The Benchwarmer Report: Jays at the Break: A Contender, But Still Lots To Do

Elizabeth Salsberg - 3T Nanotechnology
Posted on: July 21, 2016

Here we are. Three games after the All-Star break the defending A.L. East champs sit three games behind the Baltimore Orioles, and 1.5 games back of their arch-rival Boston Red Sox. The Jays are sitting third in the tight A.L. East with a .553 record—enough to prove to any new baseball fan that playing just above .500 baseball is not enough to snatch a playoff spot in the stingy MLB.

Though the 2016 Jays posted 51 wins through the first half after a slow start to tie the 1992 Blue Jays (eventual World Series Champs) for most wins before the break in franchise history. Indeed, their play heading into the break was excellent—because everyone was contributing.

It all started with the bats finally heating up. In addition to reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnación mashing the ball, Michael Saunders and Troy Tulowitzki have stepped up in a big way of late.

Saunders accompanied Donaldson and Encarnación to the All-Star game this year in San Diego on fan vote after putting up a .293 batting average with 43 RBIs and 16 homers for good measure. Saunders has been consistent all year long. Jays GM Ross Atkins owes Saunders big time for bailing him out of the Drew Storen bust—Saunders has seamlessly taken the place of hits machine and base-stealing specialist Ben Revere.

Tulo, the former All-star shortstop acquired last year at the trade deadline, has finally had some long-overdue success at the plate. Following a stint on the disabled list from late-May to mid-June, Tulo has been hitting .313 since his return to action.

Let’s also not forget the starting pitching. Numbers one through five have each been doing their bit. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has been red-hot after a dreadful start (5.77 ERA in his first 10 starts), he went on to post a 2.70 ERA over his next twelve. Ace Marcus Stroman had been struggling recently, but has been on the mend. Stroman looked more like himself after winning July 6th against Kansas City (the Jays went on to sweep that four-game set). Marco Estrada was named to the All-Star team for his consistent performance in the first half, posting a cutesy 2.93 ERA (for reference, the A.L. average ERA is 4.06, so that’s pretty good!) Unfortunately, Estrada was placed on the 15-day DL the week before the All-Star break for “precautionary reasons”… hopefully he recovers quickly from this back injury—the Jays are missing his consistent play.

Finally, the duo of Happ and Sanchez have been sensational. Sanchez in particular has panned out nicely for the Jays, making it increasingly difficult for Jays’ brass to move him to the bullpen as originally intended. As a starter, the 23-year-old has posted a 9-1 record and 2.97 ERA. If I’m Gibbons, not a chance I’m moving this guy to the bullpen.

Clearly, there is a lot to celebrate so far. But the reality is, those pesky Orioles have won a lot of games. The Jays simply cannot afford to go on any kind of losing streak—since they obviously can’t rely on the O’s or the Bosox losing enough games to make up for it. This probably means they’ll need to call up spot-starter Drew Hutchison from Triple A to take over some starts, even when Estrada comes off the DL. Dickey in particular is a concern—though he has fared well in June and July, the knuckleballer is notorious for giving up multi-run homers. He is more of an innings-eater than anything. Needless to say, I’d rather see Hutchison starting.

The second key issue will be the bullpen. They struggled mightily through much of the first half and gave up a lot games the Jays seemed to have in the bag. The Jays bullpen ranks 17th in the MLB, with a cumulative ERA of 4.00. They will have to be better at sealing the deal, especially in one-run nail biters going forward.

Finally, the Jays hitters cannot get into a funk. Donaldson et. al. will need to continue swinging hot bats. It will be crucial not to leave runners on base or squander great chances like… having the bases loaded and nobody out (yes, they’ve squandered those before). Again, the Jays will need to score a lot of runs to stay on top, giving their starter and more importantly, their weaker bullpen, more of a cushion.

It’s going to be an interesting end to this season. The Jays are by no means out of it, but it’s going to be a tight 3-way race in the always-competitive A.L. East. A critical three game set is coming up against the O’s at the end of July. Winning at least two out of three there would be huge. Anyway, hang in there Jays fans—and see you next term—with any luck, there will some October baseball to talk about!