Midway through the Blue Jays series in Washington against the Nationals, the team completed a third of their season (54 games) featuring two months of volatile and oftentimes unwatchable baseball. Now with 55 games in the books, the team sits at 25-30 firmly in the playoff hunt thanks to a division filled with four other teams who are equally as mediocre as our Jays. At certain points throughout April and May it looked like the season was about to go off the rails but somehow it always remained just hanging on to the track and now there's a small amount of optimism surrounding the next two-thirds of the season.
Despite losing Marcus Stroman to injury before the regular season even started, the Blue Jays have been fairly lucky in terms of long DL stints, with only Michael Saunders and Jose Reyes being dealt serious injury blows in terms of important members of the team. The frustrating lack of depth entering the season has only been mildly exposed, with Kevin Pillar and Marco Estrada picking up the slack in center field and the starting rotation respectively.
Looking forward, the team has a lot of games against their division rivals which will be key in creating some separation among the tight AL East. Oftentimes the Blue Jays enter the summer among the playoff race and then lose important games against the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox eventually fading to the familiar basement of what used to be baseball's toughest division. This year, every team has holes that can be exploited hopefully allow Toronto to reach the playoffs for the first time in over two decades.
What a mixed bag this pitching staff is... One week it looks like they're the achilles heel that will cost the Blue Jays a chance at contention. The next week they dominate lineups night after night and we wonder if they're really as good as they look. The same can be said for each individual member of the rotation as well. Drew Hutchison had a horrid start to the year with a jumbo jet 7.47 ERA in May, before putting some great starts together to cut the number to 5.26. The same thing can be said for Mark Buehrle, struggling to pitch six innings early in the year leading some people to believe Father Time had finally caught up to him. Next thing you know, the lefty has racked up back-to-back complete games and has never looked better. The exact same story can be used to describe Aaron Sanchez, with the righty initially struggling mightily to find the plate in his first full Major League season before calming down and pitching as strongly as any of the starters. The last of the four Opening Day starters that remain with the Blue Jays is R.A. Dickey, who hasn't seen the same improvement as the rest of the staff. Despite some strong starts, it's still a mixed bag for the knuckler which is especially frustrating considering the success that Noah Syndergaard has had to start his career. Marco Estrada took over the fifth rotation spot as well as anyone could realistically expect and for the time being the righty is keeping Daniel Norris stashed down in Triple-A Buffalo.
Going forward you would have to expect that Mark Buehrle will continue his usual reliable pitching of late, while R.A. Dickey might improve a slight bit, but he likely won't be winning a Cy Young again anytime soon. The two young pitchers in Hutchison and Sanchez could be moving in opposite directions if their peripherals are anything to judge by. Hutchison's 3.80 FIP is first among the team's starters and could be a sign of good things to come for the righty from Florida. Meanwhile, Sanchez and his 5.36 FIP could be a worrying sign but he's pitched quite strongly other than the walks so if those are reduced then he will likely not regress too severely.
In the bullpen Roberto Osuna is the 20-year-old rookie who survived the first part of the season instead of Miguel Castro, which is the outcome very few people expected in spring training. The Mexican reeled in his inconsistent fastball command and has become the best reliever on the team despite both Brett Cecil and the aforementioned Castro being given the closer role instead. This might be to Osuna's benefit though, as a shockingly low number of save opportunities for the team has meant that the current closer in Brett Cecil has only seen 16.0 innings of work this year despite pitching quite well. Of the other main relief pitchers, Aaron Loup has sunk to a 5.03 ERA although he hasn't looked all that bad while Liam Hendriks has been a pleasant surprise to start the year. Steve Delabar has also returned to the team and been the pitcher that everyone knows he is capable of being, although a .067 BABIP won't stay that low forever.
Going forward it would be nice if the Blue Jays replaced one of Ryan Tepera and Bo Schultz with a another strong arm (Rafael Soriano or David Carpenter perhaps?) as the team is still pretty thin in the bullpen. Roberto Osuna has shown no sign of slowing down and combined with Brett Cecil, the duo form a strong late inning pairing.
The Blue Jays hitters have done what they have been doing for the past few years and that is scoring runs by the dozen. A middle of the order that features Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion is destined to put up big numbers and they've done so this season. Russell Martin is doing almost as well at the plate as he did last year with a lower BABIP, which is a big positive. Chris Colabello meanwhile, has been out of this world with the Jays and they should ride that out until the clock strikes midnight and the magic fades away. A more sustainable start than Colabello's by Devon Travis has him in Rookie of the Year contention and it will be mighty nice when he is back in the lineup and Ryan Goins returns to a more suitable bench role. Kevin Pillar started off the year on absolute fire, but his hitting has cooled off in the last little while and he's returned to a defence-first center fielder in the bottom third of the lineup, which is by no means a bad outcome for the team. He's apparently changed up his swing to good effect though, so maybe a resurgence can be expected in the month ahead.
Looking forward, the team will go as far as their dynamite offence will take them. Barring injuries, the middle of the lineup should keep the Blue Jays afloat and players like Travis and Colabello could push the team over the edge although where everyone should play on the field is still up for discussion. Despite hitting solidly this year, Justin Smoak has only stepped up to the plate 82 times and the unexpected sparse playing time will likely continue with the log jam at first and DH.
As mentioned earlier, the Blue Jays have done well to avoid any huge injuries outside of Marcus Stroman and would be lucky to do so going forward. Michael Saunders and Devon Travis will eventually return from their setbacks and should help out the offence, although only Travis may have a spot on the team to return to at this point in time. Depth is still an issue in the outfield and starting rotation as an injury to someone like Pillar or Buehrle would spell trouble for the team.
Unlike years past when there were a number of fresh rookies on the verge of helping the squad, the prospects at the high levels of the minor leagues are pretty much already known to even the most casual Blue Jays fans. The rookies that were (prematurely) given a roster spot to start the year and then (prematurely) sent back down, such as Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris, and MIguel Castro are all still in Buffalo and should be seen in Toronto again before the year is over. Left-handed starter Matt Boyd has been tearing it up in New Hampshire and could possibly get the call as well if a few of the starters go down later in the year.
With all of the big name prospects already getting a taste of the major leagues, it isn't like the team will have a Joey Gallo or Kris Bryant to throw into the mix during the summer. If Pompey begins to hit he will likely supplant Kevin Pillar in center field and Daniel Norris should be back in the starting rotation by the end of the month. Castro meanwhile, was given way too much responsibility earlier in the year and should be one of the arms that comes up during a time of need in the summer in a more realistic role.
It's still too early in the Blue Jays season to predict what sort of trades they could be involved in, but it's unlikely to expect a Mark Trumbo type of deal anytime soon. The front office either wins this year or loses their job so a long-term rebuild won't be initiated by them anytime soon. Unless the season takes a huge nose dive, players with trade value like Bautista won't be dealt and only minor deals should be expected. Dioner Navarro should still be swapped for bullpen help while either Steve Tolleson or Danny Valencia could be traded as well.
On the whole, the Blue Jays sit in an okay position a third of the way into the season and they have a not-insignificant chance to snap their playoff drought. If players like Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, Devon Travis, and Russell Martin stay healthy and continue to step up, then the stars will have to pull less of the weight and the squad should be in good shape entering the final third of the season.
What are your thoughts about the first third of the 2015 Blue Jays season?