The Toronto Blue Jays opened a series with the Oakland Athletics, which means the hottest team in the major leagues took the field in Toronto on Friday night. However, it was not the A's -- the owners of an impressive 30-18 record. Instead, it was the home team.
The Blue Jays are currently on the majors' best roll, winning four straight games, seven of their past eight and eight of their past 10. The streak has vaulted them to the top of the American League East -- the latest point in a season they've been in first place in the division since 2009.
After an offseason of great change prior to last season, the Jays were projected by many to be World Series contenders in 2013. Meanwhile, a slow start quickly turned into a lost season. Toronto finshed 74-88, last in the AL East.
This past winter was the polar opposite of the previous offseason. The Jays made no blockbuster trades or free-agent splashes. In fact, journeyman catcher Dioner Navarro served as their biggest acquisition.
While the Jays were not active in the offseason, several moves from previous ones are now paying off. Melky Cabrera, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract in November 2012, is hitting .314/.356/.510 with 22 extra-base hits at the top of the lineup. In the rotation, 35-year-old Mark Buehrle is dazzling hitters with a mid-80s fastball. Well actually, he is using masterful command and throwing a cocktail of pitches like a true mixologist en route to the second-lowest ERA among AL starters (2.16).
Teaming with Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus and Juan Francisco, who was picked up off the scrap heap after being released by the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this year, have formed one of the most powerful lineups in the league. Toronto's mash unit has combined to hit 67 home runs -- including one more Friday night in a 3-2 win over the A's -- which is the highest mark in the majors. Encarnacion (13) and Bautista (12) each rank within the top 10 of bomb blasters thus far. Francisco is hitting .286/.371/.615 in 105 plate appearances into his Blue Jays' career, while Rasmus has posted 18 extra-base hits despite being out of the lineup since May 13 with a hamstring injury.
While the Jays can score runs with the best of them, it has been a near necessity with a pitching staff that has struggled preventing them outside of Buehrle. Including the veteran lefty's sparkling mark, Toronto's rotation carries an ERA of 3.80 -- 15th in the majors. Beyond the starters, the bullpen has been a mess. Jays relievers have combined to post a 5.07 ERA. Only the Houston Astros have a higher number at 5.24. The good news is closer Casey Janssen looks fully recovered after missing 46 days with a back injury. The group also has Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, Steve Delabar and Todd Redmond; each have had success at one time or another working in relief. Toronto also has impact prospect Marcus Stroman, though the rookie was hit hard in his first look at the big league level and has since been sent back to the minors after pitching in five games in May.
As mentioned above, general manager Alex Anthopoulos resisted overreacting to last season's failure in the offseason. While that discipline is paying off so far, if Toronto is serious about contending in 2014, it will likely require some action from the front office.
Ultimately, it's the Jays' rotation that will determine if they will have staying power in the race for a postseason spot. And unlike their offense or bullpen, they may need to look for help from outside of the organization. Though their system touts many talented arms, highlighted by Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, they lack MLB-ready talent at the top of the minors. Case in point, Friday's starter, Liam Hendriks, was placed on waivers three times this past winter. If Toronto remains in the catbird seat, expect the Jays to be heavily rumored to make a run at a few of the top starters on the trade market, which should include Chicago Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija.