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MacArthur: Jays stumble into break but remain East contenders

Scott MacArthur
7/13/2014 6:42:42 PM
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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The Blue Jays limped into the All-Star Break off a 2-8 road trip around the continent, taxing in terms of games lost, bodies injured and miles traveled.

Take a look at the broader picture and while Toronto enters the unofficial second half with a winning record (49-47), the club's 2014 trend to-date isn't entirely different from the 2013 Blue Jays, a team that terribly disappointed.

The Jays opened up with a 12-15 March/April, looked like world beaters in May when they won 21 of 30, and since have erased those gains by losing 23 of their last 34 games.

Last year, the Jays were 23-32 at the end of May and made it to two games over .500 on the strength of an 11-game win streak in June, only to fall into a July tailspin from which they wouldn't recover.

Like last season, the club as currently constituted is injured. Brett Lawrie is out through July, most likely, with a fractured right index finger. Edwin Encarnacion is on the disabled list until at least July 20 with a Grade-2 strain of his right quadriceps. Adam Lind is down for at least two weeks, likely more, with a fractured right foot.

Unlike last season, the starting pitching has held up. It's been the bullpen that's been suspect.

The staff ERA of 3.91 is a marked improvement over last season's 4.81, which was second-worst in baseball.

The bullpen ERA has climbed from 3.37 in 2013 to 4.39 through the first half of this year. It was responsible for six blown saves in a 15-game span in April at a time when the offence was averaging five-and-a-half runs scored per game.

Speak of the devil, the offence, which after a hot start in April and torrid May has cooled considerably. Still, Toronto is a Top-10 team in most major statistical categories. The club's .325 on-base percentage ranks seventh; its .422 slugging percentage ranks fourth; put the two together and the on-base plus slugging percentage of .747 is fourth.

The Jays continue to lead with 116 home runs, although a recent dry spell has afforded the Baltimore Orioles (113 heading into their game Sunday night) and Colorado Rockies (112 pending Sunday's results) opportunities to close the gap.

So, what is this team?

Star slugger Jose Bautista (.292/.409/.510 – 17 home runs) summed up his club's first half performance.

"We're obviously not playing the baseball that we started off playing and that we're capable of playing, and we have a lot of injuries to deal with," he said. "Bottom line is we've got to figure out how to win some of these games that we've been losing, especially the close ones. We've got a lot of open opportunities for some people that could step up to those opportunities and hopefully make a name for themselves and cause a good enough impression to stick around maybe a little longer than it was planned when they originally got called up. So hopefully we can manage to win enough games to stay in one of the top two positions in the division, and when we get all our big bats back, kind of get back in the thick of things."

As for the approaching July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the club's veterans are saying the right things publicly, but there is a quiet longing for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to be active in the market.

The budget parameters with which Anthopoulos is working aren't clear and the general manager often refers to the need to be "creative" when piecing together a potential trade. It seems likely that an addition of salary, even prorated to about one-third of its 2014 value, would require the deletion of salary off the current roster.

It doesn't help that the Jays have injured Ricky Romero's $7.5-million and Esmil Rogers' $1.85-million rotting away at Buffalo. It all matters to the bean counters.

"It would definitely help," said Bautista of a trade acquisition or two. "I don't think it's a must and I don't think it's the only way that we can become contenders. I think we've been playing good enough baseball. We managed to get up to first place and stay there for a while earlier this year. We can definitely get back there. We've just got to play that good baseball we were playing earlier. So I don't think a move is needed just to be considered contenders."

"I just think we need to get healthy," said R.A. Dickey. "I feel like we had our team there for a while when we were really going well in May and early June. I feel like that's kind of what we're capable or doing with the guys in this clubhouse. Every team that's going for a championship would love to have another player, sure, but I don't think it's essential for us to win, no."

The American League East hasn't been this available to the Blue Jays since the club won the division in 1993.

The Orioles will come out of the All-Star Break on a 10-game, pacific swing through Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle while the Blue Jays launch a seven-game homestand against injury-riddled Texas and the scuffling Red Sox. It is, essentially, a reversal of the schedule the two clubs have experienced over the just-completed 10-day span.

The Yankees are dealing with crippling injuries to their starting rotation, most notably Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee) and Michael Pineda (shoulder), which leaves the Bronx Bombers vulnerable.

They're openly talking of being sellers at the deadline in Boston, leaving the Rays as the division's lone sleeper team should Tampa Bay decide to hold on to ace David Price through the remainder of the regular season.

It's been an up and down, 96-game ride for the Blue Jays so far this season.

The final 66 games should provide more of the same.


ROTATION OUT OF THE ALL-STAR BREAK

Friday (vs. Texas): R.A. Dickey
Saturday (vs. Texas): Marcus Stroman
Sunday (vs. Texas): Mark Buehrle
Monday (vs. Boston): Drew Hutchison
Tuesday (vs. Boston): J.A. Happ

The Rangers are expected to start ace right-hander Yu Darvish in Friday night's series opener.

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