Despite their 52-49 record, the Blue Jays are a full 10 games behind Tampa Bay in the wild card race. With little chance of a postseason berth, Jays' fans seemingly don't have much to be excited about. The biggest holding point of interest right now is the looming trade deadline on Saturday. Any number of Jays vets could get moved between now and then.
Even after Saturday, though, there's still plenty of reasons to stay involved with the team as it plays out the schedule in August and September. Most of it centers around the team's young, cost-controlled talent or players in their primes locked into long-term deals. Last year's post-deadline dumping of Alex Rios and his contract onto the Chicago White Sox should also serve as a reminder that moves can still happen after the deadline.
What follows below are five of the most important and interesting issues that will bare themselves out on the field over the course of the team's remaining 61 games.
Travis Snider's return to the show
It's been a long time since Snider's last appearance in a Blue Jays uniform. He's been out since May 14, missing all that time with a wrist injury. In a bit of a surprise move, he wasn't immediately returned to the team when his DL stint ended and instead he's playing with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
In 19 games there, he's hit .299 with an impressive .220 isolated power, thanks to four homers and five doubles. Snider, however, has managed to draw just one walk against 20 strikeouts in 80 trips to the plate. Whether or not that's cause for concern remains to be seen.
At this point, now that his swing looks to be unaffected by his wrist, he should be working on his hitting at the big league level. In parts of three seasons, stretching back to 2008, he still doesn't have a full season of big league at-bats under his belt. If the original plan was for Travis to spend all of 2010 in Toronto to continue his development the Jays should get back to that plan immediately.
The Jose Bautista HR champion race
The surprise that keeps on surprising, Bautista leads all of baseball in home runs. With the season now just about two-thirds of the way completed, his bid for a home run title has to be taken seriously. Well beyond the point of trying to figure out how this has happened, it's just time to sit back and see if he can pull it off.
Whether or not he does it has little to do with the Jays' future, as he might have to finish the quest on another team. Even then, it still bares watching as a unique occurrence that makes baseball as special a sport as it is. He's a full six homers ahead of Detroit's Miguel Cabrera for the AL lead and five ahead of the Reds' Joey Votto for the overall lead.
He's gone deep 10 times already in July, including four bombs in the last three games, leaving him at 30 for the season. That leaves him with an excellent shot at 40 and at this point he has to be the front runner for the home run crown. Simply unbelievable.
Signs of life from Adam Lind and Aaron Hill
The duo around which a good deal of the Blue Jays future is centered has done little to inspire hope and confidence for seasons beyond 2010. Both have spent most of the season struggling to produce at the plate. A strong final two months from both Hill and Lind would be a welcome sign to all involved with the Blue Jays.
Hill had been unable to hit over .200 in any of the season's first three months, but might finally be able to pull it off in July. He's hitting .260, thanks to a .254 BABIP, both by far his best monthly numbers if they hold up. He's maintained modest power throughout the season, including this month's .164 ISO. Unfortunately, just when he's started to hit a bit his walk rate has plummeted to 2.6 percent of his plate appearances.
His percentage of balls in play that have gone for line drives stands at just 10 percent this season, a far cry from his career mark of 19 percent. July has shown some hope here too, hitting a liner 15.2 percent of the time. Still, a .260 batting average with no walks and so-so power isn't really much to be excited about.
Lind hasn't been much better either, hitting .219/.275/.378 to this point. Like Hill, he's still bopping a decent enough number of homers, they both have 14, but more production is still expected. Lind's production is a bit more excusable due to his healthy 18.8 line drive percentage. He's seen a drop in BABIP from '08's .317 and last year's .323 down to .261.
July has seen a lot to like from Lind, except his walk rate, which on this team isn't much of a surprise. He's hitting .275 with a strong .327 BABIP and jacked five homers. His ISO has also cracked the .200 mark at .238 after a punchless .078 in June. 2010 doesn't have to be a year to forget for these two, but it looks like it will be for at least one of them.
The hopeful, inevitable, imminent arrival of Brett Wallace and JP Arencibia
At what seems like a lifetime at this point, the wait for one of the two to put on a Blue Jays uniform continues. With just days to the deadline, the two months of speculation on when and if Lyle Overbay and John Buck would be moved to make room for one of the youngsters will finally come to an end. Whether Jays fans will get what they want is another matter all together.
But the time will come for both at the very latest with both being called up when rosters expand in September. Whenever the two young men arrive, their at-bats and chances in the field will become can't miss action. The experience will also be valuable to both for 2011, when they're expected to assume starting roles for the club.
This much is clear, their performances have been excellent at Triple-A this season and they're as ready as they'll ever be right now.
Health and Prosperity for the Young Starting Rotation
Far and away, the most important piece of the puzzle for any team building a contender is its starting rotation. The Blue Jays have put together one of the youngest and most talented rotations anywhere in the American League. Both their health, performance, and careful monitoring of their workload are of the utmost importance if this team hopes to take on the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in the near future.
Brandon Morrow has continued to get better as the season has worn on. His 9.96 K/9 IN coupled with a 3.41 FIP and improving walk rate have solidified his place in the rotation. Already this season he's made 20 starts after making just 15 the last two years combined. He's also already worked 113 innings, long since passing last season's 69 innings of work. How strong he finishes will be important. Even more important will be making sure he isn't overworked to guard against issues in the future.
Brett Cecil has had a rough month of July, posting a 4.29 FIP and 4.85 xFIP. His walk rate and strikeout rate are also dangerously close to equal for the month as well. He'll have to make adjustments and try and get back to pitching like he did in May and June. There's not too much concern about his workload after working 142 innings last season (between minors and majors), a jump up to 160-170 innings should be just fine.
The ace of the staff, Ricky Romero, has also had a tough month but his overall numbers are still excellent across the board for the season. The rough spell is most likely nothing more than a hiccup for the young lefty.
Shaun Marcum has bounced back nicely after his DL stint. In two starts since returning he's allowed three earned runs in 10.2 innings while striking out nine and walking only one. After pitching just 15 2/3 innings in the minors last year it remains to be seen how many innings the Jays will let Marcum throw, he's at 118 right now.
Beyond all the above, there's still nothing wrong with winning some ballgames down the stretch. Finishing with a winning record doesn't mean much when you're in fourth place, but a winning team usually equates to a happy team and that's the kind of environment where you want all your young guys to be playing.