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Blue Jays emerging as AL East favorite

By Matt Snyder | Baseball Writer

The Blue Jays have opened up a two-game lead in the AL East.
The Blue Jays have opened up a two-game lead in the AL East. (USATSI)

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The American League East has been a rather mediocre division for much of the 2014 season, but one team appears to be at least slightly separating itself from the dumpster fire. And it's perhaps the most unlikely team of the five, considering preseason expectations: The Toronto Blue Jays.

After disposing of the mighty Oakland Athletics two straight days -- meaning they've won 10 of their last 12 games -- the Blue Jays are now 28-22 and sport a two-game lead in the division. They haven't been six games over .500 since Cito Gaston was the manager. Seriously.

We're 50 games into the season, so it's not like we should be writing this off as some small-sample fluke. Obviously there is a ton of baseball left to be played and a real bad stretch would change everything, but we've seen enough from the Blue Jays and the rest of the AL East to believe Toronto is the legitimate favorite.

Entering Saturday, the Blue Jays had a 36.3 percent chance to win the division, per Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds machine. The next highest was the Yankees at 26.3 percent. Over on Fangraphs.com, the Jays' chances were 40.9 percent with the next highest being the Red Sox at 19.5 percent. And, again, these were before Saturday's Toronto victory.

Things are coming together in a way that should provide some optimism that the quality play can continue, too.

The offense has the ability to be among the best in baseball. We knew the potential was there and it's showing through. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are capable of being one of the game's best power combinations in the middle. Melky Cabrera's 2013 season was marred by a tumor in his back. Now that he's healthy, he's hitting .317/.359/.510 and showing some home run power of his own. Brett Lawrie's got tons of potential that he hasn't yet reached, but he's only 24 years old and has shown signs of growth so far.

To set the table for the big boppers is speedy Jose Reyes. He had an early injury and then started slow, but he's starting to get things going. He went 2-for-4 with a double and two runs Saturday -- impressively scoring from second on a groundout in one case -- meaning he's now hitting .311 with 13 runs in his last 15 games. It's no coincidence the Blue Jays have won 10 of those games.

As a whole, the Jays' offense doesn't have many tell-tale indicators of overperformance. Several players are actually due a positive BABIP regression, for example, as the team ranks 24th in baseball with a .286 batting average on balls in play. Save for Juan Francisco, no one really stands out as very obviously due a proverbial fall to Earth.

Considering how good the offense can be, the pitching just needs to be around league average, and that's precisely what it has been. Entering Saturday, the Jays ranked 15th in the majors with a 3.90 rotation ERA. Mark Buehrle has been outstanding, Drew Hutchison has been good and R.A. Dickey has probably been more good than bad -- especially Saturday, when he was great.

One thing the playoff odds above can't possibly include is midseason acquisitions. I bring this up now because the Blue Jays are a great candidate to add a starting pitcher prior to the trade deadline. What if they cough up the prospects needed to grab Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs? A Samardzija-Buehrle-Dickey-Hutchison-J.A. Happ rotation looks solid enough to get the Blue Jays to October, especially considering the offense and the way the bullpen has settled.

Speaking of which, let us not forget the impact that losing closer Casey Janssen for the first several weeks of the season had. The Jays suffered nine bullpen losses before Janssen's return and have taken zero since. He's been brilliant, working seven scoreless innings with a 0.86 WHIP and saving six games in six chances. Having that guy at the end who is trusted by everyone just makes the rest of the bullpen better, too, simply by knocking everyone down a rung. In the last two weeks, Janssen, Dustin McGowan, Aaron Loup, Todd Redmond, Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar have allowed just seven earned runs in 33 1/3 innings (1.89 ERA).

Basically, the Blue Jays haven't been one of those "everything has gone right" teams. Not even close. They've faced adversity on multiple fronts, have weathered it and still have a few areas where improvement can be expected. They're 4-4 in one-run games, so nothing's out of whack there. They have a plus-21 run differential while the other four teams in AL East all have negative run differentials. The Blue Jays are actually only 12-11 at home, a figure which appears likely to better after they host the Rays (three games) and Royals (four games) next week.

Given the state of the AL East, with the Orioles' inconsistencies (including being allergic to walks on offense), the Yankees' rotation and overall fragility issues, the Rays' colossal struggles and the trainwreck that has been the Red Sox, the Blue Jays could be phrased as the favorites by default. Only that wouldn't be be fair. The Blue Jays are the best team in the AL East in 2014 based upon their own performance and there are plenty of reasons to believe it will continue.

So however weird it might sound, the Blue Jays are clearly the favorites to win the AL East.

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