What a difference a season can make.

In 2015, the Toronto Blue Jays were the undisputed big bashers of MLB. They paced the pack in runs, home runs, OPS and a host of other offensive categories. They won the American League East and punched their first postseason ticket since 1993. Then they bat-flipped their way to the American League Championship Series.

They were, by any measure, a dangerous team on the rise.

It’s too early to call 2016 a disaster for Toronto, or even an abject disappointment. There’s far too much baseball left for that.

So far, however, these Jays barely resemble the high-scoring squad from a year ago. Suddenly, they look less like a juggernaut and more like a one-year wonder.

After a 6-3 loss Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Blue Jays sit at 19-23, with only the woeful New York Yankees between them and the cellar. They’ve dropped five in a row and six of their last seven.

Most troublingly, the biggest issue has been their bats.

Even after losing ace and 2015 trade-deadline pickup David Price to free agency, the Jays’ pitching staff ranks among the top third in both leagues with a 3.73 ERA.

Starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez and closer Roberto Osuna are all 25 or younger and under team control through 2020. So there’s hope for the present and the future.

Offensively, however, Toronto has been surprisingly punchless. (This is the part where we resist making a tasteless Rougned Odor/Jose Bautista joke.)

Entering play Thursday, the Jays rank No. 17 in runs scored and No. 20 in OPS. Reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson is hitting .253 with nine home runs and an .855 OPS, respectable but unspectacular numbers. Compared to some of his cohorts, however, he’s lighting it up.

Bautista is hitting just .222. Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, another key offensive cog, is hitting .241 with a .762 OPS. And shortstop Troy Tulowitzki owns an anemic .196/.287/.392 slash line.

Others, including left fielder Michael Saunders (.311 average, .911 OPS) have picked up the slack. But Toronto needs the heart of its lineup to produce—period.

Here’s how Sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi summed things up on the heels of Wednesday’s dispiriting defeat:

An offence that led all of baseball by 127 runs last season is ranked ninth in the American League, and the ongoing drop-off continues to cause a vexing bewilderment. Without an otherworldly lineup to carry the load, fissures in a bullpen that’s had more than its share of struggles have been exposed. Those two elements have saddled a starting rotation that’s been mostly brilliant so far with too much of the heavy lifting.

There is one statistical category where the Jays offense is putting up robust numbers: strikeouts. They’ve whiffed 368 times already, the fourth-most in baseball.

“We’re a group that has good plate discipline, we’re taking a lot of borderline pitches that just aren’t going our way, but that happens,” Bautista said, per Davidi. “We’ve got to grind those at-bats out and not let it affect us negatively and play the game.”

There’s time to be patient. Bautista, Tulowitzki and Encarnacion have long enough track records to believe a rebound is possible, and maybe even probable. And the AL East, like the rest of the Junior Circuit, is wide-open.

At the very least, the Blue Jays should be motivated by a sense of urgency. Because this could be the last season this group spends together.

Bautista and Encarnacion are set to hit the open market this winter. Both should command top dollar in a weak free-agent class, meaning they’ll probably be beyond Toronto’s pay grade.

The 35-year-old Bautista suggested in February he’ll seek $150 million and five years. And contract talks between the Jays and Encarnacion stalled this spring.

If both players walk after 2016, they’ll take a large piece of Toronto’s offensive identity with them. The Jays will still have Donaldson and Tulowitzki, as well as catcher Russell Martin. But those three will chew up a significant amount of payroll as well.

Tulo is owed $98 million over five seasons, Martin will make $75 million over four and Donaldson gets $28.5 million for this season and next with another arbitration bump likely coming in 2018.

The farm system is not bereft of talent, but Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter ranked it 20th in February 2016, meaning the Jays can’t count on a parade of inexpensive blue chips to plug holes.

Toronto’s window, in other words, might be closing. If the bats don’t wake from their slumber, it might have already slammed shut.

Again, there’s time to right the ship. But if these struggles continue, expect a shakeup. Manager John Gibbons could find himself on the hot seat. Heck, the Jays might even consider selling off some pieces at the trade deadline if they’re not in the hunt come July.

A hot week or two would make all this a moot point, at least temporarily. For now, however, the big bang has turned to a dull whimper north of the border.

What a difference a season can make.


All statistics current as of May 18 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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