Is Toronto the real deal?
What's most impressive about Toronto is the makeshift rotation's steady pitching
Toronto's benefiting from a nice run of luck, but their stellar D is a major factor
Any discussion of the Jays is incomplete without giving due praise to Cito Gaston
The three best teams in baseball are in the American League East.
That was a popular refrain among analysts this spring, myself included. One fifth of the way through the 2009 season, two of the three best records in baseball belong to teams from the AL East, but the Yankees and defending AL champion Rays are not among them. Instead, the team with the best record in the American League is the Toronto Blue Jays, a club that almost no one picked to finish better than fourth in its division.
What's most impressive about what the Blue Jays have accomplished is that they've done it despite the fact that their starting rotation, which was the best in baseball a year ago, has been decimated by injuries and the high-profile departure of 18-game winner A.J. Burnett. The Jays won 86 games in 2008, but in part because their rotation was so stingy, posting a major league-best 3.72 ERA, they had the run differential of a 93-win team. That would seemingly suggest that this year's Jays just might be for real ... were it not for the fact that just one of the team's top-five starters from a year ago remains in the rotation. Dustin McGowan hit the disabled list with a frayed labrum last July; Shaun Marcum underwent Tommy John surgery in September; and Burnett opted out of his contract in October and eventually signed with the division rival Yankees in December. Then in April, Jesse Litsch left his second start of the year with tightness in his forearm and has been on the DL ever since. In the meantime, setbacks in McGowan's rehabilitation have made him unlikely to return this year, and Marcum is not expected back before September.
The Jays have shown organizational depth by replacing their injured and departed starters entirely from within, but they received just three impressive starts from 2005 first-round pick Ricky Romero before he landed on the DL himself after straining an oblique by sneezing, and lefty David Purcey, who replaced McGowan in the second half of 2008, was optioned back to Triple-A Las Vegas after posting a 7.01 ERA in his first five starts this season. Brett Cecil, a 22-year-old lefty drafted in the supplemental round in 2007, has pitched well in two starts in Romero's stead, but the Jays' rotation now consists of ace Roy Halladay, Cecil, long reliever Brian Tallet, independent league veteran Scott Richmond and 25-year-old righty Robert Ray, the last of whom had never pitched above Double-A prior to this season and sports a 6.00 ERA after two major league starts.
So how are the Jays 10 games over .500 at 23-13? A 7-1 performance from Halladay has certainly helped, as has the teams' 4-1 record in starts made by Romero and Cecil, but luck has played a role, as well. The Jays won Richmond's first five starts as the 29-year-old Canadian posted a 2.67 ERA, but that mark was built on an unsustainably low .247 opponents' batting average on balls in play. Richmond's luck has already begun to wear out, as he's allowed five runs in each of his last two starts, both Toronto losses, and failed to make it out of the second inning against the Yankees on Wednesday night. Similarly, the Jays have gone 3-2 in Tallet's five starts, but Tallet's BABIP in those outings has been an even flukier .227.
Luck has also played a part in the Jays' leading the majors in runs scored. While injuries have decimated the starting rotation, the Jays' starting nine has been uncharacteristically healthy. Scott Rolen, who has played in more than 115 games just once in the last five seasons, has started all but five games this year. Vernon Wells, who played in just 108 games last year and had his production sapped by a torn labrum in 2007, has started every game. Lyle Overbay, who lost time to a broken hand in 2007 and failed to recover his lost production despite being superficially healthy last year, is having a career year at age 32. Aaron Hill, who missed most of last season following a concussion suffered at the end of May, is having the breakout season that many had him pegged for a year ago. Injury seems sure to strike the offense at some point, and several of the team's batting averages, including Hill's .346, catcher Rod Barajas' .307 and platoon left fielder/utilityman Jose Bautista's .311 seem sure to regress.
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