The Dunedin Blue Jays, the Advanced-A level affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, are staring down a fight to the finish of the Florida State League first half in order to secure a playoff berth.
In the FSL (and in other full-season Class A leagues), the season is divided into two halves with the winners of each half playing each other in the post-season.
With 5 games left in the first half for the Dunedin Blue Jays, they currently sit a half-game up on the Daytona Cubs (who have a game in hand), 1 game up on the Clearwater Threshers (who have played two more games than the D-Jays), and a game and a half up on the Brevard County Manatees in the North Division.
The team has been in a slide lately, losing four in a row down this stretch to the FSL All-Star game (featuring 5 Blue Jays), which will be hosted in Dunedin this year.
While they’ve been successful, the Dunedin Blue Jays is one of the oldest teams in the Florida State League and, with the injury to top pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez, is not one laden with future major leaguers.
The team’s strength has been it’s pitching. The Blue Jays have an average age of the pitchers of 24.9 years old, a full year older than the next oldest pitching staff, their North Division rivals Brevard County Manatees. Led by All-Stars Scott Copeland and Jesse Hernandez as well as veterans Casey Lawrence and Austin Bibens-Dirkx, the starting rotation features a lot of experience and has been very effective keeping other teams off the scoreboard, boasting the lowest runs per game against in the league (3.59).
Copeland, 25, has been outstanding and leads the team in starts with 13. He’s 6-2 with a 2.41 ERA, a 1.085 WHIP and has only given up 3 home runs in 82 innings. Despite these outstanding numbers, he can’t really be considered a prospect due to his age and the fact that, along with his lowest walk/9 inning ratio of his career, he’s posting his lowest strikeout/9 inning ratio since arriving in Advanced-A baseball in 2011.
Hernandez, 24 (he’ll turn 25 this year), has a 4-5 record but has a sterling 3.22 ERA to go with a decent 1.306 WHIP. He also has controlled home runs well but doesn’t strike out batters at an outstanding rate either.
Lawrence, 25, made one start in Buffalo for the AAA Bisons but was sent back to Dunedin and has been solid, but gets by on control and finesse and doesn’t strike many batters out either.
The oldest pitcher on the staff, Austin Bibens-Dirkx (28), has been excellent since being demoted from AA New Hampshire. He’s pitched as high as AAA and seems to be having no trouble with Florida State League batters, posting a 2.67 ERA, a .0923 WHIP while striking out 39 and walking only 9 in 30 1/3 innings.
The bullpen has been very strong, led by closer Blake McFarland and reliever Tony Davis, both named to the All-Star team.
As good as the pitching has been, the hitting hasn’t been very good, producing just over 4 runs per game (4.03). They sit right in the middle of the pack of the Florida State league, despite having the second-oldest lineup in the FSL (in a 3-way tie at 23.3 years of age). Much like the pitching staff, there aren’t a lot of potential major leaguers here, or ones who have started to separate themselves from the pack.
Clearly leading the way is 3rd baseman Andy Burns, who leads the team (of those who have gotten regular at bats) in almost most offensive categories and has been the best all-around player on the team. He has an .886 OPS, coming from a .313/.377/.509 triple slash line. He has an excellent walk to strikeout ratio (25/36) and has also stolen 20 bases (although he’s been caught 8 times). He’s shown that he has extra-base power with 12 doubles, 4 triples and 8 home runs. Fittingly, he is the team’s only position player who was named to the Florida State League All-Star game.
Young 1st baseman K.C. Hobson leads the team in home runs with 9 and also has 9 doubles but is only hitting .220 with a .250 OBP showing that the 22 year old needs to mature a bit more in his approach at the plate. It’s looking more and more like his power is legitimate but needs to get on base more. Canadian outfielder Marcus Knecht is next on the team with 4 home runs and no one else has more than two, demonstrating that this team has a serious power outage. There’s unlikely to be much help coming from Class A Lansing in the second half — their home run leader is Kevin Patterson who was demoted from Dunedin after a rough start to the season.
The top two players in batting average for the team are catcher Derrick Chung (who was recently activated off the DL) who is hitting .330 with a .390 OBP but only has 3 doubles as his only extra-base hits and outfielder Nick Baligod who is hitting .319/.377/.410 with 11 doubles and a triple, showing more extra-base pop than Chung. Both, however, are 25 already.
The biggest question for the Dunedin Blue Jays in their quest for the first-half playoff birth is whether the hitting will give the pitching enough run support to get some wins to stave off the charging Cubs and Manatees.