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Blue Jays Blueprint For The 2016 AL East Championship

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The Blue Jays 2016 season to date, the MLB trade deadline, José Bautista’s future, the Aaron Sanchez innings watch, the Blueprint, and what to do with Chris Colabello.

The baseball world resumes play on Friday afternoon after taking a few days off for the All-Star break. The American League defeated the National League 4-2 on Tuesday night in San Diego, claiming home field advantage in the 2016 World Series. One team that is looking poised and ready to potentially enjoy the AL home cooking in the ‘Fall Classic’ is the Toronto Blue Jays.

After two-plus decades of baseball purgatory (22 years to be precise), the Jays emerged from the depths of the AL East last year to finally make the playoffs, coming within a HIGHLY questionable strike call from potentially writing a completely different script in the 2015 ALCS.

The North Remembers.

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All reminiscing aside, let’s break down the Jays 2016 season to date, peer towards the future, answer some burning questions surrounding the MLB trade deadline, José Bautista’s future, the Aaron Sanchez innings watch, provide a Blueprint for success, and propose what to do with Chris Colabello.

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At the All-Star break the Jays are nicely perched at 11 games over .500 and two back of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. If they playoffs started today, the Jays would play the Boston Red Sox in the Wild Card Game. They’re presently in a playoff position… but clearly hunting down the Division Title, and ensuring home field advantage throughout the playoffs with 71 games remaining, is the task at hand.

MAY 22

The reigning AL East Champs stumbled out of the gate in 2016, under-performing due to inconsistent hitting and a fragile bullpen. As of May 22nd, they were in last place in the AL East, and listed at 20-1 to win the World Series.

The most recent odds have the Jays listed at 8-1 to win the ‘Fall Classic’ (as of July 11th). If you’re late to the party, you can still shop around and you might be able to find them at 12-1.

On May 18th, the Jays were 19-23 (.452) and 7 back of the Orioles. Since that low-point in the season, Toronto has caught fire, winning 32 out of 50 games. That’s a 32-17 (.653) record if you’re keeping score at home.

THE STARTING 5

2016 has been the best first-half for the Blue Jays since 1992. A massive portion of that success has to be accredited to the starting rotation that now boasts a 41*-20 record. Marco Estrada (5-3) , Aaron Sanchez (9-1), J.A. Happ (12-3), Marcus Stroman (7-4), and R.A. Dickey (7-9), have been the best complete starting unit in the American League so far this season. (*Drew Hutchinson contributed one win to that impressive total).

Among the accolades… Estrada, is holding opposing batters to a stingy .173 batting average, best in the majors. He’s also got a 0.99 WHIP, which currently leads the AL. Both Estrada (2.93), and Happ (3.36), are listed in the Top-10 for ERA. Sanchez has the best winning percentage (.900) and highest of any Blue Jay EVER at the break (10 or more games pitched).

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Dylan Coulter / The New Yorker

Dickey and Stroman have had a few rough outings for the rotation but have recently dialed it back in. Stroman got his breaking ball figured out and has begun to out-think hitters with his first-pitch presenting more favourable counts and results. R.A. Dickey continues to be one of the most polarizing athletes in Toronto, who statistically has had Jekyll and Hyde halves to his seasons for the Jays. Since arriving from the Mets after winning the NL Cy Young in 2012, Dickey has been the best second half pitcher for the Blue Jays.

It’s safe to say, the boys have been dealing though the first 91 games.

One tasty statistical historical tidbit that is potentially on the radar for J.A. Happ (and for you to track after the break), is the possibility of J.A. coming close to Roy Halladay’s team record of 22 wins set in 2003. If he stays healthy and effective, Happ would be scheduled to make 14 more starts. It’s a long-shot, but worth filing in some distant archive of your mind.

THE STICKS

Toronto’s potent batting line-up is one of the best in baseball. If the thunder and lightening don’t get you… then the Bringer Of Rain will. Josh Donaldson has been leading the charge for the Blue Jays playing himself back into the AL MVP conversation with convincing authority, posting a 5.5 WAR. The 2015 AL MVP is leading the MLB with 80 runs scored and has a tremendous .304/.419/.548 slash line.

I’ll just leave this here visually so the numbers and accomplishment can sink in…

Edwin Encarnacion has also been tearing it up recently for the Jays smashing 23 HRs and boasting the most RBIs in all of baseball with 80.2015-topps-gypsy-queen-96-edwin-encarnacion-baseball-card-2 Michael Saunders (Victoria, B.C.), has been a pleasant surprise and represented Toronto at the All-Star Game. With former All-Stars Troy Tulowitzki and José Bautista  in the mix, this 2016 Blue Jays team could potentially have FIVE players finish with more than 30 HR on the season.

