Griffin: Top Five Jays as season approaches one-third mark
The Jays are an AL enigma for their fans, still blowing saves in the absence of their prized off-season acquisition, closer Sergio Santos, and still waiting for Jose Bautista to become the most feared slugger in the American League, as he had been the past two years.
The Jays right now are an ordinary team that looks not on the verge of exploding upwards through the standings with an outbreak of clutch hitting and eight-inning starts, but, instead, they forever seem to be a team balanced precariously on the tightrope of contention, more ready to implode and spiral downwards landing in the muck among the dregs, the also-rans of the American League. That's the perception. However the reality is to be determined by whether the youngsters improve and some veterans rebound.
But somehow, even with an ace starter that has admittedly had to grind out innings and battle for wins and led by a star hitter, locked into the three-hole, who has yet to catch fire, the Jays hang around in the above-.500 AL East, within easy reach of the second wildcard spot that was added this year just to keep teams like the Jays interested into September. Any team that enters the final month at .500 will still be a contender.
As such, here are the Top Five Jays performers through the first third of the season:
1-Edwin Encarnacion: This emergence by the Jays' DH/1B might have been predictable. Last season, Encarnacion hit the ball very hard in the second half with little to show, but the signs were there for a Bautista-type breakout at the age of 29, especially when the Jays took away the stressful responsibility of playing third base.
Encarnacion shortened his stroke and adjusted so that he keeps both hands on the bats through the swing allowing him to better handle the inside stuff. That, combined with success and stability have led to his being the Jays' player-of-the-year thus far. See Star repoerter Brendan Kennedy's feature on the Jays' cleanup hiitter for the inside story.
2-Kelly Johnson: The Jays second baseman was at 40-60 odds to even be the Jays second baseman back in December when he was a free agent and the Jays offered him arbitration. General manager Alex Anthopoulos only offered him the contract in order to earn draft pick compensation whenever Kelly decided to sign elsewhere. The Jays did not negotiate with KJ on a multi-year deal, but expected him instead to find another MLB eam that would offer him three years guaranteed.
Instead, Johnson accepted the Jays' one-year deal for a price to be determined, putting an end to the club's search for a second baseman. The accident has turned out to be a wildly successful decison for both Johnson and the Jays. He is a tremendous pivot on the double play, hanging tough even with runners bearing down and his arm strength is enough to help the Jays lead the AL in double plays turned.
Offensively, Johnson has been among the AL leaders at second base in home runs, RBIs, on-base percentage and OPS. He has batted first, or second all year. The Jays are not looking for steals from their top of the order guys, but he runs the bases well.
3-Brandon Morrow: Morrow is the one Jays' starter thus far that has looked like he could explode upward to be mentioned among the AL's elte. He was cruising on Wednesday when he was drilled in the shin, but his 6-3 record and 3.28 ERA would look far better without that one blip on his radar, that perplexing 2/3 inning meltdown in the Texas heat.
Morrow's 1.06 WHIP, his six wins and 62 strikeouts all rank in the AL Top 10 and if Brandon is abe to make his next start Wednesday without further physical issues resulting from the bone bruise raised by Wilson Betemit, his personal stock is on the rise.
4-Brett Lawrie: The most noticeable player for the Jays this year has been the Langley Flash. He attracts the attention of fans at home and on the road, umpires, opposing players and teammates. Everything he does, he does with flair. But he is not a hot dog...more a hot head. However, he backs up his emotion wth his performance. His range on defence has been spectacular. Watch him on TV replay on any hard hit ball at the hot corner.
Most third-baseman in slo-mo replay will subtly, but noticebly shrink inwards at the shoulders and legs and get small like a turtle retreating into its shell as a natural first reaction before going after a rocket. Lawrie does not do that. His first reaction is an explosion towards the ball. It's a Canadian thing that may be in the DNA from hockey, maybe blocking shots as a nation, even if the athlete in question is not a hockey player -- as is the case with the baseball-centric Lawrie.
Lawrie is finally getting his extra-base, alley-to-alley stroke in full gear and will continue to be an important part of the Jays' offence and public face moving forward.
5-Ricky Romero: The Jays' ace lefthander has admitted that he has had to grind to achieve the results that he has. That's not what you want from your ace. However, Romero is talented enough that grinding has produced a 6-1 record and a 4.04 ERA in 11 starts.
Romero knows that his fastball command has been costing him walks and runs. It's been openly frustrating, but the fact that he has maintained acceptable command of his secondary pitches is a positive sign moving forward. It should be easier for him to regain his fastball command which will shortly get him back to his Jays' ace status and move him up wth Morrow to become the core of a good young rotation in the second half.