Thursday, 26 June 2014

Friendly Reminder: Things Are Still Pretty Okay

So it's been a while, eh? To anyone that cares enough to check in regularly (hi Mom!), my apologies for the longer than usual layoff. The frantic conclusion of a school year leaves little time to spend hours writing about such inconsequential things as your FIRST PLACE TORONTO BLUE JAYS! At least that's what the principal keeps telling me. Besides, as exciting as all that winning was, it's much easier to find things to write about when things are going poorly than when they are going so well. Now that things aren't looking quite so rosy, I feel the need to wade back into the fray. I'm not sure what that says about me. I'll let you decide.

You see, I've been noticing some near-hysteria creeping back into the discourse around the team, and I think a little bit of perspective might do a few folks some good right about now. All the usual disclaimers about it still being early apply, and yes the Jays have done a fine job of squandering a chunk of the lead on the division that they held a few weeks ago, but they still sit in a far better position than anyone had a right to expect before the season. 

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. It seems to be all anyone wants to talk about, besides mostly ludicrous trade scenarios at least. Since running roughshod over baseball for a month or so, the Jays came back to the pack rather quickly with a disappointing few weeks. Their winning percentage peaked on June 6th at .613, but since then they have gone 6-12 for a winning percentage of just .333. There have been cases of regression and a couple of injury scares along the way, but the way some fans and media folk seem ready to press the panic button and are begging for some sort of farm system depleting, win now trade deadline move that is like... totally, super seriously, 100% critical for the Blue Jays to remain competitive strikes me as just a little bit premature.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that an upgrade or two around the diamond wouldn't go a long way towards improving their chances of playing some October baseball for the first time since guys like Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman were potty training. They could still use a starter to bump J.A. Happ from the rotation. An every day second baseman (or perhaps third baseman?) would be nice, so they aren't quite so dependent on the Lawrie/Francisco/Tolleson triumvirate that worked so well in May, but which felt rather tenuous all along and which will be missing the guy whose versatility made it all work for the indefinite future. I'm sure Gibbons would love a proper lefty mashing platoon partner for Adam Lind too, preferably one that can field a position besides catcher. Those were all known areas of need back in the off-season that were pretty disappointingly not addressed at all, but which have been papered over pretty effectively thus far by a handful of players over-performing at a rate that shouldn't be counted on going forward. 

The thing is, they don't necessarily need to keep being as good as they've been to maintain their lead on the division. The fine folks over at FanGraphs provide us with both playoff odds and season-to-date playoff odds, both of which like the Blue Jays to win the division. By their season-to-date stats, the Jays would be projected to play at a .539 pace for the rest of the season and finish with 88 wins, four games ahead of the second place Orioles, and their playoff odds are pegged at 63.1%. 

Even by the more conservative of the two projection models, which is probably safer to go with given that the Jays' season-to-date success has largely been driven by some serious over-performance on the part of a few players, the Jays would play at a .520 clip for the remainder of the season, finishing up 87-75 and five games ahead of the Orioles and Yankees who the system has basically tied behind them. By this model they have an even better 66.5% chance of making the playoffs, mostly because the system doesn't like the Orioles or Yankees to play even .500 baseball going forward.

That's the good news. The Blue Jays, while not really as good as that .600 team from a few weeks ago, also aren't as bad as the .333 team they've looked like recently. The most likely scenario is that the roster as it is currently constructed evens out as the slightly better than .500 team they were expected to be before the season, and that will be enough to carry them into October. It's easy to understand how the fan base might be conditioned to expect the worst, and why the media might from time to time succumb to the temptation to prey on that pessimism, but projections do a remarkably good job of predicting these sorts of things, at least in the aggregate. They're worth putting a little bit of faith in.

So sure, an upgrade via the trade market would only improve their chances of making the playoffs and make them a more formidable contender once there, but do they have to do something major? No. Not yet at least. There is still a lot of time left before the non-waiver deadline for key injuries to strike, their funk to continue, or a divisional rival to go on a hot streak and catch them, but it's also entirely possible that standing pat or tinkering around the edges a bit is the shrewdest move they can make, at least if the rumours about the kind of prospect capital teams are seeking for impact pitching are true.

The Jays are undoubtedly seeking pitching in a trade scenario, but it's not a given that they'd be willing or able to put together the most appealing package of prospects for some of the bigger impact names on the market, and if they are it would require taking a pretty big scoop out of the already fairly shallow talent pool in the upper levels of their farm system. They're going to have some holes to fill on next year's roster, and cost-controlled youngsters like Sanchez and Norris might be able to help on that front with both their own play and by freeing up salary to address other needs. 

Flags fly forever and all that, but win now trades that don't work out have a nasty habit of hanging over an organization for a pretty long time as well. There's a balance that needs to be struck in strengthening the team for this season without creating an even bigger talent gap in their farm system than already exists.

The odds are currently in their favour, but there are no foregone conclusions here. They still play the games for a reason, and there are many scenarios that could see them fall short of the projections. That being said, there is more reason for hope than despair, and that's a lot more than we've been able to say in quite some time. Let's enjoy it.

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