The idea of the Toronto Blue Jays as a scary team, if you’ll remember, is about 15 months old. The trade deadline rolled around last year, and there were several teams sniffing .500 and wondering what to do. Some of them sold. Some of them bought. Some of them stood pat. The Blue Jays had a GM who knew he was on borrowed time, so he maxed out the prospect credit card. And it worked. Now we’re here.
And here is defined as, "Good gravy, the Blue Jays are a scary looking team again."
Before the postseason started, you could have gone through the Blue Jays’ lineup like this:
- A fine, flawed, average-dependent second baseman
- Perennial MVP candidate
- Fearsome slugger
- Fading fearsome slugger
- Catcher slugging under .400
- The other side of Nomar Garciaparra Mountain
- An All-Star who hit like a pitcher in the second half
- The Andrelton Simmons of center field
- Ezequiel Carrera?
That’s two hot spots and a bunch of question marks. Instead of slugging through the AL East, the rotation was the strength this season. It was odd, considering that Marcus Stroman struggled through most of the season, but it turned out that J.A. Happ and keeping Marco Estrada were the correct answers from last offseason. The Blue Jays’ adjusted ERA suggested they had one of the top-10 rotations in franchise history, just behind staffs that featured Roy Halladay in his prime, Roger Clemens at his chemical peak, and Dave Stieb feat. Jimmy Key.
If the Blue Jays were going to win, it was going to be with a balanced, but pitching-first attack. After they swept the Rangers out of the ALDS, though, we’ve seen a different vision.
What if the Blue Jays can still hit the snot out of the ball?
What if Jose Bautista isn’t ready to be sucked into his mid-30s yet? What if Troy Tulowitzki hits more like he did in July than April? What if Russell Martin is still as good as he was in the second half? What if Michael Saunders finds whatever it was that he lost?
It’s terrifying. If any of it holds true, the Blue Jays will be right there to pair these revelations with Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion, two of the most feared hitters in baseball. And suddenly it would start getting scarier and scarier to face the Blue Jays’ gauntlet, which is what we were expecting the whole time.
What if J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada are really this good?
Again, terrifying. Estrada struggled in the second half with performance and injuries, but he was excellent in his first postseason start of the year, and Happ has been pitching like someone who cost himself $100 million by not getting an opt-out clause in his new contract.
You realize that Marcus Stroman didn’t even have to pitch in the ALDS, right?
Right. He had the second-lowest FIP in the rotation, so it’s possible that the rest of the staff was sucking his luck through a straw all season. It’s also possible that he’s as good as they hoped, and that he’s getting stronger.
Put it all together, and you start to remember that the Blue Jays underachieved this year. They were supposed to be the premier offense in the American League, if not baseball. A lot happened between then and now, but it would still make a lot of sense for Tulowitzki to start hitting. For Bautista to crush more baseballs because that’s what he’s been good at for years. For the disparate parts of the Blue Jays’ lineup to fit together as an on-base-and-dinger machine. Really, of all the players in the regular lineup, Carrera is the only one that I’m hyper-skeptical about. The rest of the lineup, especially the middle, should scare the bejeebers out of the other team.
Alex Anthopoulos’ deadline gamble last offseason didn’t get the Blue Jays a pennant, much less a World Series title, but it worked as a two-month infomercial for baseball being awesome, and it was played on a loop for three hours almost every night in Canada. They got sucked into the undertow of Royals nonsense, but it stood for something. That frame is still in place.
For two decades, the Blue Jays were good at winning the occasional Cy Young and doing almost nothing else. They were a Toyota Corolla with 80,000 miles on it, never breaking down, never impressing the people you wanted to impress. They became a VERY LOUD muscle car almost overnight, and they did it with dingers and pyrotechnics.
It took a convincing sweep to remind you that the blueprint for this season isn’t so different. It just took a much more haphazard path to get here. Tulowitzki and Martin had to stumble around in April. Bautista had to show his age. The averages were low almost across the board, and so was the contact. They looked like a team that could be pitched to.
They didn’t look like that in the Wild Card Game, though, and they certainly didn’t look like it against Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Don’t buy into the conventional wisdom that dinger-mashing teams don’t do well in October because they do just fine. The Blue Jays were supposed to hit their way into championship contention, just like they did last year, and they gave us five months that suggested we were being too bullish. I renounce that hot take. They’re probably as good as we were anticipating, and if you think that I’m overreacting to four games, you might be right, but I’ll counter with the idea that we were overreacting to a sample of 162 games. Strip away the 2016 numbers and just look at the names.
Donaldson ... Encarnacion ... Bautista ... Tulowitzki ... all finding themselves at the same time, and all playing behind one of the better rotations (in theory) the Blue Jays have had in a decade. Mercy.
They’re probably not better than the Cubs. Or the Nationals. Or the Dodgers. Or the Red Sox or a healthy Indians team. But the Blue Jays belong in the discussion of teams that should scare you, and they just reminded us forcefully. They can hit just enough. They can pitch just enough. And they need to go just 8-6 over their next 14 games to win their first championship since 1993.
I wouldn’t bet on them just yet. But I certainly wouldn’t bet against them. I just remembered how freaky they can be.