For the Blue Jays to have any chance of making the playoffs for a third straight year, the team will need contributions from their big bats, including Josh Donaldson. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Toronto Blue Jays will begin the unofficial second half of the season on Friday with a 41-47 record, good for last place in the American League East. With their playoff hopes fading – they’re five games back of the second AL wild card with seven teams between them – here are five things they need to do to stay afloat.
Fire up the bats
Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin all showed signs they were starting to heat up offensively just before the all-star break. Toronto will need their big bats to contribute in the second half. The Blue Jays’ offence ranks 26th among 30 MLB teams in runs scored with 366 (top-ranked Houston has 527) and Toronto’s team batting average is .244, 24th in baseball. For a lineup full of players who can hit for power, the Jays have belted 31 less homers (117) than the Astros (148), who also lead MLB in that category.
Step up with Sanchez
The Blue Jays got only six starts from Aaron Sanchez over the first half of the season, as he battled blister and fingernail issues. While reliever Joe Biagini filled in admirably at times, Toronto was clearly missing Sanchez’s power arm. The Jays had expected the 25-year-old right-hander to figure prominently in their rotation this year, but a blister that formed in spring training eventually led to the removal of part of his affected fingernail in late April. Sanchez has made only four starts since then with bouts of DL time in between. He had a rough last outing before the break – a 12-2 loss to Houston in which he lasted only 1 2/3 innings. Toronto will need Sanchez to return to his 2016 form in the second half.
Keep Smoak smokin’
Last year, Canadian outfielder Michael Saunders blossomed into an all-star calibre hitter over the first half of Toronto’s season. The Victoria native had 16 homers and a .298 batting average at the break, earning a spot on the American League squad for the Midsummer Classic for the first time in his career. But Saunders sputtered in the second half, hitting .178 with a .282 on-base percentage. Toronto can’t afford to have the same thing happened to its first-time all-star this season, Justin Smoak. Smoak got off to a rather unexpected hot start, batting .294 with 23 homers and 56 RBI’s through 87 games. The 30-year-old switch hitter, one of the most consistent Jays at the plate this season, will need to keep up that pace when he returns from the All-Star Game in Miami.
Recharge the bullpen
With Toronto’s starters failing to pitch deep into games so often this season, the Blue Jays’ taxed relief corps will be welcoming the four-day all-star break. Toronto’s bullpen has pitched 314 innings, fifth most in the majors and second in the American League behind Baltimore, and they’ve given up 160 runs (147 of them earned), tied for sixth most in the AL. The bullpen hasn’t been all bad, though. One of the team’s best performers in the first half has been closer Roberto Osuna, who’s on a streak of 21 straight saves. Keeping the 22-year-old right-hander fresh will be one of the keys to Toronto’s success in the second half.
Retool, not rebuild
The Blue Jays will have a significant stretch of 17 games from the end of the all-star break to the trade deadline on July 31. If by that point management feels the playoffs are not within reach, they can still add to their roster at the deadline, picking up useful commodities that can help the team over the next couple of years. Pending free agents such as Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano and even Bautista could go, but only if the return makes sense for Toronto long-term. Big names still under contract through next season, such as Josh Donaldson, will likely stay put – unless a team presents Toronto with an offer too good to pass up.