And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck.
The Jays finish their 10 game road trip tonight in Dee-troit, a 6.05 start, making up for an earlier rain out. The Jays then get 6 at home (Pirates, Halladay's) and 7 on the road (Red Sox, Cleveland's) before the All-Star Break. Let's ruminate.
The Jays are guaranteed at least a .500 record on their National League + Detroit jaunt, a decidedly reasonable proposition given the quality of the opposition. Still, it's hard not to be a little frustrated as a Jays fan, as they didn't gain any ground in the AL East and sit 7 games back. The club allowed only 23 runs in their 9 games, pitched 2 shut outs, and allowed 2 runs or fewer in five of those nine games... yet they stand 5-4 at the moment because they only scored 26 runs in those 9 games, which if my math is correct is not a lot of runs per game. It's official - the offense is slumping.
I don't want to say I told you so, so I won't, but the Jays offensive value for much of the season has been entirely tied up in Jose Bautista hitting like Babe Ruth on steroids, and to a slightly lesser extent, Adam Lind hitting like Babe Ruth the pitcher. Yunel Escobar has helped a bunch, as have J.P. Arencibia and Patterson before they fell off cliffs (Arencibia is on an 8/54 stretch, and though this is a completely baseless hypothesis, perhaps more off-days wouldn't hurt; more on Patterson in a bit.) Anyway, as I'm sure you've realized by watching, Jose Bautista is playing like a "only" a really good player at the moment, and not like the Greek God of Home Runs. In June he has managed "just" a .247/.390/.383 line, which is a pretty good slump but a ways off what we've come to (unrealistically) expect. So, it shouldn't be too surprising the Jays are struggling, given they are getting sub-.650 OPS from 4 positions (2B, 3B, CF, LF) - it was going to happen eventually. Brett Lawrie was the big plan to fix things in the interim but it now looks like he could be out until August, and Travis Snider is both injured and not entirely convincing in his rehab (more walks and fewer strikes, but a hugely high BABIP and unconvincing power), so the club is tinkering in other ways.
After the Atlanta series, in which the Jays scored 3 runs in 4 games, they decided to move Jose Bautista back to 3rd base and call up Eric Thames. As a general matter of course, I am in favour of part of this move. Thames is very likely a better hitter than McCoy (who was demoted), and now seems as good time as any to figure out whether Thames can play in the bigs, as opposed to continuing to conclusively prove that Jayson Nix can't. The club also seems to have decided to stop batting Corey Patterson 2nd, which can only be construed as a positive at this juncture. Patterson was actually one of the team's better hitters for much of the early part of the year, and on May 29th his slash line stood at .301/.333/.477. Since then, not so much - he's hitting just .191/.230./.245. He's neither that good nor that bad, but he definitely ranges more towards the later and not the former - he's got a career OPS below .700, which would be alright if you were a whizzo defensive CF, which Patterson is, uh, not. Eric Thames hit second in the first game of the Cardinals series, and Aaron Hill had the honours the next two games. I would prefer Thames to Hill there, I think, as Thames has shown greater on base skills and has a better ZIPS for the rest of the year. I don't think there are any other obvious candidates, as the Jays really have only 3.5 players that can hit at all - Escobar, Bautista, Lind and J.P. Arencibia, and Arencibia has been dropped in the lineup because of his recent woes. I can understand, if not fully support this move. If it were up to me at this juncture, I would go with something like:
Leaving aside the specific ordering of the lineup for the moment, I have a hard time seeing how moving Bautista to 3rd dramatically changes anything for the team. If they kept Bautista in RF and brought Thames up to play LF, we would keep the revolving third base platoonish thing going, and Rivera and Patterson could split DH duties with spot outfield starts. In moving Bautista to 3B they end the platoon of suckitude, but Bautista goes from a defensive position where he is slightly below average overall, say, (great arm, mediocre other stuff) to a position he hasn't played in a game in over a year, where the numbers indicate he has been pretty bad (albeit with all kinds of sample size caveats.) Plus, Thames plays one corner outfield spot, and Rivera/Patterson another, and E5 DHs. I don't know if this is exactly how it goes down, but it seems logical, and it keeps almost all the same hitters in the lineup as would a Bautista and Thames both in the outfield configuration, though with substantially less risk of John McDonald and Jayson Nix playing 3B.
I think I would have still brought up Thames, but left Bautista in RF, (where if you have seen some of the interviews and read his comments in the spring, it seems like he much prefers to play), kept Rivera and Patterson DHing and let Encarnacion play 3B. Giving Thames at bats that will mostly come at the expense of Nix, McDonald and McCoy is I think going to be worth a bit over the course of the season, but I don't think one defensive alignment is definitely superior to the other, and in that case I would favour the status quo. The one advantage I guess is that when/if Snider comes back, he or Thames don't have to DH, they can take the two corner outfield spots, whereas if Bautista was still in right one of them would have to be DH. But given that it's seemingly well established that Bautista will go back to RF when Lawrie is healthy and rehabbed, I don't think that this is a particularly important consideration. Anyway, much of this is picking nits. I just hope Thames plays - he didn't the last two games of the Cards series.
Pitching wise, the club is turning it on. Ricky Romero is pretty much in Ace mode at this point. He's gone at least 7 innings in nine straight starts, during which time he's allowed 0, 1, 1, 2, 5, 3, 1, 2, and 0 runs. He's also walked 23 against 53 strikeouts, while allowing 5 home runs, in 69.1 innings (although one was to Tim Hudson, sigh.) That'll do. I'm still not a Jo-Jo Reyes fan, but I think it's fair to say he's stabilized at a, if not good, then at least acceptable level of performance. Given that Zep is consigned to the bullpen and Kyle Drabek is getting lit up in AAA, I don't think there are 5 better starters than him in the organization at the moment. I don't really know what to say about Brandon Morrow at this point, other than he is outperforming his peripherals from last year, is second in the majors in K/9 IP amongst starters, and has somehow underperformed his FIP/xFIP by at least a run this year and last. Blah blah blah mental toughness blah? If Reyes is stabilized, Carlos Villanueva is Mr. Stable. In his 7 starts he's gone between 5 and 7 innings, and allowed between 2 and 4 runs (well, 6 in one). He also walks very few and strikes out enough. He's been the club's second best starter this year, at least if one is results oriented. Score another one for the GM. The 5th starter spot is currently occupied by Zach Stewart, who goes to the mound tonight against Detroit. Stewart has been pretty good and pretty bad in his two starts, so tonight could be especially interesting. It doesn't seem like his is entirely ready, but then most young pitchers aren't.
The pen also seems to have stabilized lately. In their last 27 innings the pen has allowed 5 earned runs and has a 28/5 K/BB ratio. So, that's good.
What does this all mean? Well, I don't know. If I did I would have a lot more money than I currently do. But fundamentally this is a decent ballclub with a few glaring holes. Their schedule before the All-Star game is tough but not impossible, as they play perhaps the best teams from each league, plus the surprisingly frisky Pirates and Cleveland's. If they could manage to go something like 9-5 it would make writing about the team during the All-Star break and beyond all the more interesting, but if they fall further off the pace their already slim hopes can probably be written off. I know which I'm rooting for!
Also, at this moment Roy Halladay is scheduled to pitch on Saturday, and he better, because I just booked a Canada Day Barbeque and really want to be there, dammit.
Also Also: follow us on Twitter: @battersboxca