Blue Jays Not Content With Fourth Place in AL East, Looking for Big Finish to 2010

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Blue Jays Not Content With Fourth Place in AL East, Looking for Big Finish to 2010 The Toronto Blue Jays may be in fourth place, but they are the best fourth-place team in the majors.

Much like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays are a strong squad wishing they didn?t have the two best teams in baseball both in their division. But Toronto is making due — or at least doing the best they can, which isn?t half bad.

Seven games over .500, the Blue Jays boast the most powerful lineup in the bigs, one that has accumulated 175 home runs this year, easily the most in the MLB; the Red Sox, second place on the list, are 28 home runs behind the Blue Jays? pace. This is the same Toronto lineup that belted eight home runs in Saturday?s 17-11 romp over the Rays, setting the second-highest total in a game in franchise history. Led by Jose Bautista's major league-leading 34 blasts, Cito Gaston's crew can put the ball over the fence.

Toronto?s pitching staff has also remained strong, with second-year hurlers Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil blossoming into dominant arms. Both young pitchers, along with Shaun Marcum, own an ERA below 3.62. Plus, No. 4 pitcher Brandon Morrow got in on the act recently, tossing 8 2/3 hitless innings and striking out 17 Rays in Sunday?s 1-0 win.

Even J.P. Arencibia, the Blue Jays? rookie catcher, caught on quickly with the slugging Jays, hitting a homer in his first at-bat and adding another later. He was the first player to record four hits, two of them home runs, in his MLB debut since 1900.

On paper, the Blue Jays have plenty to be excited about.

Yet, at 59-52 and nine games out of the wild card, not all of these sterling statistics have come to fruition in the win column. And beginning Tuesday, the scrappy Red Sox, who are 7-2 against Toronto this year, go to Rogers Centre.

But as Mat Germain of Jays Journal tells us, not all hope is lost in Toronto. In fact, the Blue Jays feel pretty good about their chances.

NESN.com: Did you expect Jose Bautista to have such a monster home run year? He had never hit more than 16, so what is he doing differently?
 
Mat Germain: Anyone who claims to have predicted Jose Bautista's monster season is either lying or extremely over-optimistic. However, someone who would have looked at how his bat took off after he began getting consistent playing time in late 2009 could have seen some improvement coming from Jose this season. When looking back at the Alex Rios transaction of 2009, when the White Sox were basically handed Rios and his massive contract, we can now see that it actually resulted in a trade of Rios for Bautista. What a trade-off for the Jays, as it's one that has reshaped the franchise as we head toward 2011.
 
The only difference Jose has made at the plate is that he begins his swing a little later than he had in the beginning of 2009, or when the pitcher takes the ball out of his glove instead of when he goes into motion. He claims that this has resulted in fewer "very long" fouled pitches due to being early or late depending on his reaction. So, his swing is smoother, more direct and has more time in the strike zone as a result.
 
NESN.com: The Blue Jays are far and away tops in the AL in homers, but 12th in team average. Are they being coached to swing for the fences, is the lineup stacked with all power hitters, or is something else going on?
 
MG: Whatever they're doing, it's only going to get better. With Adam Lind and Aaron Hill playing under their abilities, Travis Snider finally catching up to fastballs and being healthy, and the very best catcher-power hitter the Jays will ever see now up in Arencibia (who broke A-Rod's high school home run record in Miami and had over 30 long balls in Triple-A this season), the home run record may not be safe. If not this season, then maybe in 2011.

The Jays are young, have hitters two through nine who can feasibly hit over 20 homers and have been given a green light to swing at pitches they see. I expect this will catch on with other clubs who tend to micromanage pitch selections for their hitters. Gaston and the Jays have instituted the "you see a pitch you like or think you're guessing right on a certain count, swing away — but whatever you do, swing HARD!" Why this hasn't been used before is beyond me, but can you imagine how many blasts the Jays would have — and Bautista in particular — if they played in the bangbox that is Yankee Stadium? That's one scary thought.
 
I don't know if you've seen the commercials the Jays are running about their home run exploits, but trust me, everyone forgets about the averages when you get three to four guys who hit 30 or more. The only problem the Jays have had in 2010 is with getting guys on base, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos recognized it and fixed it some with the acquisitions of Fred Lewis and Yunel Escobar.
 
Even with all of Jose's homers, the 2010 Jays MVP is Anthopolous, the very best GM the Jays could have hired in this era.

