For a team going through what was widely perceived to be a rebuilding year, it was certainly an eventful first half for the Toronto Blue Jays. Few expected the team to lead the league in home runs, boast the first half home run leader (Jose Bautista), stay at or above .500 for all but 10 games, or send three players (Bautista, Vernon Wells and John Buck) to the All-Star Game.
That being said, the Jays are still well of the pace in the play-off race and will be using the second half to continue to develop with an eye towards contending in 2011 and, more likely, 2012. So where is a Blue Jays fan to find meaning, if not in the standings? Let’s take a look:
The long ball barrage
Toronto doesn’t simply lead the league in homers, they are dominating. Their 136 dingers to date put them 18 ahead of the second place Red Sox and 53 above the league average. Bautista has led the home run barrage with an MLB-high 24, already eight better than his own previous season-high. While he is likely to tail off in the second half, surely at least some of the eight Jays with double digit homer totals will continue their impressive pace and help the team stay near the top of the long ball leaders.
Any pressure or scrutiny facing the team in the second half lies firmly on the shoulders of struggling cornerstone players Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. While guys like Bautista and Buck are enjoying productive seasons but don’t figure into Toronto’s long-term plans, Hill and Lind have buckled this year under the expectations of being key members of the team’s core moving forward. Hill finds himself below the Mendoza Line, hitting .189, while Lind isn’t faring much better at .214 on the year thus far. Other Jays looking for second half rebounds: slumping ace Ricky Romero, who has allowed 13 earned runs over just five innings in his last two starts, incoming shortstop Yunel Escobar, who is hitting at just a .238 clip and Brian Tallet, who allowed four earned runs in a single inning of work during his last outing against Boston.
The No. 5 starter
The good news: Shaun Marcum, who had been placed on the disabled list with right elbow soreness, appears primed to return to the rotation this week. The bad news: in doing so, he will force the team to decide whether they want Jesse Litsch or Marc Rcepczynski to remain among the five starters for the club. Litsch has hardly earned his keep as a starter, going 0-4 with a 6.54 ERA in his first six starts since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. But his last outing, in which he allowed three earned runs over 7.0 innings, suggested he might be returning to form. Rcepczynski, meanwhile, has only had one start and a two-batter relief effort to prove himself worthy, but has opened eyes with nine strikeouts over just 6.1 innings of work. Regardless of who wins the battle, both men should earn their opportunities moving forward.
Rather than putting a ‘buyer’ or ‘seller’ tag on the team, it appears as though GM Alex Anthopoulos prefers to consider any deal that he feels will make his team better. That’s why he wasn’t afraid to include a productive veteran (Alex Gonzalez) or a pair of prospects (Tim Collins and Tyler Pastornicky) in a trade with the Braves that netted the Jays a young shortstop in Escobar. That being said, he’d have to be truly blown away to move any of his core players (Hill, Lind, Romero, Brett Cecil and Travis Snider) or key prospects. Instead, look for capable veteran hitters like Bautista, Buck and Lyle Overbay to find themselves on the trade market along with pitchers Marcum, Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs and Jason Frasor.
McGuire, the Jays’ first pick (11th over-all) in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft, still has yet to put his name on a contract with the club that drafted him, an interesting scenario worth keeping an eye on leading up to the August 15 signing deadline. One would think that Anthopoulos would be under heavy pressure to sign the right-hander, given that his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, failed to ink three of the team’s top four selections in 2009. However, under new league rules, if McGuire does not sign, the Blue Jays are entitled to a compensation pick in the same slot (No. 11) in next year’s draft, a draft that happens to be perceived as much deeper than this year’s class. Anthopoulos will still work feverishly to sign the player who has drawn comparisons to Boston’s John Lackey, but he does have a safety net in place.
For the first time in years, it appears that the Jays will be primed to offer long, hard looks to some of their prime prospects with an eye towards the 2011 season. At the top of the call-up list has to be 24-year old J.P. Arencibia, the team’s catcher of the future who is turning heads at Triple-A Las Vegas. He could be joined by much-hyped pitching prospect Kyle Drabek, who recently threw a no-hitter at Double-A New Hampshire, and future first baseman Brett Wallace. The latter two were products of the Roy Halladay trade (technically, Toronto got Michael Taylor from Philadelphia and shipped him to Oakland in exchange for Wallace), potentially offering an early glimpse at the returns on the trade of the former franchise ace.
The managerial search
This time, it appears as though Cito Gaston will go out on his own terms. The two-time World Series winner in his second managerial stint with the club looks ready to hang it up following the season, and the Jays aren’t likely to put up too much of a fight to have him come back. It’s not that Gaston has done a poor job in just over two years with the team, but he hasn’t led any major renaissance and many believe that a young, up-and-coming squad could be well served with a fresher face on the bench. When he’s not re-shaping the roster through trades and trying to beat the deadline to sign McGuire, Anthopoulos will be busy compiling a list of managerial candidates to pursue heading into next season.
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Written by Ben Fisher