Rumors of the AL East’s demise are not only grossly exaggerated, they’re completely fabricated. The Boston Red Sox have flushed last season’s 93-loss disaster out of their system faster than you can say “off with Bobby Valentine’s head!,” thanks to their stars (Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz) hitting like stars; pop-up performances from the likes of Daniel Nava; Jose Iglesias bizarrely doing his best Rod Carew impression; and stunning work from John Lackey, who most Red Sox fans were pretty sure was dead and some had volunteered to confirm.
The 2012 Baltimore Orioles were arguably the luckiest team of all time (29-9 in one-run games, 16-2 in extra innings). The 2013 Orioles have not been lucky at all, because that’s not how luck works, so they’ve had to compensate by being better. They are, thanks to the remarkable Chris Davis, who’s slugging .696, and the equally remarkable Manny Machado, who is threatening the all-time record for doubles in a season and answering the question “What would happen if a Gold Glove–caliber shortstop played third base?” And he just turned 21.
This was supposed to be the year that the New York Yankees faced their reckoning. Their offense is every bit as bad as expected, but their pitching staff, led by three pitchers (Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera) whose combined age is 122, has been outstanding. And unbeknownst to mortal souls, the Magical Luck Monster that lurked inside the Orioles last year migrated to the Yankees over the winter, in a manner not unlike the alien in The Hidden. The Yankees have barely outscored their opponents, but they are 16-9 in one-run games.
The Tampa Bay Rays are doing what they always do: competing with the A’s for the distinction of being the best team dollar for dollar in baseball. Even while playing in a pitcher’s park and keeping Wil Myers in Triple-A until late June for financial reasons, the Rays are fifth in the AL in runs scored, thanks to Evan Longoria being Evan Longoria, James Loney being Keith Hernandez, and having no dead spots in their lineup. The surprise in Tampa Bay had been a shockingly mediocre pitching staff for the first three months, but David Price has returned from injury looking like his Cy Young self, fronting a top four of Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Cobb. The Rays have won eight in a row, 12 of their last 13, and they’ve allowed just 40 runs in their last 18 games.
Since baseball expanded to the six-division format in 1994, no division has had four teams win 87 games, which all of these four teams are on pace to do this year. All four teams have a better record than any team in the NL West.
But the story of the AL East is the team that got disinvited to the party. The Toronto Blue Jays won the winter, trading for practically every useful player on the Miami Marlins roster, and then gilding the lily by acquiring last year’s NL Cy Young winner. So why are they losing the summer?
Only two teams in all of North American professional sports have gone longer without making the playoffs than the Blue Jays. (And one of them, the Pittsburgh Pirates, is in excellent position to end its streak.) The sad part is that the Blue Jays haven’t been a terrible team at any point in the last 20 years. They’ve rarely even been bad. After winning back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, the organization had a financial hangover, aggravated by both the 1994-95 strike and the weak Canadian dollar. But from 1998 through 2011, the Blue Jays had eight winning seasons, and just once won fewer than 75 games. The problem was that while they were frequently good, they were never great. In different seasons, they won 88, 84, 83, 86, 87, 83, 86, and 85 games. They never won more than 88 games, and they never sniffed a playoff spot. Just once did they even finish higher than third place — in 2006, when they went 87-75 and sneaked ahead of the Red Sox by one game.
Last season, the Blue Jays fell to 73-89, which is hardly a disastrous season, but it’s telling that the Jays had lost that many games just once since 1980. From the start of the 1998 season through yesterday, the Blue Jays had played exactly .500 ball, at 1,260-1,260. If they played in the NBA or the NHL, they would have made the playoffs at least a half-dozen times in the last 15 years; if they played in the NFL, they would have qualified for three or four postseasons. But baseball has always been pickier than other sports about whom it lets through the postseason door (although not as picky now that they’ve invited two wild cards per league). No team has been hurt more by that selectiveness than the Blue Jays.
There’s no money in mediocrity; the Blue Jays had to get out of their eightysomething rut if they wanted to play in October. They had to do something bold. And they did.
The 2012 Blue Jays lost 89 games, but they weren’t as bad as they looked. They had Jose Bautista, who missed almost half the year with injuries but was essentially the same hitter who had emerged from journeymandom to lead the majors in homers in both 2010 and 2011. They had Edwin Encarnacion, the Robin to Bautista’s Batman, who at age 29 — the same age Bautista had been when he went supernova — hit .280/.384/.557 with 42 homers, having never hit more than 26 homers or slugged higher than .482 before.
They had Brett Lawrie, shrewdly acquired while still in Double-A for starting pitcher Shaun Marcum. Lawrie couldn’t match the phenom-level performance of his call-up season in 2011, when he hit .293/.373/.580, but he hit .273/.324/.405 last year, perfectly promising numbers for a 22-year-old in his first full season in the majors. Lawrie also literally broke the defensive metrics at third base — companies that measure defense, like Baseball Info Solutions, had to change their algorithms to account for the fact that the Jays would position Lawrie in short right field when they put on the shift. This made Lawrie the first “third baseman” in baseball history to routinely make plays on balls hit to the right of second base. Accounting for this unusual defensive deployment, Lawrie’s defense graded out as merely excellent, as opposed to the greatest defender in the history of the game.
The Blue Jays had Colby Rasmus, who remained an enigma after being discarded by the Cardinals in a controversial 2011 trade, but who still managed to pop 23 homers and was just 25 years old. They had Brandon Morrow, who fashioned a 2.96 ERA when he could stay healthy and looked poised to break out as one of the league’s most dominant right-handers. They had one of the game’s strongest farm systems. And perhaps as important as what they had was what they didn’t have: a bullpen.
The Blue Jays relievers combined for a 4.33 ERA in 2012, easily the worst in the AL. This was, counterintuitively, a very good sign for the Jays. Bullpens are fickle creatures, prone to wild swings in performance from one year to the next. It’s much easier to overhaul a bullpen than a rotation or a lineup — relievers can be fashioned from failed starters, castoffs from other organizations, or simply better luck from the relievers already on hand.
The bullpen, in other words, might repair itself, which was a good thing, because GM Alex Anthopoulos had bigger fish to fry — the Blue Jays still had three or four holes in their lineup, and just one above-average starting pitcher.
With one transaction, Anthopoulos fried enough fish to serve the entire Vatican during Lent. On November 19, the Blue Jays were the beneficiaries when Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria extended his middle finger to the city of Miami one more time. Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, both having finished just the first year of long-term contracts, were sent to Toronto along with Josh Johnson, who was in the final year of his. In exchange for those three, plus John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio, the Blue Jays gave the Marlins Henderson Alvarez (whose spot in the rotation had been usurped by the trade), Yunel Escobar (whose job as the everyday shortstop had been usurped by the trade), backup catcher Jeff Mathis, and four prospects, including highly ranked minor leaguers Jake Marisnick and Justin Nicolino.
The same day, the Jays inked Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract, gambling that PEDs alone could not explain why Cabrera had hit .322/.360/.489 in the two seasons before he was nailed and suspended last summer.
And a month later, having already made it clear that the Jays were all-in for 2013, Anthopoulos decided that if he was in for a penny, he was in for the whole bloody exchequer. The Jays traded Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud, their two best remaining prospects, to the New York Mets in exchange for knuckleballing dervish R.A. Dickey, who quickly agreed to a two-year contract extension with an option that could keep Dickey in Toronto through 2016.1
Completing the overhaul, Anthopoulos traded manager John Farrell — who had served as Boston’s pitching coach for many years, and whom the Red Sox wanted to replace Valentine — back to Beantown in exchange for utility man Mike Aviles, whom they then flipped to Cleveland for swingman Esmil Rogers. Farrell was replaced by John Gibbons, who had previously managed the Blue Jays from 2004 to 2008, and who, in the grand tradition of Toronto mediocrity, had a lifetime record of exactly .500 (305-305).
