but there’s no doubt that the young pitching staff and the organization’s re-focus on player development and scouting should continue to guide them in the right direction.
Maybe someday, the American mainstream media will acknowledge that the Jays exist; and that there’s something very interesting to watch up here in the “Great White North.”