As Predicted, Blue Jays Setting Pace In AL East

Posted on May 27, 2014 by Jim Henneman

Just as so many -- including this observer -- predicted, the Toronto Blue Jays are poised to make a strong run to the American League East title. Also, as many -- including this observer -- predicted, it was a trade with the Miami Marlins that provided the impetus for this drive.

What, you say you didn't get that memo? Can't imagine why -- heck, it was sent more than a year ago.

OK, I understand all those predictions were made for the 2013 season, but what's a year between friends? So the timing is off a bit -- what's the big deal? Are you telling me we can't still say, "Told you so"?

Granted, when people keep referring to the division as the topsy-turvy AL East, this isn't exactly what they had in mind. The heavyweight division has suddenly turned into the Powder Puff Derby. For the second straight year, the last-place team from the year before was in first place on Memorial Day weekend. And the rest of the contenders were taking on the appearance of pretenders.

The next time somebody asks about the real meaning of baseball's MVP, instead of instantly arguing the merits of Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout, you might want to interject the name of Jose Reyes and what he might mean to a team such as the Blue Jays. 

Reyes was the key player in the trade that enabled the Marlins to dump all their big contracts in one place. The Boston Red Sox did the same thing before the 2012 season, when they unloaded their dead payroll weight on the Los Angeles Dodgers, took a year to lick their wounds in last place in the AL East and then resurfaced in 2013 to win the World Series. This is not to intimate that Reyes is having an MVP-type season -- he's not even close -- but at least he's no longer just one of the missing pieces of the puzzle.

The Marlins went the Red Sox one better -- shipping their ill-advised, overvalued contracts out of the country, to Toronto. The pattern isn't quite the same, but when Reyes got injured early during the 2013 season, the Blue Jays went down with him. They went from preseason favorites to win the division, to the not-so-comfy confines of last place. Judging by the way the two teams have played this year, it was only a short-term lease.

A look at the standings on Memorial Day found the Blue Jays and Red Sox right where the prognosticators had them scheduled -- a year ago. Go figure.

Suffice it to say the AL East is like the Old Gray Mare -- not what it used to be. The Blue Jays are the only team in the division on the plus side of run differential, the new favorite statistic, which is to a team what OPS is to an individual player. (If you need an explanation, please don't join any fantasy leagues). Not only that, but as late as May 23, when the Blue Jays went better than the .500 mark, not one of the five teams had a winning record at home, not a formula for success under any set of circumstances or statistics.

Toronto starting pitcher Mark Buehrle, who last year pitched like the throw-in he was in that deal with the Marlins, is suddenly looking like a Cy Young candidate with an 8-1 record after 10 starts. Edwin Encarnacion, who hit only two home runs in April, was challenging for the league lead by Memorial Day, teaming with Jose Bautista to give the Blue Jays the strongest 1-2 home run punch in baseball. Oh, did we mention that Reyes was healthy and making a difference both offensively and defensively?

We might not be able to figure out the New York Yankees until sometime in August, but in the meantime, how are we supposed to explain this last-to-first and back again pattern the AL East seems to be developing?

Even more troubling for the Red Sox, who traditionally enjoy a strong home-field advantage, is that they have played more games (27) than any division rival and have the worst (10-17) record? Again, go figure.

***

If you think the Red Sox are tough to figure out, don't even try with the Orioles. They are hanging close enough to be in the picture, but sometimes it's difficult to figure out why. Chris Tillman and Ulbaldo Jimenez, the two guys who were supposed to lead the revamped rotation, are instead the ones leading the red flag procession.

Even manager Buck Showalter seems a little puzzled, and perplexed might be the better word, at Tillman's changeover from an aggressive attacker of the strike zone to something of a finesse pitcher. From the first weeks of the season, after his first two starts, Tillman has shown an alarming drop in velocity, which, combined with a lapse in control, immediately raises health issues.

"He's been sitting around 89 [mph] with his fastball since early in the year," noted one veteran scout who follows the Orioles regularly. "The pop doesn't seem to be there. And his control has been off."

All of that seemed obvious during Tillman's most recent start, a fortunate no-decision May 26 against Milwaukee. At least it was obvious until after he'd given up four runs. By the time 91-94 started registering on the gun, the Brewers had already put enough dents on the scoreboard to win most games. With so many moving parts in Jimenez's delivery, his struggles are a lot easier to explain than his four-year, $50 million contract will be if he doesn't find a way to duplicate his motion -- and change his results.

When the season started, Bud Norris was generally considered No. 5 in the rotation, but as this is written, he has to be considered No. 1, regardless of what the numbers say. He's been the most effective and has consistently exhibited the best stuff of any starter. With the Orioles seemingly content to let Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen work with a six-inning budget, Norris is the most important man in the rotation at the moment -- but he needs help, and a lot of it, from the two guys who are supposed to be leading the way.

***

Note of interest: At the close of business after Memorial Day weekend, traditionally baseball's first checking point, the AL East was 22-34 against the AL Central.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com. 

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