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For the Toronto Blue Jays, it's Now or Never

As owners of the longest active playoff drought in baseball, the Blue Jays have been mired in a seemingly endless loop of mediocrity, bad luck, and worse timing. After winning the World Series in 1993, Toronto has had to endure the emergence of the Yankees and Red Sox as financial powerhouses, the recent talent cycles that have helped the Rays and Orioles, and the lack of a complete season of contention. There have been flashes of promise, for sure, like having peak Roy Halladay, Roger Clemens’ exile, and dozens of homers in one of the league’s most fun stadiums. However, it is also hard to ignore that the Blue Jays have only finished once above third place in the AL East, and every season they were at least 10 games out of first place.

Amid all the disappointment, the past 2+ seasons have been a special kind of heartbreak, as the Blue Jays have embraced their role as a big-market team, all the time being aggressive in trying to build the Toronto squad that returns to October. First came the Marlins mega deal that landed Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and a few others, then there was the acquisition of former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, and also a big challenge trade that netted Josh Donaldson. However, all those moves have found ways to be dwarfed, with untimely injuries and poor hit sequencing that led Toronto to finish a combined 157-167 between 2013 and 2014.

The 2015 offseason yielded the aforementioned Donaldson, and also a big free agent in Russell Martin, with both of them supposed to be the missing pieces for a true playoff contender. A bit of that was deflated when Toronto’s best young pitcher, Marcus Stroman, was lost for the season to a freak injury. Still, the Jays had a fearsome lineup, and a balanced rotation of veterans and promising youngsters that made them a slight favorite in the AL East.

What has ensued has followed only half the script, as Toronto has certainly been an offensive powerhouse, but also a team that is terrible at preventing runs. Heading into the final days of August, the Blue Jays have scored the most runs in all of baseball, and by far. They also lead the league in slugging, wOBA, and wRC+, all with a lineup that features six regulars who have put adjusted numbers at least 15% better than league average. The Jays have only been shut out four times in 2015, and have arguably the best lineup 1 through 9 in the majors.

However, Stroman’s absence has been a real obstacle for Toronto. As a whole, the Toronto pitching staff has been 22nd in the league in terms of FIP, 18th in WAR, and 25th in strikeout rate. Even as the starters have been mostly mediocre, they have found ways to post a winning record despite the 22nd-highest ERA in the league. However, the bullpen hasn’t helped much, with a losing mark and the lowest save total in the game.

The disconnect between the high-octane offense and the shoddy pitching has led the Blue Jays to own a 51-51 record despite a very lofty +120 run differential. This kind of differential suggests a 60-win team, while Fangraphs’ Base Runs suggest that Toronto should at least be a 58-44 team. A lot of it can be explained by poor timely hitting and bad performance in high-leverage situations, as the Jays are 22-6 in games decided by 5+ runs, but only 10-22 in 1-run games. Despite only falling victim to a single losing streak of at least 5 contests, the Jays have had trouble stringing winning stretches, only once winning at least 4 in a row.

Still, the Jays find themselves in the thick of the race even with all the roadblocks. Toronto is 7 games back of the Yankees, who continue to defy expectations, in the AL East. They are also two games back of the second wild card spot, which may be the best path towards October. This is why it made so much sense for GM Alex Anthopoulos and his crew to double down on their preseason bets and go for broke at the trade deadline.

In a move that was somewhat shocking, the Jays acquired all-world shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in an almost straight salary swap for the embattled Jose Reyes. Then, in a much more logical move, they went for the best pitcher available in the market, landing lefty David Price after he was announced as available by the reeling Tigers. Aside from Reyes, these trades cost the Blue Jays a hefty batch of prospects, including lefties Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, who are highly regarded by evaluation experts.

While Tulo will remain under contract through the end of the decade, and Price is ikely going to be a rental that becomes too expensive by the end of the season, both deals were made with a complete focus on 2015. In terms of WAR, adding two superstars in the top of their game should represent a nice increase of at least 2 wins in the ledger for Toronto, who has seen its playoff odds go from 30% to 45% in just a couple of days.

With the Yankees relying too much on veterans with injury histories, and the Rays and Orioles standing mostly pat at the deadline, it seems as if Toronto now becomes the best team by default in the East, albeit one that still has to make up a ton of games to reach the top. Even then, the playoff-starved franchise will take any kind of chance it can get to play in October, even if it has to be the all-or-nothing wild card game.

Realistically, the Blue Jays will be in a close battle with whoever loses the AL West battle between the Astros and Angels in search for the top wild card spot, while also trying to fend off other upstarts like the Twins, Rays, Orioles, and White Sox – all of whom appear to be on a quality tier below what the Blue Jays have.

The addition of Tulowitzki now gives the Blue Jays a lineup that starts with 5 elite hitters, and one who will become a nightmare for any rival pitcher. His Blue Jays debut saw him homer and hit two doubles, in what could be an indication of things to come if the former Rockie manages to stay healthy (a big if, by the way). In Price, the Jays now have a bona-fide ace that can be used aggressively and even lined up for the wild card game if the most predictable scenario plays out.

Counting the stabilization of the bullpen by settling on Mexican youngster Roberto Osuna as the closer, the Blue Jays are now finally resembling a true and balanced contender that can play as good as any other AL team. Even if it means that the future may not be full of shiny prospects, I could bet that nothing would be sweeter for Anthopoulos and the city of Toronto than finally making the playoffs again.

In a period that has been defined by bold moves, Toronto has gone all-in with increasingly aggressive statements. They can just hope that this time, they finally work.

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