Getting late pretty early for Blue Jays
Revamped club needs to get it going soon to capitalize on offseason buzz
The Blue Jays have one game left in this abominable April. They'll play it Tuesday night against the Red Sox, in John Farrell's second return to Rogers Centre (a storyline that was already a little tired the first time).
They'll face Jon Lester, the reborn ace of the Red Sox, who has a 4-0 record and a 2.27 ERA. They'll counter with Brandon Morrow, who is 0-2 with a 5.27 ERA and has one of the highest walks/hits per innings pitched rates in the Major Leagues this month.
They'll play before a home crowd that has bought into the offseason overhaul, to the tune of 7,877 in added per-game attendance -- the second-largest such bump in the big leagues this season.
It will be April 30, one night among many in the Major League season. An early night, at that.
And yet, it will have the feel of a must-win.
We know better than to believe championships can be won in the winter, but we're also used to the notion that April isn't everything, either. The Blue Jays, though, are testing the limits of the season's compassion toward those who start slowly.
"We can go through so many examples of teams that have been well over .500 … or teams that are well under .500, and things change," general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters over the weekend. "If you're a good team, you're going to have a bunch of winning streaks, you're going to start winning a lot of series. That's going to happen."
True. And the Blue Jays are, conceivably, good enough to make that happen. But if they lose Tuesday night, they'll be trying to do something only one team -- good, bad or ugly -- in Major League history has managed to do: Win a division after falling behind 10 games or more in April.
The 1987 Tigers did it. That's it, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And while the dual Wild Cards afford these Blue Jays multiple avenues by which to proceed to the postseason, you generally don't want to find yourself dealing with a mountain of historical precedent or holding out hope for a Wild Card this early in the calendar.
The Blue Jays went 1-6 last week in a road swing through Baltimore and New York. Every game was decided by one or two runs. Maybe that's a source of solace for some, but it shouldn't be. The Blue Jays led all four games against the Yankees and couldn't finish them off.
As a result, the Blue Jays find themselves 9 1/2 games back of Farrell's Red Sox. You name it, and it hasn't gone to plan. Their April is not all about the loss of Jose Reyes, as good a player as Reyes is. Reyes alone can't account for the fact that the Blue Jays have been outscored by 35 runs.
Only two AL teams -- the Mariners (3.22) and White Sox (3.46) -- are scoring fewer runs per game than Toronto (3.65) thus far. Only the Astros (5.92) are allowing more runs per game than the Blue Jays (5.00). And that runs allowed mark is undoubtedly affected by the Blue Jays' inability, thus far, to keep up with the league average in defensive efficiency. Toronto has made 16 errors and is converting just 69.1 percent of balls in play into outs, thereby making matters all the more difficult for an already ailing pitching staff.
Granted, Reyes' return -- not anticipated until mid-June at the earliest -- would go a long way toward shoring up the defense. And he would spare John Gibbons from turning in a batting order with Rajai Davis in the leadoff spot.
But Reyes' ankle injury was but one of many bummers for the Blue Jays thus far.
A starting rotation that was injected with a wealth of innings and experience has already faced its share of adversity. Ricky Romero headed down to Class A to repair his delivery, Josh Johnson (triceps) and R.A. Dickey (neck) have been neither physically nor statistically up to expected standards, and Morrow and Mark Buehrle (both with WHIPS over 1.5) have seen a ton of traffic on the basepaths.
Naturally, the Blue Jays' best starter this month has been the guy who wasn't even expected to be in the big league rotation when Spring Training started: J.A. Happ, who is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in five outings.
On average, the Blue Jays' starters are giving them just 5.46 innings per game, so that's put a ton of work into the hands of an overworked bullpen. Among AL teams, only the Astros (100 2/3 innings) have relied on their 'pen more than Toronto (90).
What is really troubling about the Blue Jays' rotation, beyond the numbers, is the depth issue. Aaron Laffey, plucked off waivers from the Mets last week, took over for the hobbled Johnson on short notice on Friday both because of the ease of using somebody already on the active roster and because the Triple-A alternatives simply weren't any better. The Blue Jays need both Johnson and Dickey to navigate their way through what are considered minor injuries on the mound, not off it.
Some run support would certainly help, and the lineup hasn't provided it.
Remember John Buck, the catcher acquired in the mega-trade with the Marlins and then flipped to the Mets in the Dickey deal? He has more RBIs (23) than anybody on the Blue Jays' roster right now, and more than twice as many as Jose Bautista (11).
Not that I expect Buck to drive in more runs than any Blue Jay over the course of 162, but it speaks to how much they have struggled to get guys home. Toronto's .206 average with runners on base is worse than that of every team in baseball except the Cubs (.193). A .195 average with runners in scoring position betters only that of the Cubs (.151) and White Sox (.188).
If you worried about what Melky Cabrera could contribute, well, those worries are justified. He's hitting .250 with a .599 OPS. Brett Lawrie started the season on the DL and has started slowly, with a .213 average and .613 OPS. Bautista's batting .192 and has struck out in nearly 25 percent of his plate appearances. Both he and Edwin Encarnacion have hit seven homers with little else.
Based off track records and upside, the offensive issues, by and large, should resolve themselves over 162. The pitching issues? I'm not as sure, because there were questions about the Blue Jays' endurance and depth in that department before the season started and those questions have grown into outright concerns now.
Toronto entered Monday 9-17 -- a record identical to that of the 1989 team at this same stage of the season. That '89 team dispatched Jimy Williams at the 36-game mark, brought in Cito Gaston and wound up winning the division with 89 wins.
But that club was just 4 ½ games back when it sat at 9-17, not 9 ½.
The Blue Jays really can't afford to let that number climb any higher.