Thursday, May 7, 2009

How long until the Blue Jays aren't just a blip?

Aaron Hill is hitting .366 and slugging .567. Adam Lind is hitting .336 and slugging .586. Marco Scutaro isn't just a fun name to say anymore; he has five home runs and is OBP'ing .411.

Roy Halladay has 44 walks and seven strikeouts and a 3.29 ERA. Scott Richmond has 26 walks and 12 strikeouts and a 2.67 ERA. Closer Scott Downs has allowed one earned run in 15 1/3 innings.

It's May 7. It's 30 games into the season.

How long until we start to wonder if the Blue Jays are for real?

Here comes the outcry now: Not until they play someone!

The Blue Jays, after all, reside in the toughest division in baseball and have yet to play anyone in that division except the hapless Baltimore Orioles. (They swept three from the Orioles a week ago.)

They have, however, played just about everyone else. They've played the entire American League Central. They've played three of the four teams in the American League West. They've played Royals (lost three of four), Tigers (won three of four) and Rangers (won two of three), and all three of those teams have better records right now than the foundering Yankees.

It's not just a hot streak anymore. In fact, the Jays bounced back from getting steamrolled by the Zack Greinke Express to win five of their last six, including that sweep of Baltimore and Wednesday night's 13-1 trouncing of the Angels team that pretty much everyone expected to run away with the West Division. (Halladay, in that game, threw eight strong innings to earn his sixth win of the season; he's lasted eight innings in three of his last four starts, a godsend for a spectacular bullpen that's in danger of being overworked.)

The Blue Jays can score runs. They've scored in double digits six times already this season, in fact -- and not against chumps, either. Among their victims: Chicago's Gavin Floyd (17-8 with a 3.84 ERA last season), Minnesota's Scott Baker (11-4 with a 3.45 ERA last season) and Detroit's Justin Verlander (you can see here why he's as strong as ever).

Among the Jays' key contributors early on:
* Hill hit .291 and slugged .459 as a 25-year-old two years ago but missed most of last season with a severe concussion. He's 27 and healthy now, and while he probably won't finish the year hitting .366, he's vaulted himself into the top echelon of second basemen in the American League;
* Lind is a 25-year-old power hitter who hit 19 home runs in fewer than 400 at-bats at Double-A New Hampshire three years ago, and he's receiving regular playing time for the first time in his big-league career. He's already walked as many times this season as he did in 88 games last season;
* Scott Rolen is a Gold Glove-level third baseman whose slugging percentage is inching toward its pre-2007 levels. He had a miserable final season with St. Louis but hit 30 doubles and slugged .431 in his first season with the Blue Jays; he's slugging .455 so far this season;
* Vernon Wells has seen his slugging percentage vaccillate between .402 and .550 since he broke into the league full-time, and he's at .472 this season. Almost half of his first 35 hits have gone for extra bases.
* Alex Rios is a perennial underachiever who still hasn't quite broken out this season, either; he's slugging under .400 and has struck out more than twice as often as he's walked. But his best month, statistically, is July, so watch out for him to get hot this summer.

The Blue Jays can prevent runs, too, and that's been particularly impressive given the way Cito Gaston has had to piecemeal a starting rotation together. Nine different pitchers have started games already for the Jays; only three have made more than four starts. Ricky Romero, the player the Jays drafted over Troy Tulowitzki, had a 1.71 ERA in his three starts before going down with an oblique injury; he's set to make a rehab start on Friday.

Even better, Shaun Marcum (3.39 ERA in 25 starts last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery) already is throwing bullpen sessions and could start pitching in minor-league games by the middle of the summer. If the Jays still are in it in August and September, Marcum could be a huge addition.

No, the Jays haven't played the powers of the American League East yet. But the last year's Rays -- the comparison that's starting to get thrown around -- were just 5-7 against the Red Sox and Yankees by Mother's Day a year ago and won just 16 of their first 30 games.

The Jays have won 20 of their first 30 games, and they've got an ace who's a combined 27-17 with a 3.72 ERA in his career against the Red Sox and Yankees.

They might yet fade. But don't count on it.

No comments: