The Dark Horse Emerges: A Toronto Blue Jays preview

"Great game, Marcus. Now, I don't have to fight you." - Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

A look ahead at our second avian opponent of the week

Offense: Jose Reyes - SS, Melky Cabrera - LF, Jose Bautista - RF, Edwin Encarnacion - 1B, Adam Lind - DH, Dioner Navarro - C, Juan Francisco - 3B, Colby Rasmus - CF, Munenori Kawasaki - 2B

Jose Reyes is an All-Star caliber player if and only if he hits for a high average.  Hitting lots of pop-ups makes it hard to hit for a high average. Jose Reyes is hitting lots of pop-ups.  Follow the syllogism?  Good.  Reyes is still able to add value on the basepaths, where he's been remarkably efficient in swiping bags this season.  He's also still a pretty capable shortstop and he isn't as punchless in the power department as most speed-first players. This means Reyes isn't a liability when he's hitting .247, but he's also not a reason that Toronto is leading the tough AL East.

As of this writing, and including 2014, Melky Cabrera's strikeout rate has been 12.6 percent for four of the past five seasons.  That is a crazy statistical oddity and a testament to the consistent contact skills that Cabrera brings to the table.  The Melk Man is once again working with a batting average over .300 with some power.  He's not a good outfielder, but what he does at the plate more than compensates.

I distinctly remember attending a White Sox game in 2008 against Toronto in which I sat very close to first base and repeatedly yelled at Blue Jays first baseman Jose Bautista about his complete and utter pointlessness as a major league player. Joke's on me, I guess.  Joey Bats randomly broke out in 2010 and is one of the top hitters in the game today.  While he's fallen off a bit from his best seasons in 2010 and 2011, he's a power bat who currently leads the major leagues in walks.  Quite a feat considering who's been hitting behind him.  Bautista has just one home run in June, but he's plenty dangerous at the plate.

The Blue Jays cultivated both pieces of one of the most fearsome one-two punches in baseball out of another team's trash.  Edwin Encarnacion broke out in 2012 and like Bautista, is now one of the game's top hitters.  He currently leads the major leagues in home runs, thanks primarily to the 16 bombs he hit in May.  The player formally known as "E5" for his awful defense at third is now known as "E3" after a shift across the diamond, but given Encarnacion's skills at the plate, nobody cares.

Adam Lind's BABIP is .383.  That's pretty much the only reason that his 2014 looks notably better than his average 2013.  Lind has plenty of power and on-base ability and is a pretty good hitter independent of whether the luck is on his side.  He's very limited defensively, however.  How limited?  He's the primary DH on a team that plays Edwin Encarnacion every day.

Dioner Navarro has rotated between awful, passable, and good since he became a part-time player in 2009. He's received the majority of the playing time at catcher for Toronto in 2014, and predictably, he's floundered with extended exposure.  The power he flashed in 2013 has disappeared, the walks were never there to begin with, and he's a miserable defensive catcher.  In addition to being a rough pitch framer, Navarro doesn't do much to control the running game.  Robin Ventura would be wise to run like wild on him.

Juan Francisco swings really hard.  Sometimes, he hits the ball a long way.  More often, he builds on a strikeout rate that would make Adam Dunn blush.  Francisco's all-or-nothing approach is exciting and has served him well thus far this season. 12 home runs in 188 plate appearances is no laughing matter, after all. He's a bit rough with the glove, but he's contributed plenty to a Blue Jays offense that leads the majors in home runs by a wide margin.

Colby Rasmus has been a less extreme form of Francisco at the plate this season.  Rasmus looked like he had himself a breakout season in 2013 when he hit .276 with good power, but it turned out to be a BABIP-based mirage; Rasmus strikes out far too often to maintain a batting average that high.  At his core, his power makes him an above-average hitter at a premium position.  Historically he's been regarded as a good defensive center fielder but defensive metrics have mostly panned his performance in 2014.

Brett Lawrie is on the disabled list, so Munenori Kawasaki is filling in.  To get a feel for what we can expect out of Kawasaki, we reached out to Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter to get his thoughts.

You can expect the most entertaining .220 hitter that you will ever see. Munenori is fun. He's a great reminder that baseball is meant to be fun, a kid's game played by adults. Kawasaki, on the other hand, doesn't act anything like an adult. He dances in the dugouts, bows to his outfielders after making plays, runs on the spot to fake catchers into thinking he's going to steal and is Japaneseeeeeese:

I mean, I'd rather have a second baseman that can, you know, hit the ball out of the infield, but if we have to have a replacement player in the middle of the infield, he might as well be fun to watch.

