May 11, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL East
The Perpetual Rebuilders
As J.P. Arencibia, the Toronto Blue Jays’ highly-touted first-round pick from 2007, dug in against Justin Verlander in the eighth inning of Saturday’s game, he wasn’t the batter anyone would have picked to spoil a chance at perfection with patience. In his young major-league career, he had walked just eight times in 123 plate appearances, and in the minors, he was a free-swinger known more for his home runs than his patience.
What followed was an epic battle, as Arencibia fended off a pitcher who was perfect to that point and facing just his 23rd Blue Jay with one out in the eighth inning. The Tigers flamethrower jumped ahead quickly with three foul balls, mixing his 99-mph heat with a devastating curve. Arencibia didn’t give in, taking ball one low and away and ball two (another heater) just off the inside of the plate. Four balls later, the count still stood at 2-2 when Verlander unleashed another errant breaking ball. Arencibia fouled back the 11th pitch of the at-bat before Verlander missed the outside corner by a whisper or two. The Blue Jays had their lone baserunner of the night.
Three pitches later, Arencibia was erased. Edwin Encarnacion knocked into an inning-ending double play, and Verlander would go on to complete a 27-batter no-hitter against a Blue Jays team struggling to find its groove. In the final frame, the Detroit right-hander hit 100 on the gun, and his final pitch was an unfair 88-mph slider.
The Jays, 3-4 this week after a 10th-inning walk-off win against the Red Sox last night, aren’t really anywhere right now. The club is 16-20, even with the Orioles in last place. Columnist Jeff Blair recently called 2011 a rebuilding year for the Jays, but it seems that every year is a rebuilding year in Toronto.
Once upon a time, before the strike, before the Expos decamped for the United States, before the Yankees and Red Sox emerged as division titans, the Jays were the darlings of the American League. Playing in a state-of-the-art stadium with a retractable roof and featuring a team that would make the ALCS four times in five years while winning two World Series championships, the Jays became the first team in baseball to draw four million fans in back-to-back seasons.
Now, the Jays are mired in mediocrity with a payroll pushing $80 million, and searching for a plan. Outside of a 67-94 showing in 2004, they’ve neither won more than 88 games nor lost more than 87 since 1996, the first full season after the strike. The Canadian club squeaked into second place in 2006 but has generally been comfortable in no better than third. Since the rise of the Rays, the Jays have seemingly slipped into a permanent fourth-place position. They wear it like a comfortable shawl.
The Blue Jays shouldn’t be this non-descript or stingy. They play in a large metro area and are now the sole representative of Canada in the majors. Their owner, Rogers Communications, is Canada’s largest wireless provider and a $20 billion company. Absent Tampa Bay’s extra two percent, it might cost $130 million to compete with the Red Sox and Yanks, but that is a total the Jays’ owners could easily afford.
So who are the Jays? They seem to be a power-hitting team that also relies on speed. They have some decent starting pitching and a bullpen that alternates between hot and cold, as bullpens are wont to do. Of course, they also feature the player who has now launched 60 home runs in his last 162 games, but Jose Bautista serves as the only true offensive threat in a lineup marred by injuries.
The Jays have 37 home runs, but they lack on-base skills. Entering last night’s game, the club had drawn 122 walks, largely thanks to Bautista’s 31 free passes. Somehow, Jon Lester and the Red Sox issued seven walks to a team with a .318 on-base percentage, and only one of those went to Bautista. He’s the only player on the team with an on-base percentage above .345 (or above .500, for that matter).
In addition to solo homers, the Jays’ game plan seemingly revolves around speed, which also depends on getting on base. The club has attempted 51 steals, 38 of which have been successful. A 75 percent success rate is less than optimal, but Toronto’s 4.3 equivalent baserunning runs place the team atop the American League.
Last night’s game was indicative of these contradictions. With one out in the third inning, Rajai Davis was caught stealing home on what seemed to be a missed squeeze by Yunel Escobar, but in the bottom of the 10th, Davis singled and stole second and third on Jason Varitek and Matt Albers before scoring on a sac fly. The lineup also lofted three balls over the Rogers Centre walls. If the Jays could figure out a way to combine that kind of speed, power, and patience every day, they could emerge from the middle, or bottom, of the AL East pack.
For now, the Jays’ main allure is Bautista. With 11 home runs and a .519 on-base percentage, he is the Blue Jays’ offense, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the show. Toronto fans long accustomed to looking up at the AL East need something to cheer for. After all, 2011 is a rebuilding year. They all are.
* * *
Last night, Kyle Farnsworth issued his first walk of the season. Unfortunately for the streaking Tampa Bay Rays, it came with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game. Before that series of unfortunate events, the Rays, once 1-8, had been tied with the Yankees atop the division. They’re now 19-7 in their last 26, with the pitching to back it up.
The Rays benefited from one of the more amusing/annoying loopholes in league rules this weekend. B.J. Upton drew a two-game suspension for an outburst on Wednesday and knew he would have to serve it. However, he appealed it on Friday so he could play the weekend in Camden Yards. In Baltimore, he has posted a career .297/.370/.535 line, but in Cleveland, the Rays’ next stop, he has hit just .180/.241/.200. Of course, he went 7-for-14 with a home run and three doubles during the Rays’ sweep of Baltimore, and now he’s serving out the suspension. Sometimes, the extra two percent apparently involves making good use of MLB’s disciplinary procedures.
* * *
The Yankees, meanwhile continued a ho-hum march to 20-13 with a subpar 3-3 week that included losing three of four to the Tigers in Detroit. Once they escaped Comerica and found themselves in a hitter-friendly stadium, the bats came alive. On Sunday, they downed the Rangers 12-5, and the story of the game focused on the rebirth of the captain.
For the first time in over 250 at-bats, Jeter hit a home run, and then an inning later, he hit another. After his third straight multi-hit game last night, Jeter is now batting .283/.336/.354. That triple-slash line is still a far cry from his career norms, but he’s showing signs of life. What happens next is anyone’s guess; this weekend, Jeter passed Cal Ripken to claim the record for most games played at shortstop for a single team, so age- and position-wise, he’s in uncharted territory.
* * *
Up in Boston, the Red Sox just can’t get to that elusive .500 mark. They went 3-4 this week against the Angels, Twins, and Blue Jays and played three extra-inning games. Attempting to even the team’s record last night, staff ace Lester tied a career high with five walks as the team fell to 17-19.
On the bright side, Adrian Gonzalez’s power stroke has returned. After launching just one home run in April, he’s hit five—including two last night—in May. Three of the blasts have been of the opposite-field variety, including one that cleared the Green Monster this weekend. At the same time, Jed Lowrie has slumped. After a 1-for-4 showing last night, he’s just 10-for-his-last-47. Sox fans were also thrilled by the arrival of Jose Iglesias, a Cuban shortstop with a highly-regarded glove. Just 21, he posted a .531 OPS in 92 Triple-A plate appearances in April, and his next extra-base hit will be his first of the season.
* * *
With their 7-6 win over Seattle last night, the Orioles capped off a 2-4 week. At 15-19, they haven’t been as bad as they could’ve been, but going 9-18 after a 6-1 start isn’t what the franchise had in mind. For now, the plan isn’t working. The club sports the highest ERA in the American League, and its offense, infused with the veteran presences of Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, ranks among the worst in the Junior Circuit as well. It might be only early May, but it’s about time to say, “Better luck next year.”