AL East Predictions: Why the Toronto Blue Jays Can Catch the Tampa Bay Rays
With all due respect to the Orioles, the Rays are the team the young Blue Jays are measuring themselves against at this point in the 2012 season. Tampa Bay was on many lists to finish at the top of the toughest division in baseball, and with one of the strongest rotations in the major leagues, they look to be the most consistent team in the AL.
That being said, if the Jays can stay close to the Rays—and perhaps pass them—they will break the Joe Carter curse and contend for the AL East title.
Here's why the Jays have a chance to catch the powerful Rays.
Toronto's Starting Pitching Is Just as Good as Tampa Bay's
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Heading into the 2012 season, it was common knowledge that the Tampa Bay Rays had the best rotation in the AL East.
Most argued that the Blue Jays had a strong one-two punch with Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow but that the bottom end of the rotation was riddled with questions marks.
Those question marks have been transformed into exclamation points with the early returns on Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek.
Alvarez has been nothing short of spectacular. He never seems to get lucky with run support, but with an ERA of 2.83 and a WHIP of 1.04, he'd be the star of any other rotation. His complete-game shutout against the Los Angeles Angels this weekend was brilliant.
Drabek, who wasn't even a lock to make the team out of spring training, has been a perfect fourth starter. In six games, he's pitched 35 innings and has allowed only 13 earned runs. If Drabek can maintain his consistency and continue to eat up innings like he has, the Jays will be in great shape.
The Rays have the second-best starting ERA in the American League, the Jays the third-best. The Rays starters haven't disappointed so far. However, a difference-maker down the line could be that the Jays' starters have gone deeper in games, racking up the second-most innings of any rotation in baseball.
I wrote at the beginning of the season that if the Jays had a chance to make the playoffs, they needed at least 1,000 innings from their starting rotation. As of May sixth, the Jays are on pace to hit that mark.
If the Jays can find a better option for their fifth starter, they will have a rotation that may not be better than Tampa Bay's, but certainly one that can compete with them.
The Jays Are More Likely to Add a Significant Player
With a young general manager focusing on building the franchise from good drafting and strong player development, the Blue Jays have often been described as the "next" Tampa Bay Rays.
Certainly there are elements of the Rays' model that have been incorporated into Alex Anthopoulos' strategies, but there is one fundamental difference between the Jays' and the Rays' franchise structure—money.
The Rays have never been big contenders in the free-agent market nor the trade market. And for good reason.
They aren't exactly a big-name, spotlight team and don't have deep pockets to spend with the Yankees or Red Sox. The Jays would fall into the same category, except where the Rays can't spend money, the Jays simply don't want to—yet.
Toronto has arguably the richest ownership group in all of baseball, Rogers Communications. It seems that Anthopoulos' plan is to build his team like the Rays, develop a strong core group of players and then dip into the pockets of his owners to apply the finishing touches to a perennial playoff team.
Whether that time comes sooner or later depends on a variety of things, but at the very least, the Jays are much more likely to make a play at a big-name trade target than the Rays simply because they have the financial backing to pull the trigger.
Adding another inning-eating starter should be No. 1 on AA's trade list, and with a lot of decent names on the market, the Jays' rotation could get a huge boost.
With that in mind, the Rays are very much "what you see is what you get," whereas the Jays' roster may receive a significant upgrade that may push them over the top in the AL East.
Gavin Floyd would look pretty good in a Toronto uniform, don't you think?
The Jays' Hitting Will Be Better Than Tampa Bay's
While the Jays offense has picked it up lately, the team's biggest strength going into 2012 has not been functioning at full capacity.
The Jays are 11th in AL team batting average, ninth in OPS and 13th in doubles.
If those stats stay where they are, the Jays will have trouble making the playoffs.
However, if you look closer, the Jays have actually been a very productive team.
They're fourth in runs in the American League, fifth in home runs and fourth in walks. The team is still generating runs despite the fact that the majority of their offensive starters have been batting below their career averages.
Colby Rasmus is batting 40 points below his career average. Adam Lind, 64 points below. Yunel Escobar 34 points below. And Jose Bautista is 72 points below his career batting average.
It may be wrong to say that all the Blue Jays will bring their numbers back up to their career averages, but it's safe to say that there's plenty of room to improve.
Simply put, these guys are much better hitters than they have shown so far.
The Rays, other than Ben Zobrist, are all above or around their career averages so far in 2012. Based on stats and percentages, the Jays offense will improve as the season progresses, while the Rays' won't fluctuate significantly.
The fact remains that if the season ended today, the Jays would make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, and the offense has been less than impressive.
In the interest of positivity, that's a good thing in this writer's mind.