The offence is clearly locked in fiercely, demonstrated statistically by being ranked second in the AL in runs scored and OBP. The only criticism earlier in the season was the inability to hit with runners in scoring position and to play “small ball”. The Blue Jays are currently leaving 3.32 RISP per game so far in 2016, while they finished a 93-win campaign last year leaving 3.33. So… statistically as a team, they’ve improved hitting in the clutch from last year. Their only weakness is the stolen base totals, bunting, and improving on moving base runners through hit-and-runs, which may haunt them in the odd game but nothing to be overtly concerned about over a 7-game series with this line-up (I believe 65.4% of that last claim).

ACHILLES’ HEEL

Do you know that feeling you get, when you’re watch something really suspenseful or legitimately scary on film (dramatically fictitious), and you don’t know how it’s going to end for the characters that you’re cheering for (Game Of Thrones?) That is precisely the emotion derived from the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays bullpen. Hold the door… Hold the door… Hold the door?! Shameless pop culture references aside, let’s dissect the Blue Jays Achilles’ heel.

achillesBelieve it or not, there is a baseball stat known as a ‘Hold’ (HLD). It’s a thing. According to MLB this is how a Hold is measured:

A pitching statistic in baseball credited to pitchers who come in to the game in relief of the starting pitcher in a save situation, they have recorded at least one out and they leave the game before it has ended not having given up the lead. A Hold is a measure of the effectiveness of relief pitchers who don’t often finish games but get into games during save opportunities.

The 2016 Blue Jays bullpen is not very good at doing this ‘Hold’ thing. They have notched 34 of them which ranks 3rd-last in the American League. That doesn’t seem to be particularly good and is clearly a reason why the Jays have found a way to lose 40 games.

Collectively, the Jays ‘relief’ staff is 10-20 after 91 games with 12 blown saves in 35 opportunities. 34% of the time they fail when they have a lead by 3 runs or less late in a game. 20 losses coming from the bullpen represents 50% of their total losses. That’s atrocious at this level, and something is evidently wrong that needs to be addressed. This is without question the biggest concern moving forward if the Blue Jays want to experience success in the playoffs.

AFTER THE BREAK

The Jays are blessed with a slightly lighter and easier schedule after the All-Star break. Before hosting the Orioles (51-36) at home starting on July 29th, the Jays will play a collection of teams that are a combined 39-games under .500. They open up in Oakland (38-51) on Friday, visit Arizona (38-52) on Tuesday, then fly home for a 9-game home stand against the Mariners (45-44), Padres (45-44), and the aforementioned Orioles. Toronto has the luxury of three more ‘off days’ leading up to the end of the month, before the playoff race begins to escalate in August.

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Glancing at the other AL East contenders’ schedules after the break, there is definitely a golden opportunity for the Jays to seize the division before the end of the month…

The front running Orioles hit the road to play the Rays (34-54), and then head to New York to face the Yankees (44-44). Baltimore is 18-22 on the road and faces a desperate Yankees team that is always tough at Yankee Stadium going 23-18 in the first half. The O’s then travel home to Maryland to host the AL Central leading Indians (52-36) and the Rockies (40-48), before travelling north to Canada.

Boston opens in New York for three before travelling home to play the Giants (57-33), who boast the best record baseball. The Red Sox close out their month at Fenway with series against the Twins (32-56), Tigers (46-43), and Angles (37-52).

The Yankees kick-off with a treacherous home-stand, hosting the Red Sox, Orioles, and Giants. New York visits Houston (48-41) and then Tampa Bay to close July. The Yankees are getting close to playing ‘must win’ baseball and can’t risk falling much further back in the rear-view mirror.

TRADE DEADLINE (JULY 31ST)

After last season’s excitement, it’s going to be a tough act to follow. The Jays were one game over .500 close to the deadline and turned into a buyer, rolling the dice and trading for David Price. davidpirce This year, there haven’t been many marquee names bandied about in the MLB trade winds.

Let’s be honest here, with a couple of tweaks, the Jays are close to being a contender with their current roster. Listing 10-15 mediocre to sub-par players you’ve probably never heard of to flex my research chops is an exercise in futility. Rather than rampant smokescreen speculation and wishing for players that won’t be moved, let’s explore some internal strategy before stoking the trade rumour fire.

AARON SANCHEZ

The young right-handed All-Star is the key to Toronto’s pitching moves. Managing a young arm isn’t an exact science and can be very risky business. There has been whispers of moving Sanchez to the bullpen that have spread to everyday conversation in the Toronto streets.

Does anyone truly know what the right move here is? It’s honestly a win-win in my opinion since the kid is that talented. He leads the Jays in strike-outs with 103 Ks, but conversely leads the team in innings pitched with 118. Until he shows signs of fatigue, does it really make sense to move him into the pen?

The logic of moving him would be to protect his young arm, but each player has unique and different tolerances for arm strength and stamina that was put to an almost immeasurable tax long before they arrived in The Show. Keeping the floral writing to a minimum, let’s wax digital poetic and propose a strategic plan for the use of Aaron Sanchez.

