The Toronto Blue Jays just can’t catch a break.
The Jays, cemented in a division with perennial free-spenders in the N.Y. Yankees and Boston Red Sox, are hard-pressed to compete for one, maybe two playoff spots.
Since the wild card era began in 1995, boosting the number of playoff spots from two to four in each league, the Red Sox and Yankees both have made the playoffs eight times out of 15, and at least one of the two has seen post-season action in each of those years.
Meanwhile, the last post-season pitch swung on by a Blue Jay was Joe Carter’s walk-off home run to win the 1993 World Series.
However, two other AL East foes, the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, have made it out of the division and into the playoffs in that time. Granted, the Orioles’ success came more than a decade ago, but the Rays beat out the Yankees for a playoff spot just two seasons ago.
That can be taken one of two ways.
The pessimist: “The Jays are toast. It’s more than just the Yanks and Sox who are good, so there’s absolutely no hope. How do I look in pinstripes?”
The optimist: “The Rays won an AL East title. THE RAYS. If there’s hope for them, there’s hope for anyone.”
I’ll play the optimist since no team is ever complete bulletproof, although there is a caveat.
The difference between the Jays and the Rays is that Tampa was downright brutal for almost a decade before making their shocking run to the World Series in 2008.
Toronto, meanwhile, has been merely mediocre, landing only four top-10 draft picks since last winning the World Series.
From those, the Blue Jays gleaned Vernon Wells and Ricky Romero, but also took Felipe Lopez (who eventually was traded for a minor-league pitcher in a four-team swap) and Billy Koch (who landed one-season wonder Eric Hinske in a deal with Oakland).
As for Tampa Bay, they often drafted from a position of strength—and it showed as they were led by a trio of top-three picks in 2008, namely Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, and David Price, while former first-overall pick Delmon Young brought over key pieces in Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza in a trade with Minnesota.
And after nine fifth-place finishes in 10 seasons, the Rays surpassed both the Yankees and Red Sox to take the AL East crown that year.
Now, it’s hard to call for a team to pull an absolute tank-job, owing up to maintaining the integrity of the game and so on, but it’s hard to believe the Jays haven’t had one downright terrible season in the past number of years, leading to a top-flight pick like Minnesota MVP catcher Joe Mauer or Washington’s phenom Stephen Strasburg.
At any rate, some Jays’ fans may have seen some light upon hearing rumblings that Toronto might not have to play a significant chunk of the season against their old foes in Boston and New York.
Sports Illustrated reported last month that MLB commissioner Bud Selig is considering a re-alignment plan where teams aren’t fixed to divisions, but can float from year-to-year depending on factors such as payroll and plans to contend, among other factors.
A team wouldn’t be able to switch more than two time zones over, meaning the Jays only could play in the AL East or Central, while teams in the Central time zone could cross all three divisions.
The article cited the examples of Tampa Bay shifting to the AL Central for a better chance to contend while rebuilding Cleveland shifts to the East and picks up some extra revenue-generating home dates with the Yankees and Sox.
If that’s the logic behind the plan, how many seasons in recent history would they have applied for a switch-over to the theoretically-easier Central?
Maybe 2006, when the Jays recorded a second-place finish at 87-75—a game up on Boston.
However, the AL Central wasn’t too shabby that year, either, producing the division-champion Twins and the wild-card Detroit Tigers, who reached the World Series.
Perhaps 2008, although their 86-76 record still was only good for fourth place in the East.
If the Rays, say, chose to take the Central route that season, the likelihood is that they easily would have won that division, too, shutting out the Jays yet again.
Their best chance would have been in 2003, when Roy Halladay captured his first Cy Young Award, Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells boosted the offence, and Cory Lidle, Josh Towers, and Kelvim Escobar kicked in surprisingly solid seasons in the starting rotation.
Couple that with a weak AL Central, where even the Kansas City Royals finished above .500 after beating up on absolute train wrecks in Cleveland and Detroit (the Tigers avoided matching MLB’s worst-ever season by just one game).
What it all comes down to is whether (best-case scenario) the third-place Jays could knock off the best team in the Central, since the lesser team out of the Yankees and Red Sox still would likely be in strong contention for the AL wild card.
While they’ve put together some good teams, at least one of the Twins, the Tigers, or the White Sox generally have been as good or better.
For the beleaguered Jays, a playoff spot only will come from playing at an elite level in the AL East, AL Central, or any other division, not from any realignment magic.
• • •
It’s been a fantastic couple of weeks for Fort Frances products on the largest of stages.
Driver Steve Arpin has made headlines across the racing world, notching a pair of consecutive wins on the ARCA circuit before making his Nationwide debut this past weekend at Talladega.
Arpin also signed a contract with JR Motorsports for one year plus an option to help bring him onto more television screens.
Meanwhile, Chicago Blackhawks’ defenceman Duncan Keith, who began his minor hockey days here, was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman on Friday.
The 26-year-old Keith recorded 14 goals and 55 assists in the regular season and finished +21 in a season where Chicago posted its highest point total (112) in franchise history.
While Keith had struggled to find the same groove so far in the playoffs, he notched a goal and an assist Monday night as the ’Hawks eliminated the Nashville Predators and advanced to the second round.
Keith’s competition for the Norris, which will be given out June 23 in Las Vegas, includes Washington’s Mike Green and L.A.’s Drew Doughty.
Lastly, local goalie Ryan Faragher has come up big for the Bismarck Bobcats of the NAHL.
Although Faragher only has started two of the Bobcats’ six post-season games, they’ve been big ones as he won both on the road to advance Bismarck to the next round.
Most recently, Faragher turned aside 31 shots as the Bobcats subdued Alexandria 3-1 on Friday night to advance to the Robertson Cup tournament slated May 4-9 in Wenatchee, Wash.
So far in the playoffs, Faragher had stopped 74 of 76 shots he’s faced for a save percentage of .974.
• • •
Through the first few games of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it looked like many of my picks, which I thought were fairly safe, were going right down the tubes.
New Jersey, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Washington, and Boston all lost their opening games, leaving my picks a dismal 1-7 through their respective Game 1’s (Vancouver helped me prevent the goose-egg).
Fortunately for me, the contenders started to rebound, and at press time I was 5-1, with Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Boston, San Jose, and Chicago through to the semi-finals while New Jersey was ousted at the hands of the Flyers.
Not all of the second-round match-ups were set by press time this week, so instead of working with hypothetical showdowns here, I’ll post 140-character predictions to my Twitter account—www.twitter.com/dfalloontimes—when all of those series are cemented.
The Toronto Blue Jays just can’t catch a break.