by Trevor Whenham - 06/07/2006
There are three types of baseball fans in this world - Yankees fans, Red Sox fans and everyone else who wishes that the Yankees and Red Sox would just go away. If you fit into that third category, the AL East has not been friendly to you in many years. Those two teams have been able to cruise into the postseason for so long because no one else in the division has put a fight this decade.
Those who are waiting for the giants to be killed have more hope this year, thanks to the Blue Jays, than they have been able to have in a long while. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox seem more vulnerable than they have in past years, and the Blue Jays have been able to hang right with them. More promising, though, is that the Blue Jays are managing to compete despite having key injuries and some bad luck.
Can the Blue Jays keep it together? Can a new team finally win the AL East? Can they at least grab the wild card? Here's a look:
Strength - Roy Halladay. Many people were surprised when Roy Halladay put together his Cy Young winning season. Those same people shouldn't be nearly as surprised that the ace of the Toronto staff is making a run at a second one. He's 7-1, his ERA is 2.81 and he has four times as many strikeouts as walks. Without Halladay, the Blue Jays would be nowhere.
Weakness - The rest of the starters. Casey Janssen has been a pleasant surprise. The rookie is 4-3 with a very nice 3.26 ERA, and opposing batters are only managing to hit .203 against him. That sure helps, but a rookie that no one has heard of shouldn't be your second best starter. Big money free agent A.J. Burnett has stacked injuries on top of each other, Gustavo Chacin joined him on the DL, Ted Lilly has been consistently underwhelming and Josh Towers was so bad he got a one-way ticket to Triple A. Chacin is ready to come back soon and Burnett should be back by the end of the month. Someone has to step up and become the solid No. 2 starter if the Jays want to play in October.
Strength - B.J. Ryan. People mocked the Jays when they paid B.J. Ryan, who had one good year as a closer, more money than any reliever had ever made. It still seems a bit extreme, but Ryan has certainly done his part. He has 14 saves in 15 tries, and he's looked good doing it. At a time when so many teams are having closer nightmares, the Jays don't begrudge a single cent they are paying Ryan.
Weakness - The rest of the bullpen. The bullpen has struggled at times, and hasn't been as consistent as you might want, but you can't really blame them. With the starter problems the team has had, the pen has been getting a lot of work. Justin Speier has been very solid and Francisco Rosario is pretty decent, but a few more arms need to step up as the season continues. If the starting staff can get healthy it will help, because some of the marginal starters can take the ball for longer stretches out of the bullpen.
Strength - The bats. The Blue Jays can flat out mash. Vernon Wells is making sure his name stays in the MVP discussion by hitting .319 with a ton of power. He and Troy Glaus form as lethal a 3-4 combination as there is in the league. Alex Rios is leading the league in batting average at .358, and Shea Hillenbrand is just 14 points behind him. Reed Johnson and Frank Catalanatto are platooning, but both are hitting like full-timers - .347 and .313, respectively. There are bats to make opposing pitchers sweat all over the lineup, and they have no trouble scoring.
Weakness - The middle of the infield. Need a sign that you are having trouble finding a workable shortstop? How about five different shortstops starting in five consecutive games? It has been a disaster. In order to get Troy Glaus from the Diamondbacks the Jays had to part with second baseman Orlando Hudson. They've struggled to replace him. Young first round draft picks Aaron Hill and Russ Adams were supposed to be the double play combo, but they aren't ready yet. Adams is in Triple A, Hill has moved from second to short, and Edgardo Alfonzo was picked off the junk heap to fill the gap. He has 2 hits in his first 20 at bats and a terrible attitude, so that experiment could be doomed, too.
Strength - Resilience. This team might get down, but they don't stay down. They have put together an impressive 19-5 record in games after a loss, and only have one three-game losing streak. A losing streak has killed the aspirations of many an upstart team, but the Jays have shown that they may be resistant to that.
Weakness - Lack of a winning streak. As much as they don't string together losses, they have struggled to put together a bunch of wins in a row. They have won three-straight just once, and have stalled after two wins ten different times. They will likely need to put together a nice chunk of wins to catch the teams in front of them.