By Rob Ficiur
As the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays began their season, I wondered / predicted which Blue Jays would be the surprise contributors for the first half of the season. My predictions based on pre-season analysis were: Steve Delabar, Pat Venditte, Andy Burns and Gavin Floyd. The first thing to remember about surprise players, is that they are difficult to predict because their rise to the top is surprising.
Steve Delabar has spent most of the year with the Cincinnati Reds minor league team the Louisville Bats. Andy Burns has played in eight games for the Blue Jays and has yet to record a hit. Pat Venditte has pitched in eight games, but his 5.14 earned run average has kept him in the minors most of the year. Gavin Floyd exceeded expectations. He appeared in 28 games (31 innings) and was a reliable Blue Jays reliever until a shoulder injury hit in June. Floyd missed most of the last three seasons with various injuries. Will he be able to contribute again in 2016?
Since my predictions were wrong – which players have been the Blue Jays Surprise Stars in the first half of 2016?
1. Michael Saunders – Last year the Canadian left fielder was injured in pre-season and played only nine games. Who was he going to be in 2016? Right now he is third on the team with 15 home runs. His .281 batting average is fourth best among team starters. These are not all-star numbers, but Saunders are all career high.
2. Ezekiel Carrera – played in 91 games for Toronto last year as a back up outfielder. His numbers were good enough that he made the 2016 opening day roster. He would be the depth outfielder we thought. Carrerra’s speed and .286 batting average have made him a regular contributor to the team. With Jose Bautista out for at least two weeks, Carrera has hit for a higher average and more speed than Jose.
3. Darwin Barney: As a 26 year old Darwin Barney was a Gold Glove second baseman. Four years later he was a minor league player whose great fielding could not off set his poor hitting. In September 2015 the Blue Jays picked up Barney because of an injury. Being a September pick up he was not eligible to be part of the Blue Jays dramatic playoff run. However Barney played well enough in September that the Jays brought him back in 2016. Injuries kept him in the lineup, first as a back up, then as a starter. While his fielding is what interested the Jays, his .292 batting average has pushed his way up the team’s depth chart. With Barney and Ryan Goins, the Jays have two Gold Glove caliber infielders as back ups. Barney’s higher batting average has made him more useful – and therefore more used by the team.
On Canada Day, Barney pitched his first ever Major League game. He gave up the losing run in the 19th inning. Darwin Barney may be versatile, but maybe not in every position.
4. Joe Biagini – All year the Blue Jays relief corps has been criticized for giving up too many hits and too many runs at the wrong time. Twenty-six year old rookie Joe Biagini has been a steady reliever with a 2.76 earned run average in 28 games. The Jays picked him up on a rule five draft, which means that he had to stay on the team’s major league roster. If he was sent to the minors, the San Francisco Giants, his former team, would have the right to take him back. Biagini has stayed on the Jays because of his performance not because they fear losing him in a roster shuffle. They actually need more steady pitchers like Joe.
As of this moment the Blue Jays are tied for the second wild card playoff spot. There are six other teams within a game of the Blue Jays in pursuit of the two wild card playoff spots. Whether the Blue Jays make the playoffs will largely depend on how many players surprise fans with their career best play through the dog days of baseball summer and the playoff races of September. The surprise players will likely be ones that are not on this list at mid season.