It's so hard to figure out if the Jays are contenders or pretenders two months into the 2017 season.
The Jays have so far managed yet again to become the most frustrating yet gratifying Toronto sports team to watch. After starting the year 1-9, the Jays have managed to go 20-17 (.541) since. The recent play of the Jays has been a roller coaster ride to say the least, going on a 5 game win streak that included a series win against the Indians and a sweep of the injured Mariners, but also included three straight losses to the oldest team in baseball (!) and worst in their division, Atlanta Braves. (Side note: The tomahawk chop may be the second worse thing in baseball, with the wave taking the cake). Sitting with a record of 21-26 (.447) after the 8-4 beat down of the Brewers yesterday afternoon, the Jays still sit in the bottom of the AL East, but optimism has started to rise with fans of the beloved blue birds.
Below is a list of the (early) highlights and disappointments from the Blue Jays, and what we can expect to see going forward.
*Note: Players that were expected to be highlights or disappointments were omitted for the purposes of not having a boring article.
HIGHLIGHT: Justin Smoak
If you believed that Smoak would be an major contributor to the team and play an integral role in their success, put your hand up. Nobody? Anybody? As the old saying goes, "where there's smoke, there's fire." There's no statement more true that can describe the year Smoak is having than that one. The 30 year old former first round pick has turned critics into believers, myself included. With a slash line of .278, .340, .542 through 40 games, he's outpacing his careers highs in all three categories. Reaching double digit home runs already while reaching base shows that Smoak is seeing the ball a lot better than he has in the past. A more calm, relaxed approach and stance at the plate might be a factor. It is quite possible that Smoak will have a career year, but don't be surprised if he has a 1 for 20 slump sprinkled in here and there. There will be regression throughout the year, but if he can reach a .250 average, over .300 on base, 20-25 home runs and 60-70 RBI's, I'll be more than happy.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Jose Bautista
Yes, I know. Bautista's bat is finally starting to come around. His fielding and arm seem to be in better shape than last year. Recency bias suggests that Bautista is one of the best Blue Jays right now, and that may be true, but it's hard to ignore his horrendous start to the year. Up until around two weeks ago it seemed like fans wanted to run Jose right out of town. Now with his recent surge in offensive productivity, he's starting to climb back to respectable numbers. He has seemed to find whatever was working for him in the pre-season and the WBC and is now producing like the Jose we are used to seeing. I'll classify Bautista as a fringe "disappointment" for now, because if he keeps up this production level, fans will easily forgive and forget the atrocious start. Expect Bautista to continue improving on his numbers gradually throughout the season.
HIGHLIGHT: Kevin Pillar
There's a reason why he's called Superman. He's the hero we need, but don't deserve. Arguably the Blue Jays early MVP candidate, Pillar has career highs in average (.306), on base percentage (.357) and slugging (.483), it seems as though Pillar has finally found his groove in the major league level. It was only a matter of time too, as Pillar has been an offensive weapon in every level of baseball that he has played in leading to the majors. He has solidified himself as the ideal leadoff batter for the Jays, with the ability to hit, walk, and steal. Also, who can forget his defensive prowess? He's like a human vacuum out there, catching any baseball that's remotely within 5,000 feet of him (or so it seems like...). Oh, and don't forget his amazing catch he made on Indians batter Jose Ramirez, robbing him of a guaranteed hit. Most amazing catch I've ever seen live in-stadium. I don't know what's more of a robbery; that catch or the fact that Pillar still hasn't won a gold glove. He is well deserving of an All-Star position in Miami, and I believe he will get one.
I don't know what the team or the players did to anger the Baseball Gods, but my goodness did they ever do something. Here's a full list of Jays that have made at least one trip to the DL this year: Alford, Ceciliani, Donaldson, Happ, Howell, Liriano, Martin, Osuna, Pearce, Pompey, Sanchez, Shultz, Sparkman and Tulowitzki. That's FOURTEEN different players and we aren't even through May yet. The amount of games lost to injury this year is at 336. That's a truly astonishing and "disappointing" number. I don't believe this has anything to do with the training staff, as it is essentially the same staff that allowed the Jays to be one of the healthiest teams in baseball last year. Also couple in the fact that the new CBA eliminated the 15-day DL and introduced the 10-day DL and teams are now less reluctant to place a player on the disabled list. Don't expect this trend and these numbers to remain constant throughout the season.
HIGHLIGHT: Marcus Stroman
The Stro-Show is off to the best start of his young career. After winning the MVP Award at the WBC, he carried that momentum over into the 2017 season, proving to doubters yet again that he is the real deal. Stroman had a disappointing start to the 2016 season, which saw fans and critics alike call for his demotion to AAA to sort out whatever issues he had going on. Since the second half on the season onward, he has showed an improved maturity and sense of the game on the mound. He's still the youthful, energetic pitcher we all know and love, but he doesn't let the highs get too high and the lows get too low.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Aaron Sanchez
Yes, I know that Sanchez is lumped in with the injury category, and I understand that when he has been on the mound he has been quite effective. The disappointing part of Aaron Sanchez is the false hope we as fans receive. When it seems like his finger and blister problems are behind him, he will be back on the disabled list after one start. Sanchez has already made three separate trips to the DL, which leads the club. It's disappointing that Sanchez cannot get fully healthy because he has shown flashes of brilliance even with blood dripping down his finger. With Biagini holding down Sanchez's spot in the rotation, there's no sense to rush him. With a proper amount of time to heal and recover, I expect Sanchez to make an immediate impact upon return.
I'm fully expecting someone out there to roast me on some of my choices, but those were the ones I feel really stuck out to me. Sure I could have easily thrown in Estrada as a highlight, but that was to be expected leading into the season. Martin was expected to have a disappointing season due to age and wear and tear. Things are sure to change throughout the year, and this list will definitely not look the same come September. It will be interesting to see who the new heroes and villains of the Blue Jays are in a few months.