The Toronto Blue Jays clinched their first American League East title since 1993 with a 15-2 thumping of the Baltimore Orioles, improving their season record to 92-65 -- and a remarkable 42-14 since July 29, the day Troy Tulowitzki played his first game with Toronto.
Tulo's contributions ended up a relatively minor part of this two-month surge of dominance: He has hit just .232/.314/.368 and hasn't played since Sept. 12. The Blue Jays didn't skip a beat without him, simply sliding Ryan Goins over to shortstop -- he went 5-for-5 in Wednesday's first game and has played a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop -- and watching the offense continue to bash with MVP frontrunner Josh Donaldson leading the way.
The Goins move helps explain one strength of the Jays: They have depth throughout the roster. Remember, Goins was playing second base only because Devon Travis, who was raking the first two months of the season, got injured. But the glove-first Goins has also been producing at the plate, batting .283/.374/.393 in the second half, getting on base at a high clip thanks to a sudden ability to draw walks. General manager Alex Anthopoulos made sure to add other depth: He picked up Ben Revere to play left field and Revere has hit .313 with a .352 OBP to become the team's leadoff hitter. Cliff Pennington was picked up from the Diamondbacks. He added bullpen arms in Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins and then starter Aaron Sanchez moved back to a relief role when David Price joined the rotation.
The Jays also received another gift: Marcus Stroman returned from his knee injury and has gone 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts. In Wednesday's Game 1 win, Stroman pitched eight innings, allowing just one run on a home run while striking out. With Price, Stroman and Marco Estrada, the Blue Jays now have the best trio of starters in the AL to go along with their best-in-the-majors offense and a bullpen that is much improved from where it was in April and May. It is a team without a weakness, other than the age of 20-year-old rookie closer Roberto Osuna.
In fact, check out this story at Blue Jays Plus on how the Jays conquered the AL East. The offense is great, the defense is above average, the pitching staff limits hard contact and the bullpen has the lowest walk rate since the 1994 Expos. The Blue Jays' run differential is up to +236 runs, the biggest difference since the 2001 Mariners. I've had the Jays as my No. 1 team in the ESPN Power Rankings for a few weeks now, even if their overall record doesn't match the St. Louis Cardinals'.
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The Blue Jays have been built in a pretty unique way. In recent years, most of their top prospects have been used to acquire veteran talent. Mark Buehrle came over from the Marlins in a 12-player trade that cost the Jays Adeiny Hechavarria, Yunel Escobar and Henderson Alvarez (the Jays also got Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson); Dickey cost them Noah Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud; they gave up a bunch of young players to get Donaldson. Despite that purge of young talent and prospects, they still had enough left in the system to get Tulowitzki, Price, Revere and the relief help at the trade deadline.
Aside from that, they've also benefited from "free talent." Jose Bautista was acquired from the Pirates in a minor trade in August 2008. The Blue Jays picked up Edwin Encarnacion from the Reds for the aging Scott Rolen -- but the Jays actually waived Encarnacion after 2010 and the A's picked him up, only to cut him themselves a few days later. The Jays then re-signed him as a free agent. Chris Colabello, who has hit .321/.368/.511, was claimed off waivers from the Twins. The Mariners understandably gave up on Justin Smoak, the Blue Jays signed him and he has hit 18 home runs in a part-time role. Osuna was signed as a 16-year-old out of Mexico. Center fielder Kevin Pillar was essentially free: a 31st-round draft pick back in 2011.
Stroman, Sanchez and Brett Cecil are the first-round picks on the roster. Even then, Stroman, the 22nd pick in 2012, was the highest selection of the three (Sanchez went 34th and Cecil 37th). Goins was a fourth-round pick. Russell Martin was the one big free-agent signing. But it's a team built through trades and astute use of the waiver wire and secondary trade markets.
It has been a long time coming for the Jays and their fans. It's not a young team and considering the ages of some of the key players and Price's free-agent status, this may be the peak level this group will hit. But it's an excellent team, maybe a great team. Certainly a team that can win it all.
The Blue Jays will be my pick to win the World Series heading into October.