NESN.com: How surprised are you with the success of second-year starters Ricky Romero (3.37 ERA) and Brett Cecil (3.77 ERA)?

MG: Not at all! I predicted the Jays would finish the season over .500 for that exact reason. Their young pitchers are among the best in the league, and when Marc Rzepczynski gets going, opposing teams will find out just how great the Jays are going to be over the next decade. Both Romero and Cecil have the one thing that Roy Halladay had with the Jays — movement on all pitches. Throw nothing straight and trust your stuff, that's pretty much been their mottos. They're learning to pitch from the likes of Jose Molina and John Buck, and are both cocky guys who will only be better in 2011 and beyond as they gain experience.
 
Look for Kyle Drabek to push Jesse Litsch out of the rotation in 2011, making this rotation a mean and young-gun powerhouse with depth the likes of which the Jays have never seen. Also, imagine if Halladay had stuck around for this season. The Jays didn't get any MLB players in return for Roy, so if you add him into the rotation the Jays have had in 2010, I would contend that the Jays would be tied with the Yankees and Rays. That says a lot about how well the Jays have played this season.
 
NESN.com: Toronto seems poised for another fourth-place finish, which would be their third straight. What needs to happen for the team to get over the hump and contend?

MG: Nothing. The Red Sox' injuries and the reinforcements the Jays have in Triple-A will allow the Jays to finish third in the AL East, ahead of the Red Sox. If it were not for the Sox' starting pitching, the Jays would already be ahead of them. I sympathize with the injuries, as the Sox seem to be this season's version of the 2009 Mets, but there's no way the Sox can survive without a healthy Kevin Youkilis or Dustin Pedroia. They're the heartbeats of that team.
 
Don't worry about the Jays' ranking. In 2011, the Yankees will be trying to replace a "hip-surgeried" A-Rod, will be forced to pay Derek Jeter a ton of cash and will be looking to replace lots of pitchers.

The Rays will be dumping salary and will fall back as a result. Therefore, I expect the Red Sox and Jays will battle it out for the AL East and wild card for that season, although that prediction is very early and doesn't include trades or free-agent pickups. When we consider that the Jays will be one of the biggest spenders on the FA market this offseason, however, I expect that to work into their favor.

The Jays could have up to $50 million to spend in free agency (minus $4 million going to Bautista's raise) if they want to return to 2008 levels of $97 million or so. That's a ton of help to bring in to join the young core they have, and a big reason Jose Bautista wants to stick around in Toronto. Halladay ($6 million), B.J. Ryan ($10 million) and Randy Ruiz ($400K) are all coming off the books, giving the Jays a ton of wiggle room. That doesn't mean Anthopolous will spend it all, but it does mean that if he sees a player he likes, chances are he'll get him (or them).
 
NESN.com: Though the Blue Jays are nine games back in the wild card (through Aug. 8), they do have 24 of their remaining 51 against the three teams atop the AL East, starting with this series against the Red Sox. Is there a legitimate shot at a late-season comeback?

MG: Why not? They are the masters of their own destiny, and although the Rays will be extremely tough to beat, the Yankees and Red Sox seem doable in my opinion. The Yankees are getting some shaky pitching from three of their five starters, the Red Sox have a ton of injuries and the Jays are confident and happy-healthy as can be. All expect to be back in 2011, except perhaps some of the relievers, John Buck and Lyle Overbay, and there is a chance that the Yankees slide back far enough for the Jays to catch them. I wouldn't hold my breath, but I think it is possible if the Jays can get a great streak going.
 
I would point out, however, that some of the Jays pitchers (Marcum and Litsch in particular) are young or coming off injury. Therefore, I do lean toward a slide if the replacements (Brad Mills, Zach Steward, Shawn Hill or Drabek) don't pitch well when they are called upon. I would say that the Jays will have a hard time getting any closer than three games back from the wild card.
 
NESN.com: This season, the Blue Jays are just 2-7 against the Sox. Why have they had so much trouble with them?

MG: Let's not get out of hand here. The Jays lost five of those games by one run, and they won one by one run, so I'd say that most of the games have been very competitive to say the least. I expect that to continue, but I'd say that part of the reason the Jays came on the losing end was due to the matchups being early in the season, before the Jays started believing they should win every game they play, instead of simply believing they "could." That's the difference with the Jays now, they expect to win every game. It's about time.

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