When Colby Rasmus chopped a game-winning single up the middle in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros last Sunday, Brett Lawrie sprang from the dugout like a bull from the rodeo pen at the Calgary Stampede, rushing his teammate triumphantly as though the Toronto Blue Jays had just clinched the American League pennant.
The scene seemed oddly out of place for a team that had lost seven of 10 games during a critical homestand, effectively extinguishing any flickering postseason hopes.
The Jays jumped to No. 9 in ESPN major-league power rankings by reeling off 11 consecutive wins in May. Rather than using that run as a launch pad, they collapsed by dropping 20 of the next 30 games, leaving open the question of whether this roster is built to win.
The season's statistics and injury woes can be analyzed every which way. Bottom line: The team has a losing record, and as he assesses what went wrong, the question facing general manager Alex Anthopoulos in front of Wednesday's non-waiver trade deadline, and more so as he heads into the off-season, is what will he do about it?
Meanwhile, the veterans have spoken.
"We were rolling pretty good, but then just before and after the [all-star] break … obviously, now we're on the outside looking in," relief pitcher Darren Oliver said.
Entering Monday's play, Toronto is the only one of five AL East teams with a losing record against its division rivals (a disastrous 18-30). It is the only team in the division with a sub-.500 record in games decided by one run (11-19).
"Maybe we were overrated," pitcher Mark Buehrle said after a recent loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. "Maybe we aren't as good as we thought we were."
The 5.07 earned-run average of the starting rotation ranks 29th of 30 MLB teams. A consequence: The bullpen has logged more innings than any team in the majors, 365 2/3, and is showing the strain.
"We obviously haven't put all the pieces together," pitcher R.A. Dickey said.
To date in July, the offence ranks first in the AL in batting average and on-base percentage, and third in home runs, yet the team's record stood at 8-15 for the month as it started a 10-game road trip Monday, in Oakland.
"Everyone is searching for an answer for us," infielder Mark DeRosa said. "Obviously, there are some glaring weaknesses."
Anthopoulos is drawing criticism in the wake of major winter trades and free-agent signings. He's failed to sign the No. 1 draft pick in two of the past three seasons. Every player in last Sunday's starting lineup came from outside the organization, which may testify to his abilities as a trader or condemn the club's talent identification-and-development system.
One season into a so-called three-year plan, holes have been exposed:
In cost-saving/rebuilding mode, the New York Mets wouldn't grant 38-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey a contract extension after his Cy Young Award-winning 2012 season (20-6, 2.73 ERA). New York GM Sandy Alderson held out for the most-ready-for-prime-time player in Toronto's minor-league system, catcher Travis d'Arnaud. Not yet out of July, Dickey's allowed as many homers (24) and just four fewer walks (50) than all of last season.
While neither has pitched at top form, Dickey (8-11, 4.86) and Mark Buehrle (6-7, 4.50) need strong infield defence to excel, and instead they have been oft-sabotaged, especially early in the season, with Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes sidelined by injuries.
The Jays have used 13 pitchers to start a game.
Coming out of spring training, Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ filled out the rotation but due to injuries, the trio has made a total of 31 starts. The mishandled Ricky Romero is trying to rebuild his game at Triple-A Buffalo. Todd Redmond, a journeyman minor-leaguer, and Esmil Rogers have filled in ably.
So, what to do in 2014?
One option is to reboot by writing off this season as an injury-affected aberration. And there is depth in the system: Among those coming back from surgeries are Kyle Drabek (his second Tommy John elbow-ligament transplant) and Drew Hutchison (Tommy John), while prospects Sean Nolin (7-3, 2.77) and Marcus Stroman (4-1, 2.12) at Double-A New Hampshire are closest to promotion. Romero? While he's shown signs of recovering his prowess, no one knows for sure.
Strength up the middle
The Jays rank 23rd in the majors in fielding percentage and 15th in defensive efficiency. A common ingredient for winning teams is strength at catcher, shortstop, second base and centre field and taken as a whole, qualitatively the Jays would rate no better than fourth in the AL East.
A lightning rod for criticism this season, catcher J.P. Arencibia has come under scrutiny for his ability to call a game, to block and frame pitches. Seen by manager John Gibbons as a natural leader, Arencibia compensated for weak defence with strong offence in the early going, but has since become an unproductive strikeout machine. At short, they've got a Gold Glover in Reyes though durability on artificial turf is always going to be a question. At second base, Emilio Bonifacio hasn't worked out offensively or defensively, and aging Maicer Izturis is best used as a utility player. In centre, Colby Rasmus has good range but sometimes struggles to track down balls hit over his head, and throws erratically.
The team needs to establish a second baseman. While Rasmus is vulnerable to breaking pitches, he ranks second among AL centre fielders in several offensive categories and has upside, so due to his age, 26, he could be used as a trade chip. The club's top outfield prospect, Kevin Pillar, played centre for Triple-A Buffalo on Monday.
At this power position, the Jays rank 18th for offence but time spent there by sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion skews the numbers. The regular, Lawrie, batted .211 in the span between July 29, 2012, and July 28, 2013, with nine homers, 31 RBIs and an on-base percentage far below major-league average, especially for his position. He approaches at-bats with a fierce waggle, little plate discipline and an apparent fear of going deep in the count.
Lawrie is, or was, a popular player with fans but has become an ankle weight in the batting order, demoted to the No. 9 slot. Restoring Bautista to third base would solve the offensive problem, however, Bautista is a superior right fielder and would be tough to replace. There's no apparent solution in the system.
Too few are carrying the load
Run production in the middle of the batting order falls to all-stars Bautista and Encarnacion. Bautista is a streaky hitter who's caught in a battle with umpires. Encarnacion is a rock whose strikeout totals are remarkably low for a power hitter. Both are excellent judges of the strike zone.
Anthopoulos signed outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year free-agent contract despite a 50-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs in 2012, in order to provide contact for a strikeout-prone lineup. Cabrera has seen his on-base and slugging percentages drop precipitously from last season, and he may yet be suspended again for devising a scheme to avert discipline last year. Adam Lind had a great run in May/June, but has since slumped, his wonky back acting up once more.
Playing in the AL, the Jays can't afford to carry a bottom-third of the batting order that would rank with weak National League lineups, and exacerbate low on-base percentages with a free-swinging approach. Going forward, the Jays would do well to address offence at catcher, second base, third base and arguably, left field.