The Blue Jays: Yet another AL East team that can play with the Yankees now
And you thought the American League East finally got interesting last year.
And now the Toronto Blue Jays, who have exactly one finish above third place, and no 90-win seasons, in the nearly two decades since they won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, are pushing the Yankees around, too.
The division is still stacked, and the Toronto team that hit four hime runs in Wednesday night's 8-1 drubbing of the Yankees may not end up anywhere at the end of the season. But they are the most talented group to play for Toronto since those championship Blue Jays, and sitting just a half-game back of the Yankees entering Thursday night's game, are probably even better than they've played so far.
Consider that the Blue Jays have managed to remain in contention despite first baseman Adam Lind, shortstop Yunel Escobar, or center fielder Colby Rasmus managing to reach even an OPS+ of 70. (100 is league average). All three players are in their mid-to-late 20s, have established baseline performances at or above league average, and have been extremely unlucky on balls in play.
The same is true for Jose Bautista, who posted OPS+ numbers of 164 and 180 in 2010 and 2011, but sits at just 100 so far in 2012. Little else about his performance, other than his batting average on balls in play, has changed. The likelihood of Bautista continuing to post a .199 batting average is extremely small.
Only Edwin Encarnacion, with his 151 OPS+, has overperformed expectations. And Encarnacion, a longtime prospect with the Cincinnati Reds, may simply be breaking out at last.
Despite all this, Toronto is fifth in the American League in runs scored, suggesting that if their regulars find their form, the Blue Jays should have one of the AL's top offenses.
The pitching, too, has underperformed, particularly the bullpen. Francisco Cordero, the closer at the start of the season, recently lost his job to Casey Janssen. But the two pitchers should form a potent end-of-game pairing, regardless of how they are used, and with Sergio Santos on the mend and Darren Oliver in tow, Toronto has plenty of arms to help protect their leads.
As for the rotation, Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and the emerging Kyle Drabek form a strong threesome. Henderson Alvarez appears to be a luck-induced mirage, but as he regresses, Drew Hutchinson's E.R.A. should dwindle. With an offense like Toronto's, however, they don't need miracles from the starters, just competence.
The net result is a team that makes exactly none of New York's in-division games easy. Once upon a time, only Boston could challenge the Yankees. Then Tampa Bay made the division tougher. Now, the Blue Jays and Orioles have sufficiently developed to keep the Yankees from ever getting a night off.