There’s a lot to like at this point for us Jays fans. The team, while in third place, is only a game out of top spot, has the best run differential in the division (and at +85 runs, are second in the league to Cleveland), have a couple more home games than road ones left on the schedule and starting with the unofficial kick-off to Canada’s summer (Victoria Day) have been humming along at a remarkable .654 pace. In addition, Josh Donaldson is starting to look like a repeat MVP winner, Edwin Encarnacion leads the world in RBIs and the starting rotation has been astonishingly solid for the most part. As of the All Star Break, they led the AL by averaging 6.4 innings a start and are a big part of the reason only Houston and Cleveland have allowed fewer runs.
Add in Troy Tulowitzki’s slow return to Colorado-like form at the plate (.162 average with 5 HR in first 31 games this year, .301 with 10 HR in next 35) and the expected return of Jose Bautista, looking to impress in time for the free agent jamboree in winter, from the disabled list within days. Aaron Sanchez has gone from a question mark to a name in any conversation about Cy Young winners this season. With the team ahead of where they were last year at this time, the Jays look to be in great shape to return to the post-season.
But the skies aren’t all jay-blue. A few menacing clouds mar the horizon. For instance, as the Toronto Sun‘s Ken Fidlin points out, the 2014 Jays were in first place in July and ended up playing out the string watching the action from the sidelines come October. And while they are ahead of last year’s pace, they are also in a division with a resilient Baltimore team this year and a Red Sox squad that is a night-and-day turnaround from last year’s mediocre one. While the starting rote has been very solid as an entity, Marcus Stroman has taken a step or two back from the last couple of seasons and there are concerns over just how many more innings both he and All Star Sanchez can tack on with both at or near career highs already. Then there’s that bullpen, which outside of sophomore closer Roberto Osuna, has been more of an open window than a slammed door on leads.
One more thing that’s not to like this year is the trade deadline. Fans already know not to expect another blockbuster trade – let alone two- to revitalize the team like we saw last year. First off, new boss Mark Shapiro is loathe to trade prospects for short-term gains. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, there would appear to be no David Price-calibre superstars available this season. At least 18, possibly as many as 21 teams think they are still in the running for the post-season meaning the buyers are going to outnumber the sellers. The teams that have thrown in the towel have largely done so for a good reason- lack of significant talent! The few big names who seem to be up for grabs are stars, but not ones likely to be significant upgrades for Toronto. The likes of Carlos Gonzalez, Jay Bruce, Ryan Howard and Josh Reddick are all players who could add a significant piece of the puzzle to some teams, but would add little to Toronto’s lineup. (Worth noting though that some scribes still report that the Jays are talking to Cinci about Bruce who very nearly landed with us in the off-season, but there seems to be little apparent sense to such a move.) Pitchers , let alone high-quality ones, are much scarcer this July than the previous couple of trade deadlines. Ergo, the trade of a Scott Carroll or Mike Montgomery being treated as a big deal in the last couple of days.
Another starter would be a boon to Toronto, to allow for Sanchez to have a few missed starts or even be bumped to the bullpen to minimize wear and tear, or to give insurance against Marco Estrada’s back acting up more this fall. But that’s easier said than done. Julio Teheran of Atlanta is probably the biggest, and best, name available.
Teheran would be a great addition to the Jays. In his fourth year as a regular with the Braves, he is a textbook example of why a won-lost record isn’t that ideal a way of measuring a pitcher’s worth. Though just 3-8 this year, in 19 starts he’s got a stellar 2.79 ERA, has limited the opposition to a .203 average and has a 112 K’s to just 26 BBs. His lifetime ERA is 3.33. Problem is of course, with that kind of upside other teams will pay attention too and this year almost every team still in contention (even the Dodgers one would expect now that Clayton Kershaw is likely done for the year) wanting to upgrade their starters, it’s unlikely Toronto will win a bidding war. Other teams have more, and better, prospects to offer and a front office more willing to bet big on trades.
More reasonable options might be the likes of lefty Tommy Milone of Minnesota or Andrew Cashner of San Diego. Neither offers anything like the upside of Teheran, but neither is going to cost a busload of prospects either. Milone was not bad last year (9-5 , 3.92) but this year has 10 starts, of which he’s gone beyond 6 innings only once. He’s given up 7 HR in 49 innings which wouldn’t project well to being in Rogers Centre, and sits at 3-2 with a 4.71 ERA. Cashner is expected to be traded to Texas anytime now, according to Fox Sports, but even if he isn’t his 4-7, 5.05 record in pitcher-friendly SD doesn’t sound promising. His 1.48 Whip this year is very similar to last year’s 1.44, when he fiished at 6-16. Hard to see that type of record being an upgrade over Drew Hutchison for the Jays.
The field of available bullpen arms, where the need is greatest for Toronto, is also limited. The Yankees have alledgedly decided to OK a trade of either Aroldis Chapman, who we know really ‘brings the heat’ to a battle or Andrew Miller. Chapman, with his record of domestic abuse, would be a poor addition PR-wise and would also be the typical type of “rent a pitcher” Shapiro hates. Miller might deserve more consideration. The lefty had 36 saves last season but has been demoted this year with New York, but has still been outstanding. He has 70 Ks in about 41 innings and a 1.31 ERA, and would be a huge upgrade over struggling Brett Cecil in middle-relief for the Jays. However, one wonders if the pinstripes would want to trade a star to their divisional rival, especially when their own team is still over .500.
One reasonable suggestion to bolster the team pitching comes from looking west- and backwards. San Diego’s Carlos Villaneuva , whom we remember well from his years with Toronto, has to be available and has been typically decent this year. He’s appeared 37 times, has a good 44:8 strikeout to walk ratio and has pitched 52 innings – a lot for a reliever, but consistent with his role here when he was a “long man” in the ‘pen or occasional starter, Troubling though is his 5.19 ERA, which has skyrocketed lately. He’s allowed earned runs in 5 of his last 6 games, in which time his ERA has jumped by nearly 2. My take on him is that he would be a worthwhile addition, if he passes a physical that ensures his recent slump isn’t injury-related. The Padres could probably let him go for the likes of a Matt Dominguez or Dalton Pompey, both slogging along well in Buffalo , boasting big league experience but lacking an obvious opening in Toronto’s lineup.
So, even if we do manage to add someone like Carlos Villaneuva to boost the pitching , it would seem that if roster improvements are needed, most will have to happen from within. The outlook there isn’t spectacular, but isn’t bad either. Southpaw Scott Diamond has been good in Buffalo this year, leading the team with 112 innings and has posted a 3.62 ERA despite a losing 6-9 record. he’s only walked 19 and has MLB experience, so he could be a good safety net for the rotation. However, he’s not currently on the Jays 40-man roster so calling him up would necessitate dropping someone off. Meanwhile there’s also the versatile, ambidextrous Pat Venditte as well as left-handed Chad Girodo (1.86 ERA in 16 games) to call on down at AAA to add to the bullpen.
The outlook is good- but August and September aren’t likely to be a Blue Jays cakewalk like last year. Mark Shapiro and his lackey Ross Atkins have a lot on the line and how they handle the next ten days or so will go a long ways towards how the public will perceive them in years to come.