Behind rotation resurgence, Blue Jays jump back into contention
Remember the Toronto Blue Jays? They spent this offseason absorbing the Marlins' best players (non-Giancarlo Stanton division) and throwing down money like a Canadian family talked into taking a horse-carriage ride in Central Park. SI.com projected Toronto to go 91-71, good for second in the AL East, and a virtual lock for the playoffs. Then the season started, and the Blue Jays went about making every expert look like a fool.
Toronto went 10-17 in April, a month that featured new shortstop Jose Reyes spraining his ankle on a slide, poor starts from new co-aces R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson, and the defensive mis-stylings of Emilio Bonifacio. Johnson hit the disabled list, as did Brandon Morrow and fifth starter J.A. Happ; injuries so plagued the Jays' rotation that 40-year-old Ramon Ortiz was given four starts before he, too, went down with what looked to be a career-ending arm injury. The month of May was a little better at 13-15, but at 23-32, there didn't look to be any sign of the would-be contender that Alex Anthopoulos had built in the offseason.
Fast-forward to mid-June, however, and the Jays are suddenly flying high. (Sorry.) With a 2-0 victory Monday night over Colorado, Toronto has won six straight games, is 10-4 in the month, and is within three games of .500 at 33-36. The Jays are still stuck in the division basement, but they're only three behind slumping Tampa. Although a run at the division title is still a tough bet -- Boston is eight games clear of Toronto -- the Blue Jays have begun to move into the wild-card discussion. Coolstandings.com has Toronto with a 14-percent chance to make the playoffs, up from a measly two percent a week ago. Baseball Prospectus is less optimistic, pegging the Jays with a five-percent chance of reaching the postseason.
What's fueling Toronto's rise? A lot of the credit goes to the rotation, which has now gone five straight games allowing three runs or fewer. Toronto's starters have a 3.10 ERA in June, down from 5.74 in May, and that includes just four runs allowed in a four-game sweep of Texas last week and seven shutout innings from, of all people, the resurrected Chien-Ming Wang. Dickey is still trying to find his Cy Young-winning consistency -- in his last six starts, he's allowed six or more runs three times and two or fewer runs three times. But the two other offseason starter acquisitions have settled down.
Johnson, who fired 7 1/3 shutout innings against Colorado and struck out 10, has provided a boost since coming off the disabled list at the start of the month; in June, he's allowed four earned runs in 19 1/3 innings to go with 20 strikeouts. More importantly, his velocity seems to have returned. Red flags surrounded Johnson in his final year in Miami, when his average fastball velocity fell below 93 from its 2009 peak of 95. At the start of this season, Johnson was barely hitting 92. But in Monday's start against the Rockies, Johnson sat 94 with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, getting as high as 96 with both.
The other starter who's found himself is fellow Miami castoff Mark Buehrle. The soft-tossing lefty was absolutely blitzed in his return to the American League, with a 6.35 ERA in five April starts. But since picking up a loss against the Yankees on May 17 that left his ERA at 6.33, Buehrle has rebounded impressively, going 33 innings in five starts with seven earned runs allowed and eight walks against 25 strikeouts. The big change for Buehrle has been to go more to his cutter, which has given him another option to keep right-handed hitters off balance.
The offense has stepped up as well. Colby Rasmus' OPS has jumped every month, and stood at .883 in June going into Monday's action. Adam Lind, who posted an ice-cold .708 OPS in April and looked to be done as an impact hitter, rebounded with a .999 mark in May and 1.169 in June, along with eight homers. Those two have provided help for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, while making up for the lack of production from Melky Cabrera and the injured Brett Lawrie.
There are still concerns for the Blue Jays. Dickey hasn't found consistent success, and the back of the rotation needs help. Cabrera has been largely a bust on his one-year, make-good deal. Lawrie has been constantly hurt and ineffective when on the field, and the middle infield is a black hole offensively between Bonifacio and Reyes-fill-in Munenori Kawasaki. But with Reyes and Morrow due back before month's end, there's a good chance that the Blue Jays, even if they won't prove all their offseason backers right, can still make some noise in the season's second half. All stats courtesy Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.