The first-place Toronto Blue Jays? We’re coming up on finishing the first third of the season, and it’s a fun thing to think about: The first-place Blue Jays, for real. But how did they get there?
It’s easy to put down where they are to a couple of big developments: Mark Buehrle’s big start, 8-1 with the team going 9-1 in his 10 turns, or Edwin Encarnacion’s 13 home runs in May, or Jose Bautista staying healthy while posting an OPS north of .900 for the first time since 2011. Melky Cabrera is hitting and staying out of trouble (so far). Jose Reyes has played more games than he has missed.
Those are the things that, when they work, you congratulate yourself, because that’s all part of any master plan GM Alex Anthopoulos would have for how the Blue Jays contend. What’s interesting about where they’re at isn’t just the good things working out the way you’d like, it’s the other things that they’ve had to do. It’s the things they’ve had to fix, the elective decisions they’re making, to help themselves do even better.
Take their infield. Initially, they gave organizational soldier Ryan Goins a big chunk of the second-base job, figuring he’d split time with veteran utility infielder Maicer Izturis. Then Izturis tore up his knee, Goins didn’t hit, and predictably enough neither did veteran subs Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz. So, with all that failing to stick, the Jays got creative.
They’d already lucked into Juan Francisco’s availability at the end of spring training, signing him after he was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, then employing the lefty slugger to good effect when DH Adam Lind got hurt. Looking at the wreck of their middle infield, they decided to try Francisco at third base despite years of scouting reports and weak performance to warn them against it. But they figured they were better off resuming the experiment with Brett Lawrie at second rather than continue futzing around with the scrappy second-base types most teams might accept -- Goins or Getz, it hardly mattered, use either and you’re probably not goin’ to getz anywhere.
So, at a time when offense is down, the Jays made the choice to play for runs instead of defense, and it’s working. They’re averaging 4.9 runs per game with a deep lineup capable of trading blows with the league-leading Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. For the Jays, it’s a multi-positional platoon, one in which Lawrie flips between second and third base while playing every day, with Francisco at third base against righties and journeyman Steve Tolleson at second base against lefties, exploiting the .832 OPS the former Twins farmhand has put up in his abbreviated big-league career against southpaws. They’re 18-8 since Francisco’s first start at the hot corner on May 3 after starting the year 12-14. They’re 9-1 in the games Tolleson has started against a lefty, beating guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson and Scott Kazmir.
How does this work? Well, sure, as Francisco is slugging above .600 reflects, some guys can have a great 100 at-bats or so. But perhaps more importantly the Blue Jays are using guys for what they can do where they can do it, instead of getting hung up on what they can’t. Take Francisco: Built with the range of your average home appliance, he probably isn’t going to be an average third baseman in the major leagues. So what? Aspire to adequacy, and that’s what you get, and you might miss out on what the guy can do: Crush right-handed pitching with regular playing time, slugging over .500 in his extended minor-league career. A corner is exactly where you can hide his bat, where he might see only two or three chances per game. Yes, he’ll strike out a third of the time. He’ll also crank out a .200 Isolated Power at a time when finding people who can contribute on offense isn’t so easy.
But let’s also credit manager John Gibbons for pushing for runs. Take Monday’s game: Up by two in the fifth with nobody out, his lineup just chased Erik Bedard, so the Rays have Alex Colome come in to face Tolleson -- who’d already homered -- and Gibbons pulls Tolleson anyway to exploit the offensive advantage and bat Francisco against the righty, and devil take the subsequent defensive risks. Francisco walked, the inning just got bigger, and two more runs would score to put the Rays down for keeps. In an era when pitching substitutions and their effectiveness usually define in-game initiative, it was nice to see someone in the dugout take it back on offense and win a matchup game because he had the option, and he used it.
The flip side of this is to note that the Jays have to play for runs, because of the other thing that isn’t working for them in the early going: Their rotation, and seeing what they’re going to do about it. Outside of Buehrle’s turns, they’re 21-22 overall, and they’ve gotten just nine quality starts in 31 games from the rotation outside of those made by Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. They need better.
Someone like J.A. Happ might make for an adequate No. 4 or 5 in a contender’s rotation. And you can get excited about what Drew Hutchinson might become if you just look at his strikeout and walk rates and his FIP, but that’s only going to so far when he keeps getting clobbered the second time through the order (.825 OPS before Monday’s slugfest), or the third (.855). Maybe he’ll adjust, maybe not.
But if Hutchinson doesn’t become the third horse they really need, the Jays have a rotation that’s going to keep putting them in the slugfests that their offense will have to win for them. That’s fine as long as it’s going good, and creating leads that their excellent relief trio of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar protect and hand off to closer Casey Janssen. But you’d like to see the Jays adapt their plan in-season again by adding an arm, and not just because banking on Brandon Morrow’s comeback from the DL at some point in July would be optimistic.
Sometimes contention is a matter of building on both the ideal and the unexpected. Given that the Jays can be happy to be where they are, here’s hoping they take some more chances to stay there.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.