To go from 73-89 one year to the playoffs the next required a transformation, and damned if this wasn’t a transformation. The Blue Jays had added three starting pitchers. Dickey was the reigning NL Cy Young winner; Johnson led the NL in ERA in 2010 and had a 2.87 ERA in the three years before the trade; Buehrle had thrown 200-plus innings for 12 straight years, and had an ERA above 4.00 in just three of those 12 years. Along with Brandon Morrow, the Jays appeared to have one of the best rotations in the game.
They also replaced Yunel Escobar, who hit .253/.300/.344 and was a clubhouse distraction, with Jose Reyes, one of the best shortstops in the game, who won the NL batting title in 2011. They replaced a rotating cast of left fielders with Cabrera, who would have won the NL batting title in 2012 if he hadn’t agreed to discharge all claims to it in an attempt to get back into MLB’s good graces. Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis — another free agent who was signed to a three-year contract — gave the Jays a pair of super utility guys who would compete for the second base job.
Meanwhile, Toronto was bringing back Bautista and Encarnacion. They were bringing back Lawrie and Rasmus. On paper, the Blue Jays’ roster was the same or better at every position. They had dramatically improved at three rotation spots, in left field, and at shortstop. The Red Sox had collapsed, the Yankees were ancient, the Orioles’ luck was due to run out, and the Rays were paupers. The time to strike was now, and the Jays had struck.
So far, they’ve struck out.
If there were one overriding reason why this season’s Blue Jays have been such a disappointment, it would be easy to name a solution. For example, if the Jays were under .500 because aliens had abducted half their roster, their response would be to just start an interstellar war. Problem solved. Unfortunately for Toronto, it’s not that simple. There appear to be as many reasons for disappointment as there are disappointments.
Start with the rotation, which is next-to-last in the AL with a 4.91 ERA. Dickey, brought in to be the crowning jewel of both the Blue Jays’ offseason and their rotation, has been a huge disappointment. The knuckleball is a fickle thing, and Dickey had explored new territory for knuckleball pitchers last season by throwing his knuckler harder than anyone had thrown it before.
The problem for Dickey is that he’s battled neck and back soreness for much of this season, not enough to keep him off the mound but enough to keep him from throwing his hard knuckleball. The pitch’s average velocity has dropped from 77.2 to 75.3 since last year, and somewhere in those 2 mph is the line between “dominant” and “hittable.” Dickey’s ERA has nearly doubled since last season to 4.69 — he leads the majors in runs allowed — and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has dropped by more than half.
The good news is that Dickey’s injury woes ought to be temporary, and in fact his velocity is ticking back up — the velocity of his knuckleball has exceeded his season average in each of his last six starts, coinciding with a 3.76 ERA over that span. There’s still reason to be optimistic that Dickey will regain his solidly-above-average performance of 2010 and 2011, if not his Cy Young form from 2012.
The Blue Jays’ other rotation problems may not be as easy to solve. Josh Johnson was a gamble when they acquired him because he had two settings — “dominant” and “disabled.” Johnson had a career 3.15 ERA, but he had qualified for the ERA title just three times in seven years, averaging under 130 innings per season since his rookie year.
There are only so many times you can push the “disabled” button before you lose the ability to push the “dominant” one. Johnson was terrible to start the year, allowing 16 runs in 20 innings in his first four starts before he was put on the DL for six weeks with inflammation in his right triceps. He’s been better since his return, with 41 strikeouts and 13 walks in 41 innings, but he isn’t the same pitcher who (at least when healthy) was one of the NL’s best right-handers for the last four years.
The good news is that his velocity is unchanged from last season, with his fastball registering at 93 mph. The bad news is that his velocity is down about 2 mph from its peak in 2010, and it’s probably not coming back.
Buehrle is the anti-Johnson. While Johnson is a right-hander with dynamite stuff and Dr. James Andrews on his iPhone favorites list, Buehrle is a left-hander whose fastball has never averaged more than 87.1 mph, but he’s one of the most durable pitchers in modern history. (He’s on his way to throwing 200 innings for the 13th straight year, something just five pitchers in the live-ball era have accomplished.)2 Buehrle remains as durable as ever, but at age 34 he is starting to fray at the edges. His fastball is down to 84.3 mph, and he’s compensating by nibbling at the corners more often — his walk rate is a career high. His 4.50 ERA is the second-highest of his career.
