If you remember the 2009 season well, you remember that the Jays had led the AL East until a point that had every single opposition fan or commentator expecting them to faulter. And faulter they did, sliding through the rest of the season with a ton of losses to their AL East rivals, as had been predicted. For some reason, the Jays always seem to have a bulk of their AL East games in mid-to-late season, making their starts both important and unreassuring even if impressively positive.
Fast-forward to this season, and the same kind of scenario was taking place, where the Jays were competitive through the all-star game, but were expected to fall well back of any fight for a playoff spot. However, it was not to be so in 2010. The Jays have hung around enough to give themselves a fighting chance from here to the end of the year. If not to win a wild card spot, then at the very least to severely influence who does get the AL East spot and the waild card spot in the playoffs.
The Jays are 10.5 games back from the wild card spot, currently being held by the Yankees. If the Jays win today’s game, it pulls them within 9 games. Because they do face AL East teams so often (TB – 9 times, NY – 10 times, BOS – 9 times) from here to the end of the season, the Jays control their own destiny. They don’t have to hope and wish that other teas would beat their rivals, they simply have to pull up the socks and beat them. So the question is, can they?
I say why not. They’re arms are all healthy, the lineup has never looked better, and the pen is extremely fresh and intact after the trade deadline passed. Add the fact that JP Arencibia could very well add some oomph to this lineup in the form of a 40+ HR hitter, and you’ve got a decent chance at a great win streak. The only thing that can kill the chance the Jays may have to make a run at the playoff is themselves. But, the way they’re knocking the ball around and pitching right now, I don’t see that happening.
I listened to an interview of Jose Bautista on XM radio where he stated his reasons for wanting to stay in Toronto. He believes, as I do, that the Jays have one of the more impressive young cores of players in the majors right now and that the clubhouse atmosphere and leadership are condussive to a positive environment that is starting to expect to win, not simply try. Here’s the kicker about Bautista – he stated that his “new approach” was due to the tips he got from coaches abotu when to start his swing, but also attributes his success to playing every day from the point where the Jays let Alex Rios go to the White Sox onwards.
So, if the Jays had not let Alex Rios go, Jose would still be a bench player trying to fight for playing time. Since Rios left in September of 2009, Jose Bautista has hit more HRs than any other MLB player with 43 dingers in 5 months. If he continues on this pace, he will have hit over 50 HRs in what amounts to a full season’s worth of games. Therefore, when we look back at what the Jays got in return for Alex Rios, it isn’t only salary and contract relief, they also got one of the most prolific bats in MLB, which is more than any prospect the White Sox could have offered in return for the Jays taking part fo the contract on. What a move.
With Jose Bautista now terrorizing pitching from coast-to-coast, North to South, the Jays lineup is relaxed, able to work counts, and getting some very nice pitches to hit. When Travis Snider hits 7th in your lineup and Edwin Encarnacion hits 9th, you know you’ve got something great cooking. Pitchers are no longer able to pitch around anyone and the entire lineup is able to pop one out at any time. In fact, every single player on this team could hit 15+ HRs, how many squads can say that?
What it’s going to come down to for the Jays is the tired young arms that may also need some monitoring in terms of innings pitched. Romero should be fine since he pitched 178 innings in 2009. Marcum is another story. He didn’t pitch at all in 2009 and is coming off surgery, so he needs to be monitored extremely closely. If he needs to be limited or shut down, then the Jays will be relying on the likes of Marc Rzepczynski and Brad Mills – one who I trust, the other who depends on the matchup. Brett Cecil pitched about 150 innings in 2009, making his magic number approximately 180 innings. He has 112 pitched so far, so he should be alright. Brandon Morrow on the other hand pitched 125 innings in 2009, mostly in relief and has 112 IP already this season. He could feasibly make another 4-5 starts, but the Jays may want to shut him down after 3 in order to save his arm for 2011 - if they are further back in the hunt, that is. Finally, and most pressing along with Marcum, Jesse Litsch had serious injury issues in 2009 and barely threw (9 innings) as a result. He will need to be shut down at some point as well.
If Marcum and Litsch continue to pitch and pitch well, great! However, I am realistically thinking that some of these arms will tire or need to be replaced. However, the Jays do have a wildcard arm – Shawn Hill. Hill has made his way all the way back to AA after allowing only 3 ERs in 28 IP between the GCL and HiA Dunedin. He has struck out 26 over that span and walked 1, pretty impressive. Injuries have always been the only reason Shawn is not in MLB. He has the talent, the stuff, and the velocity needed to make a difference for the Jays as a #5 start this season. We’ll see how well he does in a few starts in AA, but I would not be surprised at all to see him being the first guy called upon should one of the young guys above ned to be shut down.
With the Red Sox getting enough injuries to make any opposing fan sympathize a little, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Jays can finish 3rd at a minimum in the AL East. Whether or not the Yanks stay healthy is really the bigger question. Arod and his hip, as well as AJ Burnett’s lackluster performances, may very well control the fate of the Yankees as a whole. If neither can turn it on down the stretch, the Jays could surprise some and make a close run at the wild card.
Whatever happens, I just hope the Jays finish the season off well and build some confidence for 2011. They have the goods on all fronts now, so ending 2010 on the right foot and beginning the 2011 season the same way is crucial to the Jays making a run at a word series in the near future.