Toronto has come back down to the earth, and the extremely flawed AL East is wide open again.
Going into their series against the St. Louis Cardinals that began on June 6, the Jays had a six-game lead in the East. They appeared to be in control at the top of the division that produced last year's World Series champion. After losing two of three to both the Cardinals and the Twins, splitting a four-game series with Baltimore, getting swept by the Yankees and facing a rubber match against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday after an 11-1 loss on Saturday and a monumental comeback late in Friday's series opener, the Jays cling to a 1½-game lead in the division -- and that's just about where they should be, given their roster.
This is still a rough stretch for the Jays, unquestionably -- they're a good enough team to take a series from the Twins or Cardinals, not get swept by the Yankees, and so on -- but they are not the sort of team from whom .600 baseball should be expected. They have one of the best offenses in baseball outside of Oakland's and (finally) Anaheim's, but their pitching staff remains mediocre: Mark Buehrle is the only starting pitcher having a remarkably above-average season for the club, with Drew Hutchison's early success fading and R.A. Dickey pitching barely better than league-average for a starter (101 ERA+). J.A. Happ started the year getting lucky with his outcomes, but Cincinnati's eight-run explosion against him on Saturday was a good reminder that Happ is, at best, a fifth starter in this league. His best usage is probably as a Triple-A pitcher who is the first man on the plane to join the big-league club in case a spot starter is needed.
Touted pitching prospect Marcus Stroman, meanwhile, still has a season ERA over 5.00 and has done nothing to dispel concerns about his small stature keeping him from going deep into games: He hasn't made it past the sixth inning yet this year, and his most recent outing against the Yankees saw him leave with two outs in the fourth, having already hit his pitch count. The last time a pitcher listed as 5-foot-9 or shorter pitched more than 180 innings in a season was when Tom Gordon did it several times in the mid-'90s -- and Gordon was the first guy to do it since Fred Norman in 1979. And even then, if you were to stand Tom Gordon and Stroman up next to each other, I'd wager that Gordon would stand a little bit taller; even 5-foot-9 is a bit of an exaggeration for Stroman.
Starters that don't go deep into games can be a problem for teams with bullpens like Toronto's, which is firmly in the bottom half of the league. Casey Janssen, normally the team's closer, has a superb line by rate stats (1.20 ERA, 350 ERA+) but has thrown only 15 innings this year due to injury. Todd Redmond has been the best performer out of the pen with a 3.12 ERA in 40 1/3 IP, while Dustin McGowan, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil have been little more than serviceable as the mainstays in relief. Sergio Santos has been an outright disaster. The Toronto pen does what it needs to do most of the time, but it's another place where the Jays need to upgrade if they're going to make a serious run.
With James Shields likely off the table from Kansas City, however, the pitching market is extremely sparse; teams were probably hoping that Toronto would be willing to discuss dealing Mark Buehrle instead of being buyers themselves. Few teams want to take a chance on one of the variety of pitchers about which the Chicago Cubs are doing their yearly trade-deadline used-car-salesman schtick, which means there's not a whole lot of arms available on the market who would be a clear upgrade. That is, unless the Rays are willing to trade David Price within the division, of course. However, it's unlikely that the Jays even have the pieces to make that deal even if it were in play.
The good news for Toronto is that probably means the rest of the teams in the East that are seriously contending -- Baltimore and New York right now, with surges from Boston and maybe even Tampa Bay not entirely out of the question -- are also stuck with whatever they've got going for them on the mound, and for both the Orioles and Yankees that's a less than ideal situation. Even if the Yankees do bring in an over-performing Cub like Jeff Samardzija, he's not likely to represent much more of a threat to the Jays' bats than any other middle-of-the-road MLB starter that New York could have run out there. The Orioles, meanwhile, could get some sort of breakout performance from Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy in the second half, but there's no reason to assume that Gausman's command or Bundy's recovery will permit that to happen.
So despite the last few weeks showing us precisely who the Jays are as a team, there's no reason for their fans to panic: They've seen who the rest of the division are, too, and as long as they keep hitting they'll be just fine.