Nicholson-Smith: Blue Jays at the quarter pole

May 16, 2013, 12:46 PM

A lot can change in six weeks. Back in April, when the Toronto Blue Jays opened the 2013 season with considerable fanfare, their biggest concern other than Brett Lawrie’s health might have been the challenge of dealing with such high expectations.

Yet losses and injuries started piling up and the team wasted no time in falling well short of those expectations, losing 24 times in their first 41 games. Now 17-24, the Blue Jays face many more issues at the season’s quarter pole than they did on opening night.

From health problems to performance questions, the Blue Jays have opened the season in disappointing fashion. They have pitched poorly, with a rotation that doesn’t last deep into games, and their lineup sputtered until recently.

The injuries have piled up, forcing the organization to replace Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, J.A. Happ, Sergio Santos and Rajai Davis with less desirable alternatives.

There’s no denying that the Blue Jays have played poorly so far.

Yet the first 41 games are not necessarily predictive of what will happen in the remaining three quarters of the season. Here’s a look at what we can realistically expect from the Blue Jays for the next 121 games:

OFFENCE

The Blue Jays’ offence has been average so far — the lineup ranks 15th in MLB with 4.3 runs scored per game — but the group is capable of more.

The Blue Jays have had lots of trouble reaching base, as reflected in a .310 on-base percentage that ranks 23rd in MLB. There’s reason to expect improvement during the remaining three quarters of the season, since players such as Brett Lawrie, Melky Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion have underperformed relative to their career OBP marks. And the more often teams reach base, the more they score.

The Blue Jays should also add far more value on the bases going forward. Jose Reyes is expected to return from his ankle injury in the second half and contribute with his legs. Emilio Bonifacio was also supposed to run wild, but he didn’t steal a base until May. Now that he’s reaching base more often, he has been running, with four steals this month.

As long as Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia are around, the lineup will continue to strike out often and hit lots of home runs (the Blue Jays are now tied for the MLB lead with 53 homers).

DEFENCE

Reyes could also provide a boost on defence when he returns and pushes Munenori Kawasaki to the bench or off of the roster. However, Cabrera’s defence in left field will remain an issue as long as his legs continue to bother him.

So far this year the Blue Jays rank 18th in MLB at converting batted balls into outs with a 71% defensive efficiency rating.

STARTING ROTATION

As a group, the Blue Jays’ rotation ranks no better than 27th in baseball in ERA (5.26) innings per start (5.1), walk rate (4.1 BB/9) and home run rate (1.4 BB/9). It’s been ugly at times, and as poorly as they have pitched, they won’t necessarily be much better going forward.

Injuries have played a role in the rotation’s struggles so far, yet those concerns aren’t about to disappear. Johnson and Happ remain on the disabled list and health questions also surround Brandon Morrow, who recently had his turn in the rotation pushed back.

The injuries have forced the Blue Jays to add Ramon Ortiz and Chad Jenkins to the starting rotation. Both have exceeded expectations to this point, but with due respect to Ortiz, no team in baseball would want its chances of contending tied to a declining pitcher on the brink of his 40th birthday.

If the industry believed in Ortiz some team would have offered him an MLB deal last winter or claimed him on waivers when he was available last month. No team did so, a reflection of how far down the depth chart then Blue Jays have already reached.

Mark Buehrle, who leads the American League in home runs allowed, rounds out the rotation with R.A. Dickey. While there’s reason to expect improvement from both veterans, their contributions won’t compensate for question marks elsewhere in the rotation.

Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin could eventually provide the Blue Jays with reinforcements. Even so, the rotation projects as a weakness.

BULLPEN

Credit Blue Jays relievers for working more innings than any bullpen except the Houston Astros, but let’s not pretend they’ve been dominant. As a group Blue Jays relievers rank below the MLB average in categories such as ERA (21st, 3.99) strikeout rate (25th, 7.5 K/9), walk rate (19th, 3.6 BB/9) and home run rate (21st 1.0 HR/9).

Fortunately for the Blue Jays they can preserve the best parts of their bullpen while discarding those who pitch poorly. Pitchers such as Justin Germano, Dave Bush and Edgar Gonzalez contributed some ugly outings in the first quarter of the season, but won’t necessarily return between now and the end of the year.

Should general manager Alex Anthopoulos find some stability for the back of the bullpen, the results will be better from here on.

TEAM OVERVIEW

If the offence improves, the bullpen allows fewer runs and the rotation remains a weak point, the Blue Jays will start to look like a winning team again.

It’s too early to rule out a playoff run, but according to Baseball Prospectus the Blue Jays’ chances of reaching the postseason have diminished to 4.6% even after their recent four-game winning streak. They need the remaining three quarters of the season to look much different than the first 41 games.

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