An element of baseball (and, on a larger scale, sports) that is both wonderful and frustrating is its constant changing nature. A player is great until he isn’t; a pitcher is unhittable until he gets smacked around.
So yeah, it’s probably foolhardy to offer up any kind of second half projections for the Jays as they play out the string on what is bound to be yet another postseason-less campaign (let’s face it, they are 11.0 games behind the Red Sox and would have to go 45-25 the rest of the way just to reach 90 wins). I, for one, had expected Jose Bautista to fall well short of his 2010 form and for Kyle Drabek to be in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race by now, so what do I know?
Bautista’s continued ascent to superstardom and Drabek’s developmental setbacks were the biggest stories during a first half that also featured Adam Lind’s return to prominence, decidedly un-veteran-like inconsistency among the veteran relievers, the black hole that has been third base, the surprising emergence of Carlos Villanueva, John Farrell learning on the job and the growing pains – for various reasons – of Brett Cecil, Jesse Litsch, Eric Thames, Travis Snider and Brett Lawrie. Quite a lot going on for a team who is hardly remarkable on paper, sporting a 45-47 record.
So what can be expected over the last 70 games? Well, I’ve never been one to do the reasonable thing, so let’s get on with the projections!
Bautista and the MVP Race
The Jays’ star slugger has to cool off at some point, doesn’t he? His 31 home runs already this season give him 85 dating back to the start of last year, which happens to be 24 better than Paul Konerko’s second-best mark over that stretch. As impressive as his feats have been, Jays fans can drop any thoughts of awards accolades for Joey Bats (except for a Silver Slugger trophy) with Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez putting up similarly gaudy numbers (.354/.414/.591 to Bautista’s .334/.468/.702) on a club boasting 10 more wins despite having played two fewer games.
A rough outline of the team’s current five-man rotation reads as follows: Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Jo-Jo Reyes, Villanueva and Cecil (compared to the season-opening group of Romero, Drabek, Cecil, Litsch, Reyes). It’s far from an ideal stable of arms, but there is little indication that much will change the rest of the way. Drabek won’t sniff the majors again this year, Litsch has already been told not to expect an immediate call-up with the steady contributions of Reyes and Villanueva, Dustin McGowan is making strides but is still well away and Zach Stewart could get another shot, but only if someone flames out.
On the Way Up
When a developing team such as Toronto fades out of contention, the focus tends to fall on who will arrive to offer a taste of the future. Unfortunately for those waiting on fresh faces, Alex Anthopoulos is preaching patience and letting the organization’s top prospects develop in various levels of the minors rather than rushing them to the big club, particularly as so many team affiliates get set for postseason play. So don’t expect to hear names like Anthony Gose, Henderson Alvarez, Rey Gonzalez or Adeiny Hechavaria called out at Rogers Centre in the next few months. That being said, Lawrie came within a hair – fracture – of reaching the majors already this season and, provided there are no further setbacks in his recovery, it’s hard to see him not getting there in the near future.
The Trade Market
We’re coming into the trade deadline time of year where analysts like to group teams into being either ‘buyers’ or ‘sellers’, but neither hat really fits the Jays. They obviously aren’t buyers, sitting well back and hardly looking primed for a second half outburst. But it’s also hard to view them as sellers, with only shaky relievers to really offer up as trade bait. Any of Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel or Jason Frasor could go, but they can’t be reasonably expected to fetch much and may all be more valuable to the club as Type B free agents at the end of the season. The next big, exciting splash for the Jays won’t come until – at the very least – this summer, where I’d think long and hard about talking Rogers into opening up the vault for a run at Prince Fielder (I know we already have Lind, but you don’t think he’d move to DH if it meant getting Fielder?). But that’s a discussion for another day.
Keep an Eye on the Minors
There might be as much news concerning the club’s future taking place in Las Vegas, New Hampshire or Lansing in the coming months as there is in Toronto. Drabek will be worth watching as he basically re-learns the art of pitching with the 51′s while McGowan will continue his unlikely trek back to the majors as he rehabs with the Lansing Lugnuts. Meanwhile, the Fisher Cats, featuring one-day Jays like Hechavaria, Gose, Moises Sierra and Deck McGuire, are the class of the Eastern League and could go into the AA playoffs as the odds-on favourite.
Players to Watch in the Second Half
Position Player: J.P. Arencibia
There aren’t many positions on the big club that are safe from the oncoming rush of hard-charging prospects looking to make the jump, but Arencibia’s hot seat seems just that little bit hotter as he continues to try and find himself as a hitter while Travis d’Arnaud and A.J. Jimenez continue their climb through the farm system. Arencibia can now catch each member of the rotation and should be pushed with an increased workload after having not caught more than four days in a row since the end of May. Up to now, his home run (12) and RBI (38) totals place him in the top four among rookies, but he also holds the lowest average (.222) of any first year player with 150 or more at-bats and strikes out once every 3.44 at-bats, worse than all but two other rookies. It’s not do or die just yet, but it’s also not the time for the 25-year old to be complacent.
Pitcher: Cecil and Villanueva (tie)
It may be a bit of a cop-out to pick two hurlers, but their respective second halves will be equally interesting to observe. Cecil has returned to the big leagues as somewhat of a transformed, work-the-strike-zone, finesse guy, a surprising development that was also rather successful over his past two quality starts. Opposing teams could ultimately figure him out, but it remains to be seen whether he can continue this trend or if he will inevitably revert to relying on the above-average ‘stuff’ that got him here in the first place, not to mention how his health holds up. As for Villanueva, the 27-year old boasting a 5-1 record and 2.99 ERA has been a revelation for Toronto, excelling as a reliever and then doing much of the same upon being converted to a starter. He is expected to be the only off-season veteran signee to be renewed this off-season, but his price tag may be on the rise as other teams take note of his calm demeanor under pressure and flexibility. The second half will go a long way in determining what Villanueva can expect come free agency, not to mention whether he fits into the team’s future plans.
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Written by Ben Fisher