The first two months of the 2010 season have been a joyful surprise for the Toronto Blue Jays, but a time of reckoning is looming upon them.
A three-game series that opens Friday versus the woeful Baltimore Orioles at 7:07 p.m. ET and ushers in a nine-game homestand is their last respite before a challenging June schedule, one that features some of the best teams in baseball.
The Tampa Bay Rays and World Series champion New York Yankees follow the Orioles into the Rogers Centre, with series versus the Rays, Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies after that.
It's a stretch that offers an important measuring stick to assess just how much steak their really is to the Blue Jays' spring-time sizzle, and will in some part help guide the club's decision-making ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
"I don't think there's any other way of looking at it," team president Paul Beeston said Thursday. "No matter what happens in these games, we want to look at this year as a building block to the future.
"But you never know, it's a funny game and that's why sports are interesting."
The Blue Jays have certainly been far more interesting than they were expected to be, sitting at 27-22 with nearly a third of the season behind them, within striking distance of the Yankees for the wild card lead.
But the sustainability of their success is hard to gauge and some feel they are headed toward an inevitable drop-off point, much like they did following a strong start last season.
All or nothing
Offensively, they have very much been an all-or-nothing team, combining for a major-league best 79 homers, while posting the 25th best batting average at only .242, and a miserable on-base percentage of .309 that ranks 29th (all stats before Thursday's action).
The team's pitchers have made the most of what they've gotten thus far, despite an earned-run average of 4.36 that is eighth in the American League and 19th in the majors, but history suggests the one-dimensional nature of the Blue Jays offence will eventually catch up with them.
That's why general manager Alex Anthopoulos is taking a wait-and-see approach to things, even as speculative talk of buying at the deadline picks up. The sample size is still small enough that it's foolish to label the Blue Jays as legitimate contenders just yet.
"I know people like to talk about it when things start off well, but we're only halfway to the [non-waiver] trade deadline," said Anthopoulos. "It's very difficult to take a two-month sample size -- if it was July 31st, that would be a completely different story. We've played well, we have to continue to evaluate how our guys perform and seeing how the team is over the next two months.
"It's just too early for us to get ahead of ourselves."
Another yellow light worth observing is the that the Blue Jays are 2-7 versus AL East rivals Boston and Tampa Bay so far this season, and have yet to play the Yankees. Those games will certainly alter the season's complexion, as they'll need to be better than two of those powerhouses to sniff at the playoffs.
Of more immediate concern, however, is steadying themselves versus the Orioles after a disappointing 3-5 road trip. Shaun Marcum (4-1, 2.82) gets the call versus Baltimore's Kevin Millwood (0-4, 3.71) in the opener and all four of his wins so far have come after a Blue Jays loss.
There are also some looming roster arrangements to be made, with the Blue Jays needing a fifth starter for Tuesday's game with Tampa Bay (Brian Tallet is ready to come off the disabled list and is the likeliest candidate, with Brad Mills also in the mix), and outfielder Travis Snider's sore right wrist will soon be fully healed.
Tallet was rocked in a recent rehab outing for AAA Las Vegas, but Anthopoulos said that wasn't a concern.
"The line wasn't good but his stuff was good, his velocity was up to 91 and he pitched well in his Florida State League rehab assignment," he said. "We know what Brian Tallet is."
As for Snider, the Blue Jays aren't sure whether or not he'll need a rehabilitation assignment or not but he will play once he returns, meaning manager Cito Gaston will need to juggle his lineup to get the young slugger back in.
"He was playing every day and really starting to make great strides," Anthopoulos said of Snider. "We wouldn't expect that to change. He was playing very, very well, he really started to come into his own, making a lot of hard contact, having a lot of quality at-bats.
"Travis needs to play. How we'll configure it, we'll see."
It's the same approach the general manager is taking with his whole team.
"We're very happy with the way the team is playing, there have been a lot of very good individual performances and you hope it continues but you also realize at the same time it is a six-month season," he said.
"We're taking a big picture approach to everything."