It's hard to get baseball fans to agree on much of anything, even when things are going well for their favorite team. But when things go wrong, everybody knows exactly when it's time to panic: right now.
We're nearing the end of just the second full week of baseball -- most teams will play another 14 or 15 games before the first month of the season even ends -- and some of the teams that people around the baseball media (myself included) have picked to win a wild card spot, win their division, or win the World Series have started, well, a bit slow -- none moreso, perhaps, than consensus Offseason Champion Toronto Blue Jays. I was one of the particularly loud bangers of that drum, writing that I thought the Jays had a one of the top-three rotations in the game and perhaps the best rotation in the American League, should they stay healthy, and that while they wouldn't exactly cruise to a division championship, they would be an early favorite for the AL East title.
Things have not exactly gone according to plan in Toronto. Following their drubbing at the hands of the Detroit Tigers on Thursday, the Jays had the worst run differential in baseball and were at the bottom of the American League. Over the course of their disastrous three-game series with one of the best hitting teams in baseball, they allowed 24 runs while scoring only 12, and eight of those came by abusing Detroit's unimpressive Rick Porcello/bullpen combo that shows up every fifth day. Meanwhile, the Jays gave up at least six runs in every single game, and at least five runs a game were allowed by their starting pitching. As a unit, Jays starters went into the rubber match of the Detroit series with a 6.53 ERA, and then Josh Johnson (my preseason pick for the American League Cy Young Award) went out and allowed another six earned runs in Toronto's 11-1 loss.
Simply put, the starting pitching for the Jays is a horror show right now. Streaks like this happen from time to time; even the fans of the other AL East teams currently dancing on the Jays' supposed grave will acknowledge that no team wins or loses a division in nine games played, unless they really want to crown the Boston Red Sox right now and send them off to the postseason with Joel Hanrahan as the closer. The Jays will not continue to allow six runs a game from their starters over the course of the season, because that's completely unheard of. Even last year, when their entire rotation -- a rotation far less talented than the one they've assembled for 2013 -- was either hurt or woefully ineffective, the starters still only had an ERA of 4.82. The question is, will the Jays' staff turn into a group of hurlers that's actually good, one that's conventionally awful, or something in between?
We can't answer that question yet -- we'll have to check in with them again around the All-Star break to even begin discussing their stats meaningfully, and that's assuming everyone stays healthy -- but early indications from a health and scouting perspective are not so good.
Take R.A. Dickey, for instance. Dickey is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, and he won that award on the back of a lethal high-70s, occasionally low-80s knuckleball that actually "knuckled" less than the pitch conventionally does. With that decrease in movement, Dickey gained better command of the pitch and threw it with a higher velocity. However, so far this year Dickey hasn't had that pitch. In the World Baseball Classic, when international teams were hitting him hard, the former Mets ace was throwing a "standard" knuckleball like the ones Tim Wakefield used to throw, low-70s flutterball things that would sometimes fool hitters and sometimes get launched into the gap, and whenever he tried to go to his killer upper-70's knuckler, it would start rotating, straighten out and turn into a batting practice fastball. This is not a new issue for him: in the years before he became a dominant arm for the Mets, this sort of inconsistency is what kept him in the minors, and it's not inconceivable that now that it's back, it could be back for a good long while -- that's the nature of knuckleballers. However, it's still only two starts, and Dickey's been able to conquer this inconsistency before. Hopefully he'll be able to do so again.
Josh Johnson, on the other hand, could be a bit more of a concern. In Johnson's first start of the year, though his results were hardly ace-like (6 IP, 4R, 3ER, 9H, 1HR, 6K, 2BB, 1HBP), he still had his fastball sitting 93-94 and sometimes touching 96. In his disastrous outing against Detroit (1.1 IP, 6R, 6ER, 7H, 1K, 2BB), he never once even touched 93; he sat between 89-91, he wasn't able to locate or command his breaking pitches, and the Tigers teed off on him. Johnson's had injury problems in the past -- most recently, they ruined his Cy Young candidacy in 2010 by robbing him of his last month of starts, then took most of his 2011 away as well -- so it's not inconceivable that there's something wrong in his shoulder again. But the game was played in early April in Detroit. It's also entirely possible he had difficulty with his grip or mechanics due to the cold weather, and that this will be something he figures out in his next start.
Of the back of the Jays rotation, J.A. Happ has had the most success on the mound, and he's only pitched 5.1 innings on the season so far in one start against the Red Sox. The other two pitchers, Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle, didn't seem to have any big warning flags pop up in their unsuccessful outings, though Morrow still hasn't figured out how to get through the order twice without throwing roughly a billion pitches, and Buehrle looks like he's put on a little weight. While both of Buehrle 's starts have been disasters from a results standpoint, Morrow's first outing of the year was a promising 6 inning, 1 run affair against the Cleveland Indians where he struck out 8. He was hammered by the Tigers on Tuesday.
The offense has been serviceable if not fantastic so far, with great starts from Jose Reyes, Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia (though I wouldn't bet on that last one sustaining itself too much longer); the team desperately needs to find someone to take Adam Lind's plate appearances away from him, but that's been true for going on four years now. They're not a top-tier hitting club, but they're a group of guys that can win you some games, especially once Encarnacion and Cabrera get out of their slumps and Bautista starts hitting like the Joey Bats of the last few years -- if the starting pitching can keep them in the ballgame.
I think come this time two months from now, it'll be doing just that: Dickey and Johnson will find their stride, and the offense will come around, though not as much as Jays fans would like (a team's offense never comes around as much as its fans would like). No pitcher is dead on arrival after two starts, let alone two guys with the track records these guys have had over the past two or three years. There's a lot more baseball to play.