Sitting just two games behind the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays have 71 games remaining to defend their division title. How can they do it? By continuing the strong play that saw them hit the All-Star break as one of the hottest teams in baseball. But like most other clubs, there remain questions abound. Here are my top storylines to keep in mind when the “second half” begins tonight in Oakland.
There’s no denying the biggest hot-button topic surrounding the Blue Jays right now is Aaron Sanchez. The young hurler pitched in his first All-Star game on Tuesday night after a stellar first half in the rotation. Team management has stated all year that the plan is to move him back into the bullpen at some point this season to decrease his workload and help prevent future injury to his valuable right arm. Despite showing no signs of slowing down, that appears to still be the plan, and a much-debated one at that.
If Sanchez looks and feels strong through mid-August, should he still be sent to the pen? Will his removal from the rotation be used as a means to shore up a porous relief corps for a second year in a row? Many around the club still believe that mid-August target line is legitimate, and the team’s plans with Sanchez will dictate what they do ahead of the trade deadline, as the club will need to add an arm or two to remain competitive.
One thing the team won’t be doing at the deadline is dealing Jose Bautista. First of all, he has 10/5 trade protection rights, and secondly, it’s hard to imagine a transaction that makes the club better in the near-term while they are still in “win now” mode. Bautista will not allow himself to be traded to a non-contender, and it’s difficult to see another contending team surrendering what the Blue Jays want and need in return for the star slugger.
Instead, the Jays should take Bautista for what he represents–a very significant acquistion-type piece for themselves. How many teams will be adding a player with that type of offensive potential to a lineup that’s scored close to six runs per game in his absence? Not many. Will he need to be given days off, or utilized as the DH from time to time down the stretch? Probably, and perhaps the decision makers look into bringing in another outfield piece at the deadline.
Jay Bruce’s name continues to be floated around some circles in connection to the Jays. I, for one, think it makes a lot of sense. He’s a power left-handed bat in a lineup that remains dominated by right-handed hitters. He can be used in both corner outfield spots, and in the DH spot. The downside to that is it means more games at first base for Edwin Encarnacion, and increasing the possibility of injury to Major League Baseball’s RBI leader. But if it means less Justin Smoak, and more rest for Bautista and Michael Saunders, it’s an idea worth pursuing, especially considering he’s under club control for one more season, and he can help mitigate the loss of Bautista to free agency this winter.
Other than Bruce, the club should be targeting depth pieces for both the rotation and bullpen, keeping multiple Sanchez scenarios in mind. If he’s staying in the rotation, they need two relievers, a lefty and a righty, and likely still another starter for depth. If one member of the staff gets hurt, should we be satisfied with Drew Hutchison as the white knight to save the day? Should Sanchez be shifted to the bullpen, one left-handed bullpen piece should suffice, and at least one starter, possibly two. Cost-effective innings-eaters should be the top priority.
Make no mistake, the Blue Jays need to be active in some form at the August 1 deadline. The rival Boston Red Sox have already filled holes in their roster with starter Drew Pomeranz, reliever Brad Ziegler, and infielder Aaron Hill (yes, that Aaron Hill). Blue Jays fans will boastfully point to the Red Sox weak rotation as evidence why Toronto should remain the favourite in the AL East. But if Boston strengthens their club while Toronto doesn’t, that argument will become invalid. The Orioles also appear to be ripe to be overtaken because of a weak rotation. But the offence and bullpen are both strong, so an arm or two in the Baltimore stable will complicate matters for the Blue Jays.
That’s why it is imperative the team be proactive in shoring up their deficiencies. Failing to do so was their downfall in 2014, when they were within reach of a playoff spot at the deadline, stood pat, and fell well out of the race.
For Toronto the most glaring area of weakness remains the bullpen. The acquisition of Jason Grilli has blown away expectations, and in a limited sample, Brett Cecil has looked strong since his return from the DL. Mix in Roberto Osuna as a dominant closer, and the bullpen is beginning to show some teeth. Jesse Chavez, Joe Biagini and Bo Shultz, when used properly, have also been highly effective. The addition of Sanchez would go a long way in turning Toronto’s bullpen into the best of the three contending teams, as mentioned above. But is doing that worth the giant hole that will open in the rotation? If they are able to fill it with a starter or two, then it’s a worthwhile gamble. Otherwise, they’d be best to leave Sanchez in the rotation, and continue to patch up the relievers.
One final item of note will begin to take shape in the next 10 days when Chris Colabello is eligible to return from suspension. Remember him? After sitting out 80 games for PED use, he’s began a rehab assignment in Dunedin with a pair of doubles in his first two games. However, he does have options, so the Jays will be able to assign him to Buffalo if they don’t feel a use for him at the Major League level.
Provided he’s able to hit again, he can be a useful bench piece. However, I have to wonder if Blue Jays management has soured on him, based on comments from president Mark Shapiro back in April when the suspension was announced. It sounded like Shapiro was not pleased about being left in the dark, while Colabello kept some of his teammates in the loop. Perhaps management blocks his promotion as a form of further punishment for his lack of communication with the organization. Since he’s ineligible for the playoffs, it will be easy to justify leaving him off the roster for the remainder of the season as a means of finding playing time for those who might be able to help the club in October. Even if they choose this route, a September call-up would not surprise me.
All told, it’s important for the Blue Jays to take a shot at winning the division again. Given the randomness of the one-game wild car playoff, I think they’d be selling this club short by settling for that coin flip. The team is built for success this season, and deserve a chance to play a full five-game series. After the drama of last season, it’s safe to say the fan base would consider anything other than another AL East pennant a disappointment.