And then there’s Brandon Morrow, the lone holdover from last year, who’s sort of the poor man’s Josh Johnson. Morrow appeared to have finally harnessed his considerable potential last season (at least when healthy) with a career-best 2.96 ERA. But like Johnson, Morrow pitched at less than 100 percent to start this year, and it showed; he had a 5.63 ERA before hitting the DL with forearm tightness. “Forearm tightness” is sometimes a euphemism for “he needs Tommy John surgery, but we’re in denial.” Even if that’s not the case with Morrow, it will probably be at least a month before he returns to the mound.
The most effective member of the Blue Jays rotation has been Esmil Rogers, who was pulled from the bullpen out of desperation in late May, and who has fashioned a 3.27 ERA in eight starts.
An underreported reason to expect the Blue Jays to improve in 2013 was that Ricky Romero, their putative ace going into last season, was probably the worst starter in the majors last year (5.77 ERA, 313 base runners allowed in 181 innings, -1.4 WAR). Romero had been an above-average starter for three consecutive years before last year’s meltdown, and the expectation was that whoever pitched in his slot this year — whether it was Romero or someone else — couldn’t possibly be as bad.
Well, guess what? They’re worse. Romero made only two starts — and lasted a total of 4⅓ innings — before he was dispatched to the minors for emergency surgery on his career. J.A. Happ began the year as the fifth starter and gave the Jays a 4.91 ERA in seven starts before he was hit by a line drive and put on the DL. His head is OK, fortunately, but he sprained his knee when he hit the deck and he’s probably out until August. In his stead, the Jays have tried a number of pitchers long thought retired. Chien-Ming Wang has made five starts (7.13 ERA). Forty-year-old Ramon Ortiz made four before blowing out his elbow (5.51 ERA). Aaron Laffey and Sean Nolin each started one game, combining to allow eight runs in four innings.
The six pitchers mentioned in the previous paragraph have combined for 82 innings in 20 starts — barely four innings a start! — and a 6.72 ERA. Ricky Romero may have been worse than replacement level last year, but the Jays have somehow found a bevy of replacements who have been even worse this year.
The offense has been better by comparison, but only by comparison. Jose Bautista (.261/.359/.506) and Edwin Encarnacion (.263/.353/.522) continue to prove that their late-career breakouts were no fluke. After back-to-back terrible seasons, Colby Rasmus (.251/.324/.475) is beginning to resemble the player who showed so much promise as a 23-year-old sophomore three years ago. And Adam Lind, who hit .305/.370/.562 in 2009 and then turned into a below-average hitter for the next three seasons, has had an improbable renaissance, hitting well enough (.302/.359/.510) to justify his iron glove at first base.
But the Blue Jays have had a four-man offense for most of the season, because the new acquisitions haven’t met expectations. Jose Reyes is a superstar player when healthy, but that conditional clause has been a bear these last few years. While Reyes played 160 games for the Marlins last year, it was the first year that he didn’t spend time on the DL since 2008, and he was felled by a badly sprained ankle just 10 games into this season, missing 66 games before returning in late June. He’s hitting .307/.355/.455 in his brief time on the field, and if he can stay upright, he’s still probably the best shortstop in the American League.
But in his absence, the Blue Jays had to turn to Munenori Kawasaki, whose antics and universal likability have kept people from grumbling about his .217/.320/.303 line. Izturis (.246/.287/.345) has been disappointing, and Bonifacio (.208/.244/.308) has been a disaster as the starting second baseman. Cabrera has hit .278/.321/.362, adding a data point to the “yes” column in the ongoing debate “Do steroids actually improve performance?” And starting catcher J.P. Arencibia, who has long been Toronto’s poster boy for its grip-it-and-rip-it approach at the plate — he had as many homers (18) as walks last season — has taken that philosophy to an unhealthy extreme this year. Arencibia has a healthy 15 homers and 13 doubles in 81 games — but he’s hitting .220, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 95-to-13. Arencibia’s .256 OBP is the second-lowest of any qualifying player in the majors this year, since the Astros’ Matt Dominguez stubbornly refused to raise his OBP on an off day.
