By Cliff Corcoran
May 14, 2009

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.

Still, there are reasons to believe that some of the performance spikes that the Jays have enjoyed in the early going might be sustainable. Hill is 27, which is the typical peak age for a player and often the age at which hitters experience career years (though it's worth noting that Hill also got off to a hot start in 2007, hitting .313/.356/.563 in April but just .287/.329/.439 the rest of a way). The left-handed Overbay has benefited from a platoon with righty-hitting Kevin Millar at first base, and 25-year-old designated hitter Adam Lind always raked in the minors and is now finally doing it in the majors.

And let's not overlook the Cito Gaston factor. Any discussion of the Jays is incomplete without mention of the fact that the Jays have gone 74-50 (.597) since Gaston took over for John Gibbons in late June of last year. Lind and shortstop Marco Scutaro especially owe their success to their manager. Gaston, who first joined the Blue Jays as a hitting coach under Bobby Cox in 1982, had been a special assistant to team president Paul Godfrey prior to returning to the dugout last June, and one of his first moves upon becoming manager was to bring Lind back up from Triple-A and install him in the starting lineup. Gaston also benched David Eckstein and made Marco Scutaro an every-day player, a move that has paid off beautifully in the early going this year as Scutaro, a former Billy Beane favorite in Oakland, has settled in as the team's leadoff hitter and currently leads the major leagues in walks and the team with a .402 on-base percentage.

Scutaro has also been a key part of the teams' most overlooked unit, its defense. Team defense played a large part in the surprising pennant runs of the Rockies in 2007 and the Rays in 2008. Last year the Jays were second only to the Rays in defensive efficiency. This year they're turning balls in play into outs at an even higher rate, thanks in large part to the fine glove work of Rolen, Overbay, Hill and especially Scutaro. It's often the case that much of what we see as good (or bad) pitching is actually the work of the defense. This helps explain the Jays' ability to survive what otherwise should have been a devastating run of injuries to their rotation.

The continued excellence of the bullpen has to be partially attributed to the stellar defense, too. A year ago Toronto had the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball (2.94). This year, despite closer B.J. Ryan hitting the DL with an 11.12 ERA after six April appearances, the Jays are again among the major league leaders in relief ERA, ranking sixth with a 3.66 mark. Unsustainably low BABIP's abound in the pen as well (Jason Frasor: .212; Jesse Carlson: .240; Bill Murphy: .097), but the strength of the defense could keep the inevitable correction from being as harsh as it might otherwise be.

The Blue Jays are clearly overachieving right now, but it's worth noting that Alex Rios and talented rookie slugger Travis Snider haven't started hitting yet, and that Ryan, Romero and Litsch are all due back from the disabled list in short order. Ryan's expected to slot into a set-up role behind Scott Downs, who has posted a 1.99 ERA in 162 games out of the Toronto pen dating back to 2007. The potential improvements from those players could help offset the expected regression elsewhere.

The real test for the Jays, however, will be how they handle their division rivals. Prior to this week's series against the Yankees, the only AL East opponent the Jays had faced was Baltimore, whom they swept in a three-game series to open May. Otherwise the Jays have been fattening up on the AL West (7-4) and Central (12-8). They've also been winning more than their share of one-run games, going 7-2 in such contests, a mark that is as likely to regress to .500 as their pitchers' BABIPs trend toward the typical league average of .300. Thus far the Jays have split their first two games against the struggling Yankees. Their one win came behind Halladay, but their loss on Wednesday night saw Richmond and Murphy get their BABIP comeuppance, Hill leave the game after fouling a ball of his shin and the offense manage just two runs despite receiving four free passes from Andy Pettitte. They'll face CC Sabathia on Thursday night, with Sabathia coming off a complete-game shutout at Baltimore.

The Jays play two-thirds of their games against the AL East in the second half, but they have six games against the second-place Red Sox over the remainder of May, three games against the defending NL champion Phillies in June and a run of 13 games against the Phillies, Rays, Yankees and Rays again leading up to the All-Star break. We'll have a much better idea of how good Toronto is by the end of that stretch, and it seems fair to suggest that, while the Jays probably are a better team than many thought, they won't have one of the best records in baseball by the time July rolls around.

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