After a very impressive season last year - their first division win in a generation and a solid showing in the playoffs - the expectations were again high for the Toronto Blue Jays heading into this season. Early on, though, it seemed like they were doomed. The performance on the field was lousy, the chemistry seemed broken, and nothing was going right.
Since the middle of May, though, they are the second hottest team in all of baseball. If the playoffs were to start today they would be a wild-card squad, and they are just two games behind the Orioles and one back of the Red Sox for the division title. So, what have we learned about this team so far? Contender or pretender? And what does it all mean for bettors? Here are six factors to consider when pondering those questions:
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They've done this before: In a lot of ways this season looks like last year - though at this point things looked worse. This team got off to a terrible start last year but starting finding their groove before getting aggressive at the deadline and turning into killers down the stretch. Having that in their past makes it much easier for them to have confidence and stay focused this time around. It can also create bad habits, of course - it would be naive to think that what happened last year wasn't a contributing factor to the start they had this year. They are much closer now than then, so at least in theory they are in a better position.
There is room to move: We aren't likely to see the monster moves like the team made last year capped by the acquisition of David Price. The pool of prospects is shallow, so a big splash will be tough. The payroll is manageable for now, though, and ownership has indicated that there could be some room to make some changes. There are some changes that could be made - especially if the Jose Bautista injury sustained Thursday night turns out to be significant at all. Teams that contend are often ones that make moves - the right moves - when it matters. This team can be a player on that front.
Pitching depth is a concern: For the most part the starting rotation has been solid. They have pitched mostly well and have shown that they can work themselves out of their funk. They could certainly stand to add at least another starter, though, and another reliever wouldn't hurt, either. Aaron Sanchez has been more than solid, but he is on a strict innings count and is likely to be heading to the bullpen well before the season ends. There are options that can fill his position - both from the bullpen and the minors - but none feel like the kind of guy you would ideally like to have heading into the postseason. They are more stopgaps than strong arms. Pitching depth can be hard to find at a decent price, but they should be on the lookout for sure.
The hitters are hitting - and there is room to grow: Early on the offense was completely non-existent - which was shocking given the power they displayed last year. Last year they scored 221 more runs than they allowed - a huge number. This year they are just at 33, and much of that advantage has been gained lately as they seem to have turned a corner. They have scored 52 runs in their last six games, and that included one in which they were shut out.
The pressure to improve the pitching is somewhat less when the hitting is that good. It has a chance to stay this well. Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki (when healthy), and Russell Martin are all offensively-competent players who have not been up to par this year so far. Bautista, Donaldson and Martin have all been much better recently, and they can sustain it - as long as Bautista isn't hurt long term. This offense has legitimately underachieved, and we know how good they can be. The upside is massive and achievable.
The AL East is far from brilliant: Baltimore is a decent team but not a truly great one. Toronto at their best can handle them - as they showed by taking three of four last weekend. The Red Sox have serious issues with their roster and are far from overwhelming. Toronto has won four of six against Boston since late May. The Yankees are a mess, and Tampa Bay is irrelevant. It isn't hard to make the argument that Toronto is the best team in the division - and their 22-17 record against the division proves it. This is a good spot for them to shine.
Home record needs to improve: If there is a concern - and potentially a reason for hope - it is how they have played in the awful hunk of concrete they call home this year. Their attendance is way up, so they should really be enjoying home-field advantage. They are an underwhelming 18-16 so far, though. Ugly - especially compared to the stellar 53-28 mark from last year, which was tied for second best in the league. What they have accomplished so far just isn't good enough. They are 9-3 at home in their last 12, though, so they seem to have turned a corner. If they can maintain that type of home play - or something close - then they would have to be considered the heavy favorites to win the division.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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