In spring training, all the hype surrounding the Blue Jays was about the aggressive general manager and John Farrell, the new field manager with a reputation as a pitching guru. Jose Bautista would have ample offensive support. The rotation that showed so much potential in 2010 would flower in 2011. This would be the year to move closer to the American League East contenders, to position the franchise for a serious run at a division title in 2012.
Instead, as the first-place New York Yankees visit Toronto tonight to start the season's final homestand, the Jays have a 75-74 record, the same as a year ago after 149 games when they finished the season at 85-77. Since the all-star break, though, the club has regressed alarmingly in pertinent statistical categories. The earned-run averages of the rotation and the bullpen have soared, the walks-to-strikeout ratios have jumped, and by consequence the slugging percentage of opposing hitters is up a cumulative 27 points. Offensively, the hitters have struck out more often than all but three teams, and likewise their batting average of .243 ranks 11th of 14 in the American League. On-base percentage is ninth, and slugging percentage eighth since the break.
In the tough AL East, these statistics amount to a hauntingly familiar bottom line – fourth place, and out of the postseason for the 17th consecutive season.
"The areas we need to address, they're pretty glaring," Alex Anthopolous, the general manager, said in an interview.
Over the full season, the club ranks 12th in starting pitchers' earned-run average, fifth in bullpen ERA but with a big asterisk – a league-leading number of blown saves. The hitters rank ninth in batting average, fifth in runs scored.
Last season, the Jays had veterans John Buck, Kevin Gregg, Vernon Wells and Shaun Marcum as mainstays. This year's younger team has been plagued by bullpen inconsistency; and it's been anchored with eye-rolling rather than eye-popping seasons from starting pitchers Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil.
"I definitely feel better, collectively, about the core of players we have under control at the end of 2011 than we did at the end of 2010," Anthopoulos said.
The easy thing to do is sit down and draw up a list of pluses and minuses for the 2011 Blue Jays. More difficult is ascertaining what that all means in a market desperate to fall in love with a winner. Once nipping at the heels of the Rays this summer, the Blue Jays have fallen behind the Rays, who are trying to catch Boston for the wild-card spot. The Rays bid adieu to Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza over the winter, yet put on a late-season push with cost-effective starting pitching and without a strong season from their best player, Evan Longoria. Meanwhile, for the second consecutive season, the Red Sox have fallen apart physically, and the Yankees have done it with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon in their rotation.
Coming out of spring training, the Jays' areas of focus were whether second baseman Aaron Hill would be able to get his game together; whether Adam Lind would be able to handle first base on a full-time basis; whether outfielder Travis Snider and rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia could become everyday big leaguers; and whether Morrow would emerge as a contender for ace status or at least be a No. 2 starter. The back end of the bullpen figured to sort itself out and the only question with Brett Lawrie was when he'd be up from the minors.
Lawrie is a dynamo, and Arencibia has ridden the learning curve while smashing 23 home runs, one away from Eric Hinske's club rookie record. Hill is gone. Starting pitcher Kyle Drabek, obtained in the Roy Halladay trade with Philadelphia, proved not ready for prime time, and more shockingly, neither did Snider. Again. Lind's plummeting average is more of an issue than his defence, and the club is 20-25 in starts by Morrow and Cecil.
Anthopoulos is itching to debate the seasons of Morrow and Cecil. He points out that Morrow's numbers (strikeouts per nine innings, WHIP and hits per nine innings) are actually pretty much the same as they were in 2010, if not better in some instances. But he has given up 20 homers compared to 11 and his percentage of runners left-on-base, 62 per cent, is second-worst among American League qualifiers. "I'd be more concerned if the stuff wasn't still there," Anthopoulos said. Cecil hasn't had precipitous fall-offs in those categories compared to his 15-win season, but he did have early-season velocity issues, and instead of 5.43 runs a game in support, this season he's had 3.83. "That's like night and day," Anthopoulos said.
You can probably tell where Anthopoulos wants to go with this, right? Anthopoulos sees a lineup that is "a talented, athletic core of position players with risk, because it's young and inexperienced.
"It's performance risk," he said, "and we're going to have it from year to year until they become established players."
President Paul Beeston will not okay six- or seven-year deals, which eliminates the Blue Jays from free-agent hunts for the likes of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. So stow those pipe dreams away. Anthopoulos is more likely to try to put together a package for a young pitcher, possibly as part of a three-team deal in which the Jays would also move out one or two of their highly touted prospects, than sink big money into a free-agent pitcher such as C.J. Wilson, for example. Toss in a possible foray into the Japanese market for Yu Darvish, and there's your off-season.
"When we look at free agents, we better believe those guys are a clear upgrade over what we have internally," he said. "Because to go out and sign a free agent who is a back-end starter and commit dollars and years and then find out halfway though the year some of these guys are coming in, the way Henderson Alvarez did this year …"
Anthopoulos let his voice trail off. If he detected the sound of opportunity knocking as a result of issues in New York, Boston and Tampa this season he's keeping it to himself.