Bench: Josh Thole - C, Steve Tolleson - INF, Brad Glenn - OF, Anthony Gose - OF

Pitching: Starting Rotation: R.A. Dickey - RHP, Mark Buehrle - LHP, Drew Hutchison - RHP, J.A. Happ - LHP, Marcus Stroman - RHP; Closer - Casey Janssen - RHP

My favorite fact about R.A. Dickey pertains to an extreme oddity with his anatomy.  The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is the ligament in the elbow that is reconstructed when a pitcher undergoes Tommy John surgery.  Dickey doesn't have that ligament in his throwing arm.  It's sort of a miracle that the 39 year-old knuckleballer is able to pitch at all. It's even more of a miracle that someone in his position was pretty much a swingman and a roster yo-yo until age 35, then won a Cy Young award at age 37.  Dickey hasn't been the player the Blue Jays hoped they were acquiring since he landed in Toronto, but he's still a useful, average starting pitcher that ranks among baseball's most fascinating players.

Speaking of fascinating players, Mark Buehrle is 35 years old with an 84 mph fastball and an ERA in the mid-twos.  Nothing I can say about Buehrle in this player comment can really do him justice, particularly with White Sox fans as the target audience.  He's the exception to pretty much everything advanced metrics have taught us about pitching, and the fact that he's twirled a no-hitter and a perfect game in his career while fanning so few hitters is simply astounding.  There hasn't been a ton of buzz surrounding Buehrle's Hall of Fame chances, but there are plenty of pitchers in the Hall of Fame with notably lower career bWAR than what Buehrle's already accrued.  He's the kind of player who's been so good for so long that the counting stats combined with a lack of overwhelming dominance are going to put voters in an extremely difficult spot.

Drew Hutchison has been average, but very up-and-down in 2014.  Here's Tom Dakers again with some insight into his consistency issues.

The short answer is that [Hutchison] sometimes has troubles with fastball command. That he occasionally will slightly lose his delivery, rushes it a bit and will miss high. He had an inning like that in Wednesday's game against the Yankees. He pitched 6 innings, 5 were good to very good, one was bad. He gave up 3 hits, a walk and 4 runs in his bad inning. He can throw mid-90's, so when he is hitting his spots, he's pretty great.

...

The downside is that (a) [Hutchison] is just 23 and (b) since June 15th 2012, he'd pitched only a handful of minor league innings. So, it does make sense that he might have some troubles with consistency. I think that by the end of the season, we might consider him our Ace, but there is the complication that the Jays will be looking to try to watch his innings pitched. Going from 59 major league innings in 2012, to 0 in 2013 to, well, 92 so far this season, might be tough on a surgically repaired elbow.

Despite Hutchison's occasional disaster outings, J.A. Happ is the most likely pitcher on the Blue Jays staff to take the ball and implode on the mound.  He's never had good control and he's allowed a home run roughly once every six innings this season.  Much of his struggles can be attributed to the ineffectiveness of his offspeed pitches in 2014.  Happ replaced the injured Brandon Morrow in the rotation and he's typically a decent swingman to have around, but it'll be tough to blame the White Sox for kicking him while he's down.

Marcus Stroman is one of the Jays' best prospects.  Once again, Tom Dakers weighs in:

I think Marcus is going to be a good starter, a good number 3 type. He has a curve, slider and changeup, all that can be good pitches, but he'll live and die with the command of his mid-90's fastball.  He is just 23 and he is in his rookie season, so expecting him to be great every start is overly hopeful (of course, as a Blue Jays fan, overly hopeful is my middle name). When he has troubles with his command, he is going to have bad nights. His last start was the best of his young career, he went 8 innings, allowing just 3 hits and 1 run, with 7 strikeouts, against the Yankees. That's what he can do when he's hitting his spots.

The worry is that he isn't big, he's fairly generously listed at 5'9"  and some wonder if he can stay in the rotation or if he might be better suited for the bullpen. I'm not a sizeist, and I think he likes showing that you don't have to be 6'4" to be a starter in the majors.

Casey Janssen is living proof that an effective closer doesn't necessarily have to be an extreme power pitcher.  Janssen averages about 89 mph on his fastball and his strikeout rate is very pedestrian for a reliever. There have been two primary keys to his success.  First, he's only issued one walk in 16 innings pitched. Second, he's yet to allow a home run.  The latter is somewhat fluky considering that Janssen doesn't keep the ball on the ground as often as he used to, but Janssen has been reliable as the Blue Jays' closer since May of 2012.  He's not among the game's toughest closers, but he's only blown seven saves in a little over two years since he took over the job.

Outlook & Prediction: The Blue Jays are the American League's most surprising team as they currently sit atop the AL East when most prognosticators didn't give them much of a shot before the season.  They have their flaws, sure, but every team in the AL East had significant issues exposed so far in 2014.  At this point, I think the Blue Jays will be able to hang on.  Predicted record and finish: 88-74, first place, AL East.

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