Unlikely heroes have started strong
Joey Belfiore, Contributor
The month of March in Toronto felt very different this year. Despite temperatures hitting the high 20s and making the city feel like mid-June, there was a certain buzz floating around the Rogers Centre that hadn’t been felt in quite some time. Maybe it was the monstrous collapse of the Maple Leafs that left fans searching for a new outlet. Maybe it was a new Blue Jays logo that embodied what the team once was in the early 90s. Or perhaps it is the fact that the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays are heading into the season as legitimate playoff contenders for the first time since – well – it’s been a while.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Blue Jays were boasting a revamped bullpen, superstar Jose Bautista was coming off an MVP-like season, and Adam Lind was geared up for a bounce-back season in Toronto’s clean up role. Oh, and who could forget all the noise surrounding the Canadian phenom Brett Lawrie? To add to this growing hype they posted a league best 24-7 during Spring Training – a franchise record.
The Blue Jays have enjoyed a fine start to their 2012 campaign. They’ve won 5 of their past 7 games, and are coming off a big series win against the reigning AL Champion Texas Rangers. We are now 26 games into the regular season, and the Blue Jays sit third in the AL East with a 15-11 record, 3 games back of the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays (18-8). With a mere 16% of the season in the books the standings may be skewed, but it’s always a good sign when your team is keeping pace with the division leader and your team sits ahead of both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, perennial MLB powerhouses.
So with the season’s first month come and gone what have been the positives and negatives displayed thus far?
Bullpen: Heading into 2011, the Blue Jays had brought in new faces like John Rauch and Frank Francisco to bolster their bullpen. That turned out to be Toronto’s Achilles’ heel, as they blew over 20 saves as a team. This year they waved goodbye to Rauch and Francisco and brought in closer Sergio Santos, along with set-up man Francisco Cordero.
The two posted great numbers in the end of 2011, and Toronto’s bullpen looked ready to compete among the league’s best. Well, Santos is currently on the Disabled List with a shoulder injury to go along with his 2 blown saves in 6 appearances. Cordero, on the other hand, has already blown 2 saves in a newly appointed closer role. If the Blue Jays want to make the postseason, these two must learn to shut the door in close one or two-run games. Otherwise, October baseball will not be played north of the border for a 19th consecutive season.
Jose Bautista/Adam Lind: Where would the Blue Jays be if veterans Jose Bautista and Adam Lind were actually producing? Through the first 26 games Bautista has hit an abysmal .172 with 4 HR’s and 12 RBI, while Lind is batting just .193 with 1 HR and 7 RBI.
It’s easy to say it is still early, but the two have looked absolutely dreadful at the plate. Bautista looks as if he’s trying to do too much. As the team’s leader we know he’s upset with his production, but Bautista’s dominance begins with his exceptional patience at the plate. Instead he’s swinging at bad pitches, and swinging early and overtop of the pitches he misses.
Lind can’t seem to get anything going. He is striking out far too often and showing no consistency. Lind’s ability to hit to all areas of the field with power is what will get him out of this early season slump; let’s just hope it happens soon. If not, we could see manager John Farrell begin to place him lower and lower in the batting order.
Edwin Encarnacion: Jose who? Edwin Encarnacion has stormed onto the scene in 2012 and has undoubtedly been the Blue Jays’ best player thus far. He’s hitting .307 with an American League-leading 9 HR’s and 24 RBI. Quite simply, he has carried the team offensively. So where has this offensive outburst come from? Maybe it’s the fact that Encarnacion isn’t worrying nearly as much about his defensive role. Playing mostly DH he’s been able to work extensively on his hitting.
If you remember last year, Edwin was moved to the DH role mid-season, and enjoyed a big boost in his offensive stats following the move. The thing I’ve noticed most about the Blue Jays slugger is his bat speed looks eerily similar to a 2011 Jose Bautista. Keeping his hands back with a Bautista-like leg kick, he has really benefited from his swing adjustment. If Encarnacion continues on his torrid pace, the sky is the limit this year.
Starting Pitching: Heading into the season many critics looked at the Blue Jays’ starting pitching as their weakest link. The sentiment arose from seeing a very young rotation beginning with ace Ricky Romero (age 27), followed by Brandon Morrow (27), Henderson Alvarez (22), Kyle Drabek (24), and Drew Hutchison (21).
However, Romero has been a rock at 4-0 with a 3.64 ERA. He’s shown maturity and dominance on the mound, solidifying himself as the go-to ace. Morrow began inconsistently, but has really come into his own since then. He’s 3-1 with a 2.38 ERA including two straight shutouts. Usually Morrow unleashes a power fastball and racks up a number of strikeouts, but we’ve seen a smarter game from the right-hander. He’s using his fastball location as a way of getting batters out, and by doing so he’s becoming much less vulnerable to the home run ball.
As for Alvarez, Drabek, and Hutchison? They don’t even have half a season of experience combined! But with the way they’ve been pitching, you’d never know it. Alvarez displays a calm, smooth delivery, with a fastball that has touched 97 mph. He also throws a very effective changeup, along with a slider that, despite some inconsistency, has the potential to make hitters look foolish.
After a disappointing stint with the club in 2011, Drabek has been electric in 2012. Boasting a 2.40 ERA, Drabek most recently went pitch for pitch with Japanese superstar Yu Darvish, only to have the bullpen blow the 24 year-olds solid outing.
Hutchison has only made 3 career starts, and although his ERA is a bit high, the 21 year-old has been getting much needed run support from his offence and has gone at least 5 innings in all three outings. He’s done a fine job filling in for an oft-injured Dustin McGowan, and let’s hope he only gets better with experience.
With much talk about the added Wild Card spot this season, there is hope for a team that has consistently finished just behind the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. The buzz in Toronto is much different this year. Fans believe in this young, but incredibly exciting team. A sea of blue and white have begun to crowd Rogers Centre come game time with suddenly realistic hopes of ending an 18-year drought. Perhaps this is the year the Blue Jays can acquire a playoff berth for a city starving for success.