Alex Anthopoulos maintains a perspective, and it is not the Blue Jays perch atop the American League East. It was May, 2009, when he was J.P. Ricciardi’s assistant, “we were 27-13 and headed off on a nine game road trip,” he recalls.
“We lost them all,” Anthopoulos said before Friday night’s win against the league’s best team, Oakland. They went 48-74 the rest of the way. So being 27-22 with a 1 ½ game lead on the Orioles on May 24 is, well, great and surprising and what it was supposed to be last year and this time leads into 16 of 19 games at home…”But,” says the Jays general manager, “it is May.”
The past may be the past, but the Jays are the story of the quicksand American League East. They blew out the freefalling Red Sox in a three game sweep at Fenway Park. They have won 9 of 11. They are crushing. They have a run differential of +18 in a division in which the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays are a combined -58.
And, most important in this moment in time, their starting rotation is 22-13 and leading the division in earned run average at 3.80. “I think the way we’ve pitched in May is the most encouraging part of what we’ve done,” says manager John Gibbons. “Mark Buehrle’s been great all year. But we’re starting to get healthy, getting Casey Janssen back at the end of the bullpen (7 appearances, 0 runs in May) has stabilized us after some setbacks a few weeks ago, and we can compete.”
“In all my years, this is the most explosive team I’ve ever been around,” says hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. “It’s incredible how they can go off.” Edwin Encarnacion, who has struck out only 97 times in 190 games the last two years, is third in the league with 13 homers. Jose Bautista has 12, leads the league in OPS and has failed to reach base in only one game all season. Melky Cabrera has an .866 OPS and eight homers. Juan Francisco has eight homers in 91 at-bats.
And enjoying the ride is Jose Reyes, healthy. “This is fun, because these guys are so powerful,” says Reyes, who has played but 31 games and has yet to take off. Which he will. “It’s amazing to watch how hard these guys hit the ball sometimes.” Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista, Encarnacion…Third in runs scored. First in OPS. First in home runs with 68.
Indeed, this is what Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston had hoped to restore to what was a great baseball community when they were winning back-to-back world championships two decades ago. “We knew that the window with Bautista, Encarnacion (Colby Rasmus) and some others wasn’t going to be open for too long because their contracts would be up,” says Anthopoulos. “So we made the trades with the Marlins and Mets. We gave up some very good young players, but some of them wouldn’t be ready until the veterans were gone, so we tried to put it together to try to win.”
Enough about their past. The Jays are in first place on Memorial Day weekend. As powerful as they have been, the single most important person on this team is Buehrle, the 34 year old marvel who while in what will be his 14th consecutive season with 30 starts and 200-something wins has still never looked at a scouting report or shaken off a catcher. Never. The Anti-Analytic. “He simply thinks about executing each pitch and what he sees in the hitter,” says Gibbons. “I would say it’s working.”
In five May starts, Buehrle is 4-0, 2.16. He leads the league in wins. In his 14th full season, he has never missed a start, and his 194 wins (remember, he is the Anti-Analytic) is third behind the 209 of Tim Hudson and 208 of CC Sabathia (the only other active pitcher with more than 150 wins is Bartolo Colon).
When Toronto was struggling weeks ago, Anthopoulos was asked if he would consider trading Buehrle to a contender like the Cardinals or Giants, considering he makes $18M in 2014, $19M in 2015, The GM said he would not, because of his value in raising young pitchers. “Pat Hentgen (the former Cy Young Award winner who is a front office advisor) talks about how much he learned from Roger Clemens,” says Anthopoulos. “Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay talk about what they learned and were handed down by Hentgen.” That is invaluable. As Carpenter hands down to young Cardinal pitchers, and Adam Wainwright does in Carpenter’s wake.
And the question most asked is whether or not the Jays will jump in on Jeff Samardzija or David Price. “We are pretty much maxed out in terms of payroll,” says Anthopoulos, “but more important, we cannot keep trading our young pitchers (like Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris). We also have to be realistic about whom we can extend if we make a trade for him.”
The Blue Jays know that neither Price nor Samardzija will sign an extension with Toronto before hitting the free agent market at the end of the 2015 season. “We have been feeling out teams and doing background work,” Anthopoulos says. “I think we’d probably look at something where we have a pitcher for the rest of this season. That makes sense.”
The price for James Shields would be prohibitive. Justin Masterson? Maybe, maybe not, although he is to the young Indians pitchers what Buehrle is to the Jays. Jason Hammel and Francisco Liriano fit that criteria.
That’s all down the line, dependent in part on who and what the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Orioles turn out to be. For now, the Toronto Blue Jays are in first place and are taking Robert Palmer’s advice to “find out how much fun we can get into life.”