By John McCool
On Wednesday evening, the Toronto Blue Jays advanced to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1993. After falling behind two games to the Texas Rangers, the Blue Jays rallied to win three straight in dramatic fashion. The final game at the Rogers Center was capped by a wild seventh inning where Russell Martin’s throwing error back to pitcher Aaron Sanchez gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead. Jose Bautista’s three run homer in the bottom of the seventh capped the Jays’ four run inning, sending the Toronto faithful into a frenzy. To say the least, the Blue Jays have been one of the most captivating teams in the MLB this season. Currently the Jays are trailing the Kansas City Royals by two games in the American League Championship series.
The Blue Jay’s revival began last offseason when GM Alex Anthopolous traded for third baseman Josh Donaldson and signed catcher Russell Martin. As a result, Anthopoulos not only filled two holes in the infield but also added additional protection in the lineup for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The foursome, in turn, have posted a combined 140 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) while averaging a 4.6 WAR.
Unsurprisingly, the Jays have emerged as the best offense in baseball leading in wRC+ (115), WAR (115), and ISO (.186). At the trade deadline, Anthopoulos acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Ben Revere from the Rockies and Phillies, respectively, adding a mix of power and speed at the top and bottom of the lineup. Although Tulowitzki has struggled offensively since joining the Jays, he has nonetheless played exceptional defense at shortstop.
On the other side of things, the Toronto’s pitching has also held up strong down the stretch. In fact, the Jay’s starters and bullpen lowered their earned run average from 4.18 to 3.15 since the All-Star break. One of the key figures behind the rotation’s transformation is David Price. Price, who was acquired from the Tigers in late July, posted nine wins and a 2.22 FIP in just 74.1 innings. Although the Blue Jays did not have a strong number two starter, the middle to backend of the rotation, which featured Mark Buerhle, R.A. Dickey, and Marco Estrada, were durable innings eaters and combined for six wins above replacement. At age 36, Mark Buerhle finished with a respectable 4.26 FIP using pinpoint control (1.49 K/BB) to make up for his lack of velocity. On the other hand, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey posted a 4.58 FIP. while Marco Estrada earned a 4.40 FIP. Marcus Stroman, who recently returned from an Achilles tendon injury, should also provide additional support in the rotation. At only 24, Stroman posted a 2.84 FIP over 130.2 innings last season. Stroman would fit nicely behind Price as a number two starter if he is able to return his 2014 level. With Price and Stroman at the top of the rotation, the Jays appear to have a solid counter punch against playoff contending aces such as Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, or Dallas Keuchel. The Jays will likely face at least one of these pitchers in the playoffs.
The Blue Jays’ bullpen has also been surprisingly good this season maintaining a relatively low 3.27 ERA over 429 innings of work. Among the best bullpen arms are Aaron Sanchez (3.10 FIP), Brett Cecil (2.34 FIP), and Roberto Osuna (3.02 FIP). In particular, Sanchez, who was converted from a starter to reliever, has dropped his walks per nine innings (BB/9) from 5.05 to 2.05 benefiting from reduced pitch counts out of the bullpen. Alongside Stroman, Sanchez, who is only 23, has the potential to make an impact in the Jay’s rotation in the coming years.
In addition, Liam Hendriks and journeyman Mark Lowe, who were signed from the scrapheap, have combined for a 1.7 WAR.
With any feel good story, however, there is always a downside. Toronto has a growing core of aging and high priced players, who are nearing free agency.
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On another negative note, Anthopoulos has sacrificed some of his best prospects in a myriad of trades during the past season. For instance in the Donaldson trade, the Jays lost third baseman Brett Lawrie along with three prospects-Aaron Nolin, Kendall Graveman, and Franklin Barreto. Graveman has jumped right into the Athletics rotation. Barreto, at 19 years old, is an exceptional athlete and has a good bat. Some scouts have compared him Chicago Cubs infielder Addison Russell, who was formerly a product of the A’s system. In High-A ball, he posted a .302 average and .833 OPS. From the Blue Jay’s side, however, Donaldson (39/110/.302) has performed significantly better than Lawrie to say the least. So far, Donaldson has cost Toronto merely $1.86 million per WAR. Over the next two seasons, however, Donaldson will cost the Blue Jays additional money as he enters his second and third years of arbitration.
In the Tulowitzki deal, the Jays further lost the promising arms of Miguel Castro, Jesus Tinoco, and former first round pick Jeff Hoffman. While Tulowitzki owns a career 123 wRC+ and is a good defender, he is now over 30 years old with a deep injury history. He averaged only 110 games played between 2010 and 2014 with the Colorado Rockies.
On the plus side, however, Toronto does have young talent at the major league level. In particular, 26-year old centerfielder Kevin Pillar and 24-year old middle infielder Ryan Goins have played exceptional defense posting a 13.3 and 5.3 Defensive Rating respectively. Meanwhile, 24-year old Devon Travis (.304/.361/.498) owns a 135 wRC+ over 238 plate appearances. Toronto also recently called up top prospect Dalton Pompey in the outfield. At only 22, Pompey has crushed minor league pitching at every level and is a solid defender. Despite trading several top prospects, the Blue Jays minor league system is still loaded with young talent. The Blue Jays prospect depth can be attributed to their high-risk, high reward draft strategy that has also led to aggressive international signings and unsuspected breakout performances (i.e. Tinoco and Castro). In fact, Baseball America rated Toronto’s minor league organization 10th overall in its annual organizational talent rankings. Despite losing Norris, Hoffman, and Castro, the Jays still hold seven of their top ten prospects that they had entering the 2015 season.
Altogether, Toronto is still poised to remain competitive in the future even though they sacrificed top talent. Right now, the team features a formidable offense and quality pitching, which makes a favorite to win the World Series. As players like Bautista and Encarnacion grow older and near free agency, the Jays have been willing to take the necessary risks to lead the competition in the AL East. Even if their World Series bid falls short, Toronto is equipped to make another run for the playoffs in 2016 and have enough young talent to build around for the future.