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USATSI

In assessing the landscape of the American League East, I'd forgive casual baseball fans for not really noticing the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox have been one of the best teams throughout the course of the early part of the season. The Yankees are always going to get plenty of attention and they've won 13 of their last 18. The Rays are the defending American League champions and have won 10 of their last 14. 

Possibly lost in the shuffle would be the team that has won five of its last six and has gone 15-7 since April 20. They have a chance in the next week-and-a-half to really turn some heads, too. We'll get to that in a second. 

Thus far, the Blue Jays have flashed lots of elements of a great team. There's a superstar centerpiece, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., -- yes, we're calling him a superstar already -- in the middle of a deep lineup. Marcus Semien is packing the power, Teoscar Hernandez has gotten hot since a slow start and Bo Bichette has been good, even if he's capable of better. Hyun-Jin Ryu serves the role of a No. 1 starter well while Robbie Ray is an acceptable No. 2 and Steven Matz is a quality mid-rotation guy (his ERA was messed up by two bad starts). 

The bullpen has been volatile, but that's the nature of bullpens. They've had a few finds out there (hello Tyler Chatwood!) in the midst of a rash of injuries. They are capable on defense and one of the better baserunning teams in the league. 

Having the quality pieces playing good baseball for several weeks provides optimism, but there's even more reason to keep our eyes on them and that's because they haven't been full strength all season. 

George Springer was their big-ticket offseason acquisition. He's only managed to play in four games. Prior to this season, Springer was a career .270/.361/.491 hitter, good for a 132 OPS+. He carries 162-game averages of 28 doubles, three triples, 36 homers, 94 RBI and 116 runs. He's very comfortable hitting at the top of a powerful lineup and eventually that's what he'll be doing here. 

Right now, Springer is trying to work back from a quad injury. When he was placed back on the IL on May 6, Jays general manager Ross Atkins said, "I would expect it would take more than just the IL stint. There's a chance I'm wrong, but based on the information that I have right now, I would expect that it would take longer than that IL stint."

They won't rush Springer back, but whenever he comes back, it'll be like they just traded nothing for an All-Star-caliber player. 

Someone else worth keeping an eye on is Nate Pearson. The former first-round pick and top-10 prospect made one rough start this season and is currently dealing with a right shoulder impingement. If Pearson can work things out both in terms of health and with his stuff, he makes for a pretty formidable rotation down the stretch. Pearson's long had ace upside (in 2019 between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, he had a 2.30 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 119 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings). 

The best version of Pearson means the Jays have a top four of Ryu, Ray, Matz and Pearson. That's not an assortment of top-shelf aces or anything, but it would be a damn fine playoff rotation, especially when teamed with this offense and a healthy bullpen (if that ever happens). It also couldn't hurt to add an arm in front of the trade deadline. 

The main thing, however, is getting Springer back. The offense has already shown itself to be good, but he makes it great. Looking forward to Springer and Pearson is more long-term when we're talking about this season, though. 

In the meantime, the Blue Jays face a stretch where they can really establish themselves as an AL East contender. They have a three-game series against the Red Sox starting Tuesday, followed by a four-game series with the Rays. Then they hit the road for a three-game series against the Yankees. 

The Jays have actually gone a combined 7-4 against these teams so far in 2021. They have the look of a very good team in the present tense. If they keep things going in that direction while the calendar gets ready to flip to June, we're looking at a bona fide division title contender. 

The Blue Jays are overshadowed right now, but a big week-and-a-half here means no one will be ignoring them much longer. And once they are finally at full strength, the rest of the AL East will have their hands full.