Here's what the standings look like as of now, Monday June 26, 2006:
Team W-L PCT GB
Boston 44-28 (.611) -
New York 42-31 (.575) 2.5
Toronto 41-34 (.547) 4.5
Team W-L PCT GB
Chicago 49-26 (.653) -
New York 42-31 (.575) 6
Toronto 41-34 (.547) 8
The Blue Jays, for the most part, have played very well this season. The offense has been spectacular, with several regulars enjoying career seasons. In fact, the Blue Jays have the highest combined OPS in the majors, with a .023 advantage over the Red Sox. The pitching has been subpar, although, mostly due to the efforts of Roy Halladay and B.J. Ryan, it hasn't been too much of a detractor. As a whole, the pitching staff ranks in the middle of the pack, and with the return of A.J. Burnett it's not unlikely that they'll sustain that position or even improve upon it to some extent. With that said, however, they have only roughly a 21% chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report. Considering they're already eight games behind the defending champions for the wild card, their best hope for a playoff berth is winning the AL East. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Blue Jays have only roughly an 8% chance of winning the wild card this season.
Most of the offseason additions have performed very well thus far. Ryan has been the second best reliever in all of baseball, behind Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox; Troy Glaus's performance has risen to mythical heights; Lyle Overbay is quietly enjoying one of the best seasons of his young career; and Bengie Molina, while being somewhat misused by manager John Gibbons, has crushed lefties to the tune of a .915 OPS. Only A.J. Burnett has failed to substantially contribute to the team's success, due to two stints on the DL. Despite all that, as well as the sudden emergence of Alexis Rios and Casey Janssen, the team is only 2.5 games ahead of where it stood last season relative to its competition; on June 26, 2005, the Blue Jays, despite sporting a rather pedestrian 38-38 record, were 7 games behind the division-leading Red Sox. So, yes, it's very, very difficult to improve one's standing in the AL East. It's unfortunate that Toronto is geographically similar to Boston and New York, but such is the reality with which they have to cope.
The problem, moreover, is that neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees will decline precipitously in the coming years. Their stars, for the most part, will continue to produce at a similar level and they have the resources to stay competitively afloat for virtually as long as they please. The Blue Jays, on the the other hand, won't raise their payroll in the near future, nor do they boast a strong enough farm system to significantly improve through the use of means from within. Therefore, they're stuck with what they've been dealt, and, barring a slew of great trades by J.P. Ricciardi, the team's playoff hopes will hinge on its current core of talent. The question then, of course, is whether this team, plus or minus a few spare parts, is capable of overtaking the Red Sox and Yankees. They've managed to stay competitive through the first two-plus months of the season, and there certainly are some reasons why they can ultimately lay claim to a playoff spot at season's end:
- The Blue Jays have played a markedly more difficult schedule than their competitors. Their strength of schedule total is .523, the second highest behind the Rangers. The Yankees and Red Sox rank fifth (.515) and sixth (.514), respectively. The fact that all three rank so high is mostly due to the fact that they find themselves in the American League, which has been much more competitive than its older sibling, and also because they've played against each other a fair amount this season. In fact, the disparity between leagues is so visible that not one single American League team has a lower SOS total than any single National League team.
- Injuries. Yes, those notorious injuries. Without Burnett, the team has been forced to use Ty Taubenheim and Scott Downs in the rotation, a role in which neither has been all that effective. Gustavo Chacin, who wasn't performing all that well when he was healthy but who was still garnering wins, has been injured as well. Additionally, Gregg Zaun spent some time on the DL. While these likely cost the team a win or two, the Blue Jays have been very lucky with respect to injuries, at least relative to their immediate competitors. The Yankees, for instance, have been decimated by injuries, most notably losing both Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield for extended periods of time. But they have the financial resources to trade for expensive, high-impact players prior to the trade deadline, a luxury the Blue Jays don't share. In order for them to win the AL East, they'll most likely have to experience their fair share of luck, and that includes boasting a healthy A.J. Burnett for the remainder of the season.
- John Gibbons, whose selection as a coach for the 2006 All-Star game was announced today, has plain and simply mishandled some of his players this season. That's not to say he's done a poor job as a manager, but he could have done a better job than he has thus far. For one, he shouldn't have used Edgardo Alfonzo at all. Fortunately, the team remained successful while he was at second base, but he provided nothing, posting perhaps the worst totals in the majors by any player this season.
His use of the bullpen has been called into question in the past. He's granted many unwarranted innings to the likes of Brian Tallet, Pete Walker, and Vinnie Chulk, though to his credit he's tried not to use them in high-leverage situations. Also, Scott Schoeneweis simply shouldn't pitch against right-handed batters, but Gibbons has yet to heed this advice.
On the hitting side of the spectrum, Gregg Zaun absolutely must receive more playing time against right-handed pitchers, against whom Bengie Molina has proven to be offensively inept. This season, in 116 AB against them, Molina has posted a .697 OPS. Zaun, conversely, has posted a .928 OPS against them in 101 AB. Moreover, their defensive skills are rather similar, the only major difference being that Zaun has a noticeably weaker, less accurate throwing arm than Molina.
- Placing Josh Towers in the bullpen, or using him sparingly in the rotation, would dramatically increase the team's production. In games started by Towers this season, the Blue Jays are 2-10. By discounting that from the team's overall record, the Blue Jays would suddenly boast a record of 39-24 and a .619 winning percentage, which would be the best in their division and fourth best in the game. The fact is that they've received almost no contribution from the fifth spot in the rotation. The idea of someday using the antiquated tactic of sporting a four-man rotation must have surely crossed Gibbons' mind at some point this season.
The current situation appears to be somewhat bleak, but 4.5 games is by no means insurmountable. At this time last season, two teams, the Yankees and the Astros, overcame a larger deficit to ultimately reach the postseason. For the Blue Jays, it's unlikely, but certainly not out of the realm of possibility.