Watch Out for Toronto

blue jayThe Toronto Blue Jays scuffled to start the 2017 season to say the least. Injuries, ineffective play from their veterans and generally sloppy baseball resulted in lots of losses. The nadir came on May 4th, when Toronto’s 9-19 record and 32.1% winning percentage left them in the basement of the league. Many reactionary pundits declared 2017 a lost season and called for the Blue Jays, whose aging offensive core of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki are all north of 30, to enter liquidation mode.

Fast forward a mere 11 days and the Blue Jays are 17-21 and riding a five game winning streak. Their run differential has improved from -23 to -11. Suddenly things don’t look so bleak. Jose Bautista, who struggled mightily to start the season, looks to be rounding into form. And some unexpected contributions from journeymen such as Ezequiel Carrera and Justin Smoak have kept Toronto’s head above water.

How we got here

toronto opsIt’s no secret that Toronto’s window to win a championship is being propped up on borrowed time. After back to back ALCS defeats in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Jays entered 2017 with a 31.4 average age among their projected starting nine. The talent across their lineup was also disproportionately old. The five, 31+ year old starters averaged a .833 OPS between 2015 and 2016, while the four starters under 31 averaged .732.

Not even the Blue Jays’ worst detractors would imagine a start as horrid as the 9-19 record the team accumulated through May 4th. We can’t talk about Toronto’s horrible start without talking about injuries. Stud closer Roberto Osuna began the season on the DL. Sinker-balling phenom Aaron Sanchez hit the DL after two starts and has battled injuries ever since. JA Happ, owner of a 3.18 ERA in 2016, has only made three starts due to an elbow issue. 2015 AL MVP and ‘second best player in baseball over the last four years’ Josh Donaldson went on the DL with a calf injury in mid-April and has yet to return. Troy Tulowitzki left an April 21st game against the LA Angels with a bum hamstring and has also yet to return.

On top of the horrific injury luck, Jose Bautista, the MLB home run leader from 2010 through 2016, looked like an overmatched AAA hitter to start the season. Bautista’s April triple slash line of .178 AVG / .309 OBP / .244 SLG resulted in a .553 OPS, the worst full-month rate Bautista has ever posted in Toronto. Devon Travis, the one above average young hitter that Toronto does have, has struggled even more. Travis’ OPS currently sits at a woeful .504 with a wRC+ of 31, which means he has been 69% worse than the average MLB hitter this season.

The injuries, combined with Bautista’s and Travis’ ineptitude, placed the Blue Jays at 28th in MLB runs scored in April. Fortunately, the team’s pitching was still respectable, posting a 4.02 ERA in April, good for 13th in the entire league. Despite the Sanchez and Happ injury issues, the starting tandem of Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada pitched like their usual selves and kept the staff afloat. Additionally, reliever turned starter Joe Biagini has been a revelation of sorts as well, with 2.28 ERA and 2.29 FIP across 27 innings and two starts.

Toronto actually has really good pitching

toronto startersWhile recent iterations of the Toronto Blue Jays have been known for their prodigious power and offensive exploits, the teams’ starting pitching has produced the best ERA in the AL since 2015. Headlined by the formidable (and young) duo of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, veteran starters JA Happ, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano round out an incredibly deep rotation.

Stroman, 26, and Sanchez, 25, are both worm-burning righties who profile as lockdown 200 inning, 3.50 ERA starters going forward. The Stroman-Sanchez tandem is one to build around, and them alone should dissuade Toronto from entering sell mode. JA Happ, who revolutionized his career in Pittsburgh in 2015, is getting up there in years but is one of the better #3/4 starters in the game. Marco Estrada, despite possessing a 4.68 xFIP, is consistently able to suppress hard contact, resulting in a low batting average on balls in play, and owns the best ERA of the staff since 2015. Liriano, the hallmark of consistent inconsistency, is still a very solid #5 starter, supporting the rest of the rotation with high strikeout and groundball rates.

Stroman and Estrada own 3.33 and 3.12 ERAs in 2017, respectively. Sanchez, who is now healthy, has a 2.95 ERA in his limited innings. Liriano has been all over the place with a walk rate above 7.0/9, but tumultuousness is to be expected from the back end of a rotation. Unfortunately Happ, who has been sidelined with elbow issues since mid-April, is probably still 3-4 weeks away from a return. All told, the 2017 Blue Jays’ rotation profiles as above average to very good, depending on the health of Happ. It is certainly a playoff caliber staff, and one that can carry a team when it is firing on all cylinders.

The cavalry is close to returning

Aaron Sanchez is back. Troy Tulowitzki is on a rehab assignment. And the scuttlebutt is that Josh Donaldson could be back as early as next week, if not this weekend. Toronto’s offense, which has already been trending in a positive direction, will be vaulted to above average territory with the returns of Tulowitzki and Donaldson and the subsequent benchings of Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney. While a Donaldson / Morales / Bautista / Tulowitzki pecking order would have been the best two through five batting slots in the majors in 2013, it is still pretty damn good in 2017.

At full health, Toronto boasts a well-rounded and intimidating squad. The AL East will be tough to compete in, with the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox all currently ahead of Toronto. However, at less than 25% of the way through the season, there’s plenty of time for the Blue Jays to make up ground and for some of their bad injury luck to filter through other squads.

Toronto’s championship window probably closes after this season. And right now no one is expecting them to do much. It’s the perfect time for them to make a run.

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