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THE BLUEPRINT 

If an above average arm becomes available before the trade deadline it would be wise to acquire it (no sh*t Sherlock?!). The only quasi-decent name in the mix right now is Oakland’s LHP Rich Hill. He’s slated to go to the highest bidder because… that’s what Agents do. If it work$ out that would help solidify the ‘Sanchez to the bullpen’ move. If not, the Jays should work with what they have…

I would use Aaron Sanchez as a starting pitcher until August 22nd (approximately six starts). The Jays close out a series with the Indians on the 21st and will have a much clearer vision of where they are situated in the standings by that point. Ideally, they will have sole possession of first place in the AL East with room to spare.

Amazingly, they have a 13-game winner from last year marinating in Buffalo to take over the 5th rotation spot. Calling up Drew Hutchinson to eat innings, and possibly excel, is a sound move. Having Sanchez shuffle to the pen now gives you a dynamite combo with Roberto Osuna to put games to bed.

Call me old school, but I remember a day when ‘relief’ pitchers would pitch more than one inning. Somewhere along the way we got lost and lulled into the artificial comfort of Sabermetrics and falsified modern wisdom. This present Blue Jays team is the PERFECT team to try and utilize this strategy.

The Jays are going to mash some of their opponents by more than three runs quite often in the second half of the season. In those extremely low leverage to non-threatening situations you can roll out some of the riskier and inconsistent arms. Drew Storen… I’m looking at you son! (Win the team’s confidence back, and you can appear in some mid-leverage situations).

In close games with the lead, bring in Sanchez to pitch a couple innings, if need be why not three? Trying to mimic the 7-8-9 (using three pitchers to close a game) of this ‘Three-Headed Monster’ logic nonsense only works when you have three elite arms. If not, get more mileage out of the talent you have available and stop following trends. You can even have Osuna pitch the 8th and 9th occasionally also. I’m being serious.

If Hutchinson is a mitigated disaster in his return you can rely on Jesse Chavez or Gavin Floyd for a start or two, and then on September 5th… decrease the pitching staff to a four-man rotation. That’s right. Second half R.A. Dickey, a rejuvenated Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ (chasing Halladay’s club record), and Marco Estrada leading the team to the promised land…

What could go wrong?!

Of course, all of this genius hinges on Estrada’s present injury being nothing too serious.

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JOEY BATS

The notion that the Jays are going to move José Bautista  before the trade deadline is sheer lunacy. He is a Free Agent at the end of the season, but due to his tenure in MLB and service with the Jays, he’s acquired 10-and-5 rights which allow him to veto any trade involving him before his contract expires.

Unless something far-fetched lands at his doorstep with a desirable location, Bautista isn’t going anywhere. I would put the percentage of Joey Bats leaving the Jays during this season at less than 5%. Jays also aren’t going to try and get some mediocre prospects for JB because he has shown the ability to perform in the postseason and the time to win for the Jays is NOW. Let’s move on from this bizarre notion that Bautista is getting traded shall we…

Steve Russell / Toronto Star

FIRST BASE

When Bautista comes back from the DL you are presented with a myriad of options strategically. The best possible scenario for the Jays is to move Encarnacion to First Base for the remainder of the season and the playoffs while making JB the DH (It will be an easy sell with the ‘Turf Toe’ recovery). This leaves Right Field available for Ezequiel Carrera who seems more than capable, and makes room for a better OBP in the line-up than Justin Smoak. (Sorry Justin, it’s time to ride the pine and/or potentially get packaged in a deal). Rumour also has Blue Jay scouts eyeing Oakland OF Josh Reddick who could also work in RF if something materializes. We like Reddick here at the Catch-22 offices for his choice of jersey number and his refusal to stay meticulously groomed.

Jim Cowsert, Associated Press

Jim Cowsert / Associated Press

CHRIS COLABELLO

In all the excitement we almost forgot about Chris Colabello. He recently finished serving his 80-game ban and is presently starting a rehab assignment in Dunedin. Many questions still abound about his potential guilt and the actual validity of the testing lab and it’s practices detecting traces of the ‘banned substance’. If you wish to go further down the PED rabbit hole (and sound super smart next time you want to chat dehydrochlormethyltestosterone at the bar), I recommend you check out Shi Davidi’s most recent work on the subject.

As far as we’re concerned, it’s like this… CC has served his time. It’s an awkward punishment for something that may have been in a supplement without his knowledge. He isn’t eligible for the playoffs but he can still contribute if he shows good signs in the minors. Coming up to the Majors to help take the physical stress off of Edwin playing first, in some occasional starts, is always a possibility. I hope this Colabello story has a healthy twist and a happy ending.

Steve Russell / Toronto Star

2016 AL EAST FORECAST

Blue and White with a heavy dose of rain. 92-70. AL EAST CHAMPIONS. 

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Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press

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