Blue Jays: American League playoff battle is already taking shape

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 24: Steve Pearce
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 24: Steve Pearce /

It’s ridiculously early in the season to be talking about the playoffs, but in the American League the battle in the standings has already begun, and it includes pretty much exactly who was expected to contend.

The Blue Jays entered the 2018 with a lot of question marks surrounding the team, especially after a disappointing 2017 campaign. Despite the 76 win season, the Blue Jays felt that better luck in the health department and a few tweaks could put them back in contention. Some would debate that point, but I’d argue that the fact that Josh Donaldson wasn’t traded this offseason was the most obvious signal that Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are telling the truth about wanting to contend.

Even with better luck and a few reinforcements, the Blue Jays’ brain trust knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy task qualifying for the playoffs these days. With AL East rivals in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox being among the top teams in the league, winning the division felt like a nearly impossible task to some fans this winter. That feeling is somewhat understandable, but in the era of the second Wild Card position in the playoffs things are a lot different.

We saw it last season when the Blue Jays didn’t really fall out of the race until later in the summer, despite the fact that they never reached the .500 mark at any time last year. I wouldn’t expect things to go the same way this season, but having two Wild Card spots does lower the bar a fair amount. I’m not suggesting that the Blue Jays should be okay with just pursing a Wild Card spot, but the fact that they exist should keep fans on the optimistic side despite the two division giants playing so well.

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After Sunday’s schedule was complete the 15-12 Blue Jays sit 5.0 games back of the Red Sox, who have started the season going 20-7 thus far. The Yankees started a little slow, but they’ve now won nine in a row and are 18-9 and in hot pursuit of the division lead. It should be a heavy battle all season long in the division, especially if everyone can stay mostly healthy.

In the Wild Card standings, the Blue Jays are one game back of the second spot, just behind the 16-12 L.A. Angels, and the two current position holders, the 16-11 Seattle Mariners, and of course the Yankees. As far as surprises go, the Oakland A’s are 14-14 and holding their own, and on the flip side the Minnesota Twins have started very cold at just 9-14. Obviously an awful lot can change since we’re just one month into the season, but that’s where things currently stand.

I won’t ignore the downside that one of the Red Sox or Yankees will have to take a Wild Card spot in order for them both to qualify for the postseason, so if the Jays finish third in the East then there’s only one spot up for grabs. At this stage, there really shouldn’t be much surprise as far as who the competition is going to be. Again, a lot can change before September rolls around with injuries, trades, promotions, etc, but I think we’re already getting a good glimpse at what John Gibbons‘ club is going to be up against.

The scrappy A’s have surprised us before, but I don’t think they’re going to be ready to be true contenders. And while I think the Twins are better than the 9-14 start they’ve had, this is one prediction I managed to get right this offseason (so far), as I didn’t expect them to have a repeat of their success last season. That leaves the Angels, the Mariners, and one of the division rivals to contend with, and while they all have plenty of upside I don’t think anyone should be counting out the Blue Jays.

The Mariners will be looking to snap the longest playoff drought in major professional sports, currently sitting at 16 games, and even ahead of the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. They have a strong pitching staff and an offence lead by the likes of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Dee Gordon and more, but they’re by no means insurmountable. Fangraphs has them projected for an 82-80 season at the moment, and missing the playoffs again to extend their streak.

The Angels employ arguably the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, and have made a few significant upgrades to their surrounding cast. The greatest of which so far has been Shohei Ohtani, who has had a very successfull start to his career in North America. The Angels been experimenting with a six man rotation and have been using Ohtani as a hitter as much as they can justify it, as he’s hitting .341/.383/.682 with four home runs and 12 RBI in just 44 at bats. He’s also looked the part on the mound at times as well, although not to the same degree of success as he has as a hitter, at least not yet. Fangraphs has the Angels projected for 85-77 this season.

The Red Sox are currently projected to win the East with a record of 98-64, with the Yankees just behind them at 97-65, and taking the first Wild Card position. Fangraphs likes the A’s chances more than I do at 82-80, and see the Twins at 79-83. As far as the rest of the East is concerned, Fangraphs doesn’t see much improvement in store for the Tampa Bay Rays at 78-84, or the Orioles at just 70-92.

That leaves the Blue Jays, who all in all have had a solid start to the season despite the loss of three straight series. I’m not making any excuses for them, but they have been mostly without their best hitter in Josh Donaldson, and have watched many of their regulars struggle mightily, including expected ace Marcus Stroman who has a 8.88 ERA after five starts. I understand the frustration from many fans, but I also think there is an awful lot to like about their chances. Fangraphs sees them as a real contender for that last Wild Card spot, having them tied with the Angels at 85-77. If that scenario actually played out, they would have a one game playoff to see who would qualify for the postseason.

From there you can call me a dreamer if you like, but I really believe it’s anyone’s ball game once the playoffs begin, pun intended. I realize that there are difficult matchups at the top of the American League, but I think the Blue Jays have most, if not all of the pieces they would need to have a real shot. They have a quality bullpen, a rotation still ripe with potential for vast improvement, and deeper offensive depth charts than we’ve seen in years. I know there are flaws, but there is a lot to like about this team if you ask me.

Time will tell which teams in the American League are pretenders or real contenders, including the Blue Jays, but at this early stage it looks like we’re already getting a pretty good idea of what the race should look like. If the projections are even remotely close, the Blue Jays are well positioned to be playing some interesting and exciting baseball in 2018.

Next: Blue Jays: Gibby, we have a problem