Finally, there’s Brett Lawrie, who after the 2011 season looked like one of the most valuable commodities in the sport. Even after a slightly disappointing 2012, he came into this year as a 23-year-old with experience, a track record of hitting, and a terrific glove at third base. He ticked off all the boxes on the “young player about to make the leap” checklist.
Instead, a sprained ankle held him out at the beginning of the season. The Blue Jays admitted they rushed him back, and he struggled to hit .209/.268/.374 for six weeks, then reaggravated the injury. He’s on rehab assignment now, and he might return after the All-Star break.
After cashing in the farm system to add three new starters to a lineup that ranked seventh in the AL in runs scored last year, the Blue Jays are eighth in the league this year.
But the most sobering fact about the Blue Jays isn’t the performance of their lineup or their rotation — it’s the performance of their bullpen. Remember how we said that bullpens can go from one extreme to the next pretty quickly? That’s exactly what has happened in Toronto. One year after the Blue Jays had the worst bullpen ERA in the league, they have the second-best bullpen ERA (2.98) in the league. And they’re doing it with pretty much the same set of guys. Closer Casey Janssen quietly has an ERA under 2.90 for the third straight year, but this season he’s been joined by some friends — Janssen has only the fourth-best ERA in his own bullpen. The three other guys are Brett Cecil, a failed starter who came into this season with a 4.79 ERA; Aaron Loup, a rookie left-hander who has mediocre stuff but has unintentionally walked just five hitters in 76 career innings; and Steve Delabar, who was a 28-year-old rookie (red flag no. 1) last year when he was acquired in a trade for Eric Thames (red flag no. 2). All three have ERAs of 2.00 or less; Cecil and Delabar are both All-Stars after Delabar won the Final Vote ballot for the All-Star Game, because Detroit manager Jim Leyland apparently thinks the purpose of baseball’s premier exhibition is to feature the game’s finest middle relievers.
The Blue Jays are the only team with three relievers who have made 30-plus appearances with an ERA of 2.00 or less, and none of the three was acquired during their winter of excess. It’s a testament to Toronto that they turned their bullpen from a liability to a strength, but it’s also an omen, and not a good one. Bad bullpens are the low-hanging fruit of the rebuilding tree: As the Jays have shown, a bad bullpen can be upgraded quickly and painlessly.
Now Toronto has one of the best bullpens in the league and they’re still under .500. The same regression that made it easy to fix the bullpen will make it hard to maintain it as an elite one. If the Blue Jays are going to improve in the second half of this season or in 2014, they’ll have to do it the hard way — by upgrading the rotation or the lineup, the same two facets they spent so much time and so many assets trying to upgrade last winter.
There are reasons to expect the Blue Jays will improve significantly over the rest of the season. A healthy Jose Reyes will be worth two or three wins by himself, and — let me check — at this very moment, Reyes is healthy. Brett Lawrie is still the most talented young player in the organization, he should be back soon, and he is almost certain to provide better results from third base than the Jays have gotten so far. Dickey is putting his minor owwies behind him, and he should be better in the second half.
But there are only so many guys who can expect to step up their game the rest of the way. Josh Johnson might be healthy, and he might be effective when he’s healthy, but I wouldn’t buy stock in either of those propositions. Brandon Morrow is less likely to be healthy than Johnson, and less likely to be effective if he is. Mark Buehrle is who he is, a strike-throwing, innings-eating lefty, and time is a wind blowing against his sails, not behind them. Bautista and Encarnacion are playing about as well as can be expected, and Lind is playing better than expected and will probably decline in the second half. Melky Cabrera may have to find a new supplier of premium vitamin supplements. The bullpen is unlikely to finish the season on its current perch as the best in the AL.
