Maybe “Doc” can throw an inning or two… assessing the ’15 Blue Jays so far

Two weeks into the season is early to assess a team, so it’s difficult to know exactly what this year’s Blue Jays are going to be like or where they’ll finish up (you may recall my most recent prediction was for 84 wins and second place in the East but still shy of the playoffs). But it’s not too early to see some trends and early answers to the big pre-season questions.

I wondered if young Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey were ready to make the jump to full-time big-leaguers, and expected Pompey (whom we saw briefly last season) would be closer to ready. Perhaps I got it backwards; Travis has been the league’s best rookie so far, and among its top hitters of any experience level, hitting .336 with a dozen RBI to rank among the leaders in those categories, as well as slugging percentage (.644). Pompey has been questionable in the field, something which to his credit he’s taken responsibility for, and is hitting only .188 with 12 strikeouts to only 4 walks. It may be unreasonable to expect him to match his minor league tally of last year (.317, 51 RBI in only 440 at bats, 43 steals) but he needs to step up his game quickly if he’s to stay around at the major league level this year. Nonetheless, he shows all the signs of eventually becoming a good one, and if he needs more seasoning, could perhaps be replaced in center field by Kevin Pillar, who’s off to a hot start and made what MLB listed as the “play of the week” last year in stealing a home run away over the left field fence. Pillar could shift to center when Michael Saunders is healthy enough to play, which surprisingly could be by month’s end.

I hear (or more accurately, read online) Jays fans worrying about the slow starts by Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin. Needless fretting. Actually their slowish starts give reason for encouragement. Yes, Martin and Bautista are hitting just .143 and EE, whose been hitless six times in the past ten games, just .200, but Bautista still has taken 11 walks, has 3 homers and 8 RBI and ranks in the top five in runs scored in the AL. There’s not as much good to say about Encarnacion or Martin’s start at the plate yet, but therein lies the silver lining. We know they’ll get better!

Sure, we can’t count on Edwin hitting 37 homers this year (his average over the past three campaigns), or Martin hitting .290 as he did last year (about 34 points higher than his career average up to then) or bank on Jose leading the league in home runs when all is said and done, but we know they’ll be hitting better than they are now. A quick calculation shows that if Jose and Russell even hit a lowly .200 for the rest of the season, and Martin catches 120 games, Bautista plays 140 games, they’d be on base a combined 50 times more this season than at the current rate. That by itself would be enough to add 25 or more runs to the total, or put the ERA of the opposition pitchers up by .2 or so. And I’d put a few quarters on the table to bet that both of those guys, and Encarnacion, will be well over .200 by September.

All of which is reason to cheer, because the Jays are doing just fine in hitting even with these guys firing blanks. As of Sunday night, the team’s .246 average sounded anemic but was fifth best in the league and, more importantly, they lead the majors with 70 runs scored. (Pity Houston, Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota, plus several NL teams, who’ve yet to even score 40!). Scoring enough runs isn’t a problem for Toronto now and certainly won’t be once Edwin starts connecting for the long ball and Bautista and Martin top the Mendoza Line (.200 average) What is concerning is the pitching, as predicted.

Although the bullpen is only 2 for 4 in saves so far, it’s looking adequate and as long as kiddies Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro don’t clue in to the fact they shouldn’t be having such an easy time against big league hitters with their lack of experience, it will continue to be OK. The problem lies with the starting rotation.

While the Blue Jays are scoring lots, they’re also allowing a lot. The staff 4.50 ERA is 8th best in the AL , but a mile behind the leaders. Detroit, Oakland and Houston (!!) have ERAs below 3. And the 53 free passes given up by Jays pitchers is worst in the American League and only surpassed by Philadelphia in all of baseball. The 19 home runs they’ve allowed is worst in the game. The defence may be a tad better this year but there’s no defence against walks and homers (occasional spectacular Kevin Pillar catches notwithstanding.)

The situation is gloomy. Veterans Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey have both been OK in all their starts. Not great, mind you, but OK. Mark has gone 6 innings both times, won both starts and posts a 3.75 ERA. Dickey after 3 is winless but has a 3.26 ERA and has hurled a team high 19 1/3 innings.

The younger ones haven’t been pretty. Semi-veteran Drew Hutchison was very good in the opener against New York but then lasted less than 5 innings in the next two games and is allowing opponents to hit .270 against him. Last year, he averaged just under 6 innings an outing, this year he’s clocking no more than 5 … and was complaining of a “dead arm” issue already to the Star‘s Rosie Dimanno. You know, the issue of fatigue most pitchers go through in August or September.

Rookies Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez have been worse. Norris has a 6.08 ERA and lasted just 2 2/3 innings in his last game before being pulled after 6 hits and four earned runs. Sanchez has lost both his starts, has an ERA over 6 and has given up two homers in only 8 innings after allowing just one last year in 33 big league innings.

The problem is rather obvious. The two veterans are doing OK– and thus can’t be expected to get miraculously better. They’re doing about what was expected of them already. Maybe Buehrle will go a little deeper into the games when it warms up, but all in all, what you see is what you get. Which means that if the pitching is going to “click” and give the Jays a chance to get hot, the trio of young pitchers have to perform much better. And that’s a lot to expect of two rookies and a 24 year-old who’s already fatigued!

Looking south to Buffalo isn’t cause for unbridled optimism either. The Bisons have been off to a good start – but their best pitcher so far is Randy Wolf. Those of you who watched baseball last century will remember Wolf, who was at that point a young lad. Wolf is currently 2-0 with a stunning 0.90 ERA at AAA. But, apologies to Randy, who will turn 39 mid-season, even though he’s logged 133 career wins, I don’t hold out a lot of hope he’s going to be the 2015 Blue Jays savior. Last year after all, he recorded all of 1 win, with Miami and the last year he had an ERA below 5, or held opponents to a sub-.300 average, was 2011 (when he was 13-10 at Milwaukee.) Then there’s Johan Santana, of course, whom I’ve written about here previously , but as of now he’s on the DL and hasn’t thrown a pitch yet. Best case scenario is that he might be back in major league shape by the All Star break.

The team will score enough runs to compete this year. But every 12-11 game has a team that scored enough runs and still lost. The failure to sign a good free agent starter or trade for one in the off season looms larger than ever.

****** ******

For those keeping track, the last piece of the Roy Halladay trade that still mattered to the Jays was Kyle Drabek. He was picked up on waivers by Chicago just before opening day, but designated for assignment by the White Sox today. (To be fair, the Jays got Travis d’Arnaud in that trade as well, and he’s a decent enough big league catcher, but he was one of four players the team shuttled to New York in 2012 for RA Dickey). Granted, “Doc” is out of baseball too now, but at least the Phils got a Cy Young and two no-hitters for their effort! Not much to show at the Toronto end of the trade.

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