As the first half of the MLB‘s 2016 season comes to a close, the Toronto Blue Jays are in an excellent position to make another run at the AL East title. They hold a record of 50-40 and are in second place, 2.0 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Jays offense has been just as explosive as it was billed to be at the beginning of the season. The pitching staff has done its part too, performing quite well throughout the first few months. Baseball in Toronto has certainly been exciting and fun to watch. The Blue Jays are streaking into the end of the first half, having won seven games in a row and sending five men to the Mid-Summer Classic in San Diego.
There have been a plethora of story lines for Blue Jays fans to follow in 2016. The paths of Marcus Stroman‘s and Aaron Sanchez’s developments into true Major League starters have had their own ups and downs. Devon Travis’ return from injury has bolstered the already impressive machine that is the Blue Jays lineup. Josh Donaldson has backed up his 2015 AL MVP award with an imposing start to the season, bringing both the rain and the leather back to Rogers Center. Edwin Encarnacion‘s and Jose Bautista’s futures with the club are just as uncertain as they were in March. Roberto Osuna has been revolutionary in the closer’s role, and Michael Saunders has taken on the mantle of Captain Canada while earning the first All-Star appearance of his career. All in all, it would seem things are going quite well in Canada.
Blue Jays 2016 Midseason Report
While many of the plotlines this season were expected from the start, a few did come out of nowhere. Few expected Jose Bautista to get clocked in the jaw with the world watching. And few experts predicted that Darwin Barney, a career .246 hitter, would be batting .302 this deep into the schedule.
To the delight of fans across the Great White North, the pitching staff, a preseason weakness to most experts, has been steady and true thus far. However, the breakout year that Michael Saunders is having has been an absolute breath of fresh air in Toronto, and is truly this season’s biggest surprise.
The Blue Jays did not expect Saunders to be an All-Star this year, but the front office must have seen some potential when they acquired him from the Seattle Mariners in 2014. Saunders spent most of 2015 on DL recovering from a severe knee injury. With a lifetime batting average of .230 and a history filled with injuries and inconsistent playing time, expectations were not very high for Saunders in his comeback this season.
Perhaps the lack of pressure and expectations, combined with playing at home in his native Canada, was exactly what the 29-year-old needed to prosper. Through eighty games in 2016, Saunders is sporting a slash line of .302/.377/.560 and a .982 fielding percentage to boot. Captain Canada has swung a white hot bat for most of the season and has flashed his power, picking up sixteen homers and twenty-five doubles on the year.
His breakout could be a key piece of the Blue Jays title run this year, and in future years as well. Saunders is not a looming free agent, as his service time has not passed beyond arbitration. The Blue Jays will look to keep Captain Canada around for a while if he continues his first half production.
While Saunders’ success is joyous, there are also a few not-so-bright spots on the young season. The usually reliable Jose Bautista is only batting .230 and has been dealing with injury this year. Drew Storen has not been the reliever the Blue Jays thought they were getting, as he’s posted an ERA of 5.81 in the thirty-five games he’s appeared in.
To put the proverbial icing on the cake, Chris Colabello, the feel good story of 2015 with his .321 batting average, was suspended eighty games for PED usage after playing only ten games and posting a .069 average. However, the largest disappointment for the Jays this year would have to be the dramatic fall-off of Troy Tulowitzki.
While he has helped the cause at times this season, contributing fifteen home runs and forty-three RBI, he simply has not been the Tulo of old. His .239/.319/.462 slash line is underwhelming. After nearly ten years in the big leagues, this has been the worst start to a season Troy has ever had.
He dealt with a left quad strain at the end of May, and since his return on June 18 he has shown better performances. Unfortunately, fans in Toronto just haven’t seen the great flashes of brilliance Troy has provided over his career this season. Hopefully Tulo can turn things around in the second half and get back to his old ways.
Midseason Team MVP
While clouds of doubt may linger over the veteran shortstop’s head, the clouds that swell over Toronto’s third baseman have proven bountiful and full of power. Josh Donaldson has not only torn the cover off the baseball and been a brick wall on the left side of the infield, he’s doing it even better than his MVP performance from a year ago.
He sports a .303 batting average, which is higher than 2015’s mark, a .415 on base percentage, which is higher than 2015’s mark, and a slugging percentage of .594, which, again, is higher than 2015’s mark. The Bringer of Rain has knocked twenty doubles, which is good enough for fourth best on the team.
However, he leads the team in base hits (100), triples (5), runs scored (79), and walks (59). If it weren’t for Edwin Encarnacion’s ridiculous power swing, he would lead the team in home runs and RBI as well. He stands one homer and twenty RBI behind Edwin. He’s also only one stolen base (6) behind team-leader Kevin Pillar.
When the reigning MVP feels he has something left to prove, is increasingly competitive on the diamond, is hitting the ball harder, and also showing improved discipline at the plate, it casts quite an imposing shadow on the pitcher’s mound. Josh is giving the big men in Anaheim and D.C. a run for their money, and will look to continue that trend for the rest of 2016.
What to Watch for in the Second Half
After the All-Star Break concludes, Toronto will begin its second half in Oakland by taking on the Athletics. Naturally, watch for Josh Donaldson to pursue his second MVP award in row. However, there are also other tales to pay attention to. Aaron Sanchez’s status as a starter may come into question, as he’s already surpassed his career high for innings pitched. His 2.94 ERA shows great promise for the budding star, but management doesn’t want to risk over working the 24-year-old. Sanchez may be moved into the bullpen.
Watch for Marcus Stroman to try and put together a better second half. He competed well for the first three and a half months, but his 4.89 ERA is the highest mark out of the five men that began the year in the starting rotation. Marco Estrada is having a phenomenal season so far, posting a rotation-best 2.93 ERA. He’s dealing with back discomfort right now and missed his last start, but the Jays are hopeful he will be ready to go after the break.
The bullpen has either looked really good or really bad during games in the first half. Hopefully, fans will see more of the good in the second half. Osuna has been fantastic, so the closer’s spot is nothing to worry about. However, bridging the gap between the starter and closer will need to improve.
While Devon Travis returned from injury successfully in the first half, watch for the returns of Bautista and Colabello in the second act. Bautista has been fighting turf toe and has recently been freed from his walking boot. His return to the batting order will be welcomed by all; hopefully, he will return to his usual All-Star caliber self. Colabello is set to return from suspension in the second half as well. Last year, Chris provided incredible spark off the bench with his bat and played well around the diamond, providing relief for starters in the outfield and at first base. Time will tell if his numbers last year were artificial, or if the PED scandal was just an unfortunate accident.
All in all, the Blue Jays are positioned well to make another post-season run this year. The second half is sure to be as interesting as it will be fun to watch for the most exciting team in baseball. Fans will watch to see if the World Series trophy can be brought north of the border for the first time since ’93.