MINNEAPOLIS – The first time Jose Bautista became an all-star, the Toronto Blue Jays sat 44-45 at the break in 2010. The next year they were 45-47, the year after that 43-43, and last season 45-49.
This year, with the superstar right-fielder appearing in his fifth straight Midsummer Classic, they are 49-47, four games back of the Baltimore Orioles for the American League East lead, 2.5 games behind the Seattle Mariners for the second wild card, despite losing 23 of their past 34 games.
So, the opportunity for the Blue Jays to break their 20-year post-season drought now compared to the past four years is …
"The best it’s been, by far," Bautista answered Monday. "Not necessarily record-wise, but (in) momentum and the division competition. I’ve been here and our team has been hovering around .500 but it seems like in the past the division leader has taken (off) with it. This time it’s not the case, we’re certainly within striking distance. Hopefully we come back with a different mindset like we were in the first two months, shake the fact that we have some injuries and we haven’t played all that great in the last couple of weeks, get on a roll and on a positive streak right from the get-go."
That could happen, but this isn’t a time for hope, it’s a time for action.
Injuries to Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie threaten the Blue Jays’ ability to stay in the default race the AL East is turning into, and simply waiting for a pivotal third of their lineup to heal isn’t a good idea.
As fellow all-star Mark Buehrle aptly put it, "we’ve got to get healthy, and I don’t know how long that’s going to be, and if it’s going to be too late. … When we lose this many guys for this long a time, it’s pretty hard to win."
That’s not an excuse, that’s the truth, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos will surely be taking that into account as he decides what do ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
A month ago the discussion about the Blue Jays’ needs centred around adding a starting pitcher with an infielder to lock down either second or third base a secondary part of the discussion.
Now? They definitely need a productive bat to help cover the minimum two or three weeks before any of Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie return to the lineup, probably a late-inning reliever to help bridge the gap to closer Casey Janssen, with another starter a help, but not necessarily the priority.
While much of the focus has been on adding an infielder – the Blue Jays have looked at San Diego’s Chase Headley while Arizona’s Martin Prado has his fans in the organization – they could solve a couple of problems by acquiring an outfielder like Alex Rios from Texas or Marlon Byrd from Philadelphia, likely without surrendering any of their top prospects.
Rios, who has a $13.5 million team option for 2014, or Byrd, who is due $8 million in 2015 with a vesting option at the same price for 2016, would provide an instant boost in offence, allow the Blue Jays to play Bautista at third base, lock in Lawrie at second once he returns, and be around for next year to replace one of Melky Cabrera or Colby Rasmus, both eligible for free agency in the fall.
Someone like Minnesota’s Josh Willingham would make short-term sense, but won’t offer a solution to the outfield crisis awaiting the Blue Jays this fall with the possible departures of Rasmus and Cabrera. Rising prospect Dalton Pompey’s timeline to the majors is thought to be late 2015 at the earliest, so he likely won’t be ready to cover the gap.
A late-inning reliever would help a bullpen that’s 13th in the American League with a 4.39 ERA, second with 128 walks, fourth with 435 total bases against and seventh with 12 blown saves, and may be more in need of reinforcements than a rotation that’s held its own with a 3.90 ERA, seventh in the AL.
Fortifying those areas as opposed to taking a run at someone like David Price should also allow the Blue Jays to better manage their prospect capital and keep Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris and Pompey in the fold. Along with Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, a high-ceiling wave of youth could be added to the core over the next two years, strengthening their position for the future, as well.
"What Stroman has done – his name has been in trade talk – I think he’s showing right now that he can get the job done at the big-league level maybe that’s what’s holding up some deals, everybody is asking for him and they don’t want to give him up," Buehrle said. "And you’ve got Hutchison pitching well too, so, that’s two young guys you’ve got here for a while, and then you add (Sanchez and Norris) whenever (R.A.) Dickey and I have moved on. That’s the tough decision if you want to trade guys or not."
What’s clear is the impact a potential deal would have on the Blue Jays – both on the field and in the clubhouse, where it would be welcomed with glee.
"Huge impact," Bautista said. "Any team that does a trade at the deadline in order to improve their club is going to benefit from that. Obviously that’s why you do it. We’ll see. We have capable guys though that we don’t necessarily need to go out there, but it would be a tremendous help to go out and get somebody. More importantly we need our guys who are hurt to come back into the lineup so we can have our real team come on the field all together."
When that happens is uncertain, and there’s no guarantee no one else will get hurt in the interim.
Is a trade needed to cover the gap, before the Orioles are given a chance to run away with the division?
"Not necessarily but in the long-term we could benefit from it," Bautista said. "That’s why you would like to have some depth in your minor-league system and some capable guys to come in and replace somebody who gets hurt. There’s an opportunity for a lot of our guys to step up right now and make a name for themselves and contribute and help out with wins. Right now we’re going through the farm system but there are different methods of acquiring talent and if it’s working out a trade or whatever it is, the bottom line is there are opportunities on our team right now. How we get the players doesn’t really matter right now as long as the guys that come in step up."
The Blue Jays have already scoured the depths of their farm system. They need some better options, before a season of opportunity slips away.