Blue Jays in last place, but still a contending team
Gibbons (leaning on dugout rail) has Jays contending again
In each of the last two seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have played deep into October. The Jays lost in the ALCS both years, defeated in five games a year ago, and in six games by the Kansas City Royals in 2015.
After three consecutive winning campaigns, Toronto is currently struggling along in last place in the AL East Division standings. The Jays 35-36 record has them tied for that distinction with the Baltimore Orioles, five games behind the division-leading New York Yankees.
Despite that last place standing nearly three full months into the season, the Blue Jays are far from out of things. They are just two games off the pace in an extremely crowded race for an AL Wildcard playoff berth.
There are a number of reasons that manager John Gibbons and his team should feel confident. First of all is that recent track record of success. This is a mostly veteran team that knows how to win. If they can stay reasonably healthy, that experience should pay off over the second half of the season.
Toronto has been playing much better in recent weeks. The team fell to a season-worst 11 games below the .500 mark in late April. As recently as May 20 they were still eight games below that break-even mark.
Since that point, the Blue Jays have gone 17-10. The club entered play on Thursday afternoon having won three of their last four games.
UNCHARACTERISTICALLY WEAK OFFENSE
The biggest culprit in Toronto’s mediocre 2017 season has been their lack of offense. The Blue Jays have been one of baseball’s top offensive attacks in recent years. But this season, the Jays bats have gone silent all too often.
The Blue Jays are 25th in MLB in Runsscored to this point, with a combined OPS of .732, just 24th in the game. With just 29 steals, they are tied for 22nd in baseball. Their 227 walks is 20th in MLB.
The Jays are no longer out-slugging anyone, and they’re not finding other ways to get on base and produce run-scoring opportunities.
Perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson was held out of the lineup on Thursday afternoon against the Texas Rangers with a balky knee. The third baseman has already spent time on the DL this year from mid-April until the last week in May.
Donaldson was the 2015 AL MVP and finished fourth in the voting a year ago. He banged 41 and 37 home runs in his first two seasons with Toronto after coming in a December 2014 trade from the Oakland Athletics. He also scored 122 runs in each season, and won a Silver Slugger each year.
On Wednesday, a story in the National Post quoted Gibson on Donaldson. “He’s got that attitude. You guys see it, you guys know it. He’s on the field, there’s just something. Good things happen with him, too. But there’s definitely something different about him.”
The Jays are going to need a healthy Donaldson returning to his accustomed production levels if they are ever going to get this 2017 lineup turned around.
INCONSISTENCY FROM TULO AND JOEY BATS
Veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki seems to spend time each year on the DL. He was out during almost exactly the same time frame this year as was Donaldson.
Tulo is a 5x All-Star and former perennial MVP candidate himself. But this season he is hitting for a weak .235/.297/.333 slash line with just two homers and nine runs scored.
Much was made back in the off-season of the return of popular veteran Jose Bautista to the lineup. ‘Joey Bats’ signed an $18 million deal guaranteed for just this season, with a mutual $17 million option for next year.
With a dozen homers thus far, the 6x AL All-Star has provided his typical pop. However, the now 36-year old is hitting for just a .219/.334/.398 slash line.
The Blue Jays have worked hard over the last month to climb back into contention. They sit just a couple of games out of a Wildcard berth, just a handful of games out in the AL East race.
Unless they get substantially more production from Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Bautista, they may finish this year right where they are in those divisional standings. Rather than another trip to October, the club could end up closer to the bottom than the top.