Tuesday April 28th, 2015

With Jose Reyes hitting the disabled list with a rib fracture he suffered earlier this month and the Blue Jays again in last place in the American League East, it’s beginning to look like déjà vu all over again in Toronto. Following an aggressive offseason that brought renewed hope of snapping the major leagues’ longest playoff drought, injuries are once again eating away at the Blue Jays’ potential.

It started in early March, when sophomore Marcus Stroman, who was expected to be a key part of Toronto’s starting rotation, suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee during a fielding drill. Joining him on the sidelines was newly added leftfielder Michael Saunders, who had undergone surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus. Saunders made his belated Blue Jays debut on Saturday, but in his absence, more injuries struck. Toronto lost backup catcher and occasional designated hitter Dioner Navarro to a hamstring injury and its best hitter, rightfielder Jose Bautista, to a sore right shoulder, and the Jays will now be without shortstop and leadoff man Reyes for an as-yet undetermined amount of time.

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Bautista, who injured his shoulder making a throw from rightfield Tuesday, returned to the lineup as a designated hitter on Monday, but went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts, failing to put a fair ball in play and dropping his season average to .140. He also admitted that he hasn’t attempted to throw since being scratched from the lineup last Wednesday, telling MLB.com that his shoulder is “not anywhere close to 100 percent.” Not only does that mean that Bautista will be limited to designated hitter duty for a while (“I don’t even have a timeline on that,” Bautista said), but he also will not be at full strength in that role, suggesting a DL stay is still not out of the question.

In the short term, Bautista’s limitations could be more problematic than Reyes’s injury. Despite his dismal batting average, Bautista had still compiled representative home run and walk totals prior to his injury: Four of his seven hits on the season have left the yard, and his 12 walks are still a top-ten figure in the AL despite missing five games due to the shoulder injury. That allowed him to retain value despite some bad luck on balls in play. If he remains in the lineup, but his injury saps his power and teams cease being as careful with him, that production will drop even if his batting average rises.

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Then there’s the issue of Bautista’s inability to play the field, limiting manager John Gibbons’s ability to get other productive bats into the lineup. Being forced to choose between Edwin Encarnacion and Justin Smoak at first base may not seem like any choice at all on its face. Over the last three seasons, the former has hit 112 home runs and posted a 149 OPS+, and the latter has hit just 46 homers and posted a 95 OPS+. However, in the early going, Smoak has out-produced Encarnacion in all three slash stats thanks in part to a big spike in his walk rate and Encarnacion’s poor luck on balls in play. Encarnacion is still the better bet going forward, but with Reyes out and Bautista compromised, it would be best to be able to play both and push either Kevin Pillar or Dalton Pompey, both slick-fielding centerfielders off to similarly rough starts at the plate, to the bench or even Triple A.

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As for Reyes, he had drawn just two walks and had just three extra-base hits, all doubles, prior to being placed on the DL. Thus, despite a batting average over one hundred points higher than Bautista’s, Reyes has the lowest OPS+ (58) among the team’s nine regulars (not counting the just-activated Saunders) to this point. Ryan Goins and Jonathan Diaz, who seem likely to platoon at shortstop in Reyes’s stead, are certainly capable of replacing that limited level of production and provide arguably superior defense. The catch is that only Reyes was a sure bet to improve upon that poor start.

Still, even with Reyes out, Bautista diminished, and Encarnacion and Pompey off to slow starts, the Blue Jays’ lineup is not their biggest problem. Josh Donaldson is putting up characteristic numbers. Russell Martin has recovered from his early slump to hit .281/.439/.656 with three home runs in his last ten games. Rookie Devon Travis off to a blazing start (.368/.419/.721, leading the league in slugging, second in RBIs with 18 and fourth in home runs with six). Smoak is sporting a .372 on-base percentage. The lineup as a whole has averaged 5.25 runs per game on the season scored on the season, second best in the majors, and there’s good reason to expect more from both Encarnacion, who has four home runs but has hit just .158 on balls in play, and Saunders, who has gone hitless in his first three games since being activated from the disabled list.

Closer Miguel Castro has allowed a run in each of his last three appearances, taking a loss and a blown save in his last two.
Charles Krupa/AP

Far more problematic has been the performance of the pitching staff. Only the Brewers, Orioles, and Red Sox have given up more than the 5.1 runs per game allowed by the Blue Jays thus far this season, and only Baltimore has a higher staff Fielding Independent Pitching figure than Toronto’s 4.85, a number resulting in large part from the team's major league-leading 27 home runs allowed and fourth-worst walk rate.

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Blame can be spread fairly evenly throughout the starting rotation. Mark Buehrle and Drew Hutchison may have their walks under control and are a combined 5–1 on the season, but Buehrle has struck out fewer than four men per nine innings and is leading the majors in hits allowed, producing a 5.07 FIP. Each of veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s starts has been worse than his last, saddling him with a 5.25 ERA in 24 innings. Rookie sinkerballer Aaron Sanchez has yet to turn in a quality start in four tries. Hutchison and rookie Daniel Norris did provide glimmers of hope in their last turns—Norris allowed just one run in seven innings, and Hutchison gave up only two in eight frames. But Hutchison’s miserable 4.69 FIP remains the best mark on the team, and Norris’s season home run (1.3 per nine) and walk rates (4.4) remain troubling. Together, Toronto’s five starters have posted a 5.04 ERA through their first 20 games, fourth-worst in the majors.

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As for the bullpen, the Blue Jays betrayed how weak that unit was when they not only included 20-year-old rookies Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna on the Opening Day roster but also made them their preferred high-leverage relievers. Despite neither having ever pitched above Class A, the early returns were impressive, with the fireballing Castro quickly emerging as the team’s closer, but there are some signs that the league is starting to catch up to the two rookies. In Toronto’s last five games, Castro and Osuna have combined to allow five runs in a mere three innings of work, making five total appearances and allowing a run in each of them. Against the Red Sox on Monday night, Osuna blew the save in the eighth and Castro took the loss in the ninth. In his last seven appearances, Castro has two blown saves and two losses in four separate games and an ERA of 6.00 that doesn’t factor in the four of five inherited runners he has allowed to score.

Entering Tuesday’s action, the Toronto bullpen has more losses (five) than saves (four), and, other than Osuna, the Jays relievers with the best FIPs have been journeyman starters Liam Hendriks (1.17) and Jeff Francis (3.68). Having already raided the low minors for Castro and Osuna, there’s little hope for reinforcement there, just as without Stroman there’s little hope for reinforcement in the rotation beyond re-purposing Hendriks and Francis, which is in no way advisable. All of that shifts the onus back onto the lineup, which is problematic given the injuries to Reyes and Bautista.

Not all is yet lost in Canada: The Blue Jays do have a positive run differential (+3) and are only three games out of first place in baseball’s flattest division. But unless their pitching straightens itself out soon, they could be headed for a fall that could leave them once again on the outside looking in come October.

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