And most of all, even if the Blue Jays are better in the second half, they’ve got a lot of ground to make up.
Alex Anthopoulos is an excellent GM, working in one of the game’s more difficult environments, situated in a Canadian outpost of the game’s strongest division. Flipping Vernon Wells’s contract to the Angels — and getting Mike Napoli in return — was the greatest GM trick of the century. He got Brandon Morrow in the first place by trading reliever Brandon League, and any time you can turn a reliever into a starter you’re doing something right. Better than that, he engineered a three-way trade that turned three middle relievers (Jason Frasor, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski) and a marginal pitching prospect (Zach Stewart) into Colby Rasmus.
After Bautista had one of the most unexpected breakout seasons in recent memory, Anthopoulos correctly gambled that it was for real, giving Bautista a five-year contract that looks like a bargain now. He has aggressively and creatively used the draft to build up Toronto’s farm system; after the 2010 season he paid the Colorado Rockies to acquire Miguel Olivo, then declined the option on Olivo’s contract 93 minutes later, solely to acquire a compensation draft pick when he signed elsewhere.
But so far, the defining gamble of his career — last winter’s reloading — has crapped out, leaving Anthopoulos with the unenviable decision to either burn down the house and start over or go all-in with the chips he has left. There aren’t many of them. He traded four of the team’s five best prospects last winter in d’Arnaud, Syndergaard, Marisnick, and Nicolino. Right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who just missed a month with a sore shoulder but who has a 3.23 ERA in high-A ball and just turned 21, is the only player in the system who was named to Baseball America‘s midseason Top 50 Prospect list.
But having devoted their resources to winning this year, the Blue Jays are like a cruise ship on the Bosporus: They don’t have any room to change course. Putting guys like Dickey or Buehrle on the trade market would make teams even more suspicious of them than they are now. Adam Lind still has his doubters, and Cabrera is radioactive. Rasmus would fetch a high price on the trade market. But trading him, or Reyes, or Bautista, or Encarnacion would set the Jays on a course from which it would take them years to bounce back.
Plus, this roster doesn’t have a long shelf life. It’s built to win now. Anthopoulos has little choice but to up his ante and use what remains of his farm system to go for it, if not this year then next. Every remaining prospect in the system, from Sanchez to 18-year-old Mexican right-hander Roberto Osuna to last year’s first-round pick Marcus Stroman, should be dangled for veterans who can contribute now.
The first priority has to be acquiring another starting pitcher to flush away the mess that is the no. 5 spot in the rotation, whether it’s a short-term rental of an elite guy like Matt Garza, or a lesser pitcher who is under contract in 2014, like Yovani Gallardo.3 The next priority is second base, from which the Blue Jays have received a combined .219/.253/.313 line this year. Again, the choice is between a better, pricier player who is a free agent after this season (e.g., Chase Utley) and a lesser player who won’t cost as much in terms of prospects and is under club control for next year (e.g., Rickie Weeks).
For as bad as this year has been, the Blue Jays’ one saving grace is that the team will lose almost no one at the end of the season; Josh Johnson is their only significant free agent this winter. It’s not unreasonable to hope that once they can start over in 2014, with presumed good health from Dickey, Reyes, and Lawrie, the Jays won’t dig themselves another hole they can’t climb out of. And while the AL East should be competitive as always, no other team in the division lurks as a 100-win juggernaut next year. But after next season, the window closes quickly, because Rasmus will be a free agent and because the bill on the backloaded contracts the Jays acquired from the Marlins comes due. (Reyes and Buehrle, who make a combined $21 million this season, are owed $41 million in 2015.)
Having picked the present over the future once, it falls to Anthopoulos to make the same selection again. It’s not an ideal choice, but the ugly reality is that there are no ideal choices for this organization right now. Having made the decision to escape the .500 purgatory of the last 15 years, the Blue Jays have to see it through. Even if they can’t be sure if the road they must travel will take them to heaven or hell.