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Toronto Blue Jays 2016 Preview and Prediction

Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista

As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

The Toronto Blue Jays ended a postseason drought dating back to 1993 by winning the American League East in 2015, and they are well positioned to defend that title this season. To make it happen, they’ll need an offense that scored a major league-high 891 runs — 127 more than the second-best Yankees — to keep mashing, and a rebuilt pitching staff to lock down leads that the bats should regularly provide. Even with a defense sure to steal hits, the mound is where the questions lie for the Blue Jays after ace David Price, a trade deadline rental, left for the Boston Red Sox as a free agent. The new regime of Mark Shapiro is also under the microscope after the unexpected departure of popular general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who cited concerns over the “fit” with the president and CEO as his reason for leaving.

Rotation

Marcus Stroman made a surprising September return after tearing the ACL in his left knee in a freak spring training mishap, and over four regular-season starts and three playoff outings showed why the Blue Jays believe he’s a potential ace. Should he approach his ceiling in 2016, the starting staff will be much steadier. Marco Estrada, re-signed to a $26-million, two-year deal, logged a career-best 181 innings while posting a 3.13 ERA, and the Blue Jays are counting on the performance not being a one-off. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey provides the rotation a 200-inning pillar of stability, while new addition J.A. Happ returns north after a year away looking to show he was the guy who dominated over 11 starts in Pittsburgh, not the guy who was mediocre in 21 games for Seattle beforehand. Swingman Jesse Chavez may open the season as the fifth starter, although Drew Hutchison and perhaps Aaron Sanchez will try to convince the Blue Jays otherwise.

Bullpen

With newly acquired Drew Storen, 21-year-old Roberto Osuna, Sanchez (if he doesn’t end up in the rotation) and lefty Brett Cecil, the Blue Jays have the makings of a strong back end of the bullpen. The issue they face is in the depth of quality behind them as the losses of Mark Lowe via free agency and LaTroy Hawkins to retirement have thinned out the bridge arms to get the ball from starter to closer. A return to form by Aaron Loup would give the Blue Jays a second trusted lefty and the potential for length if needed, but that’s no given. Hard-throwing Ryan Tepera impressed in a small sample size, while Bo Schultz, Steve Delabar and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte will all be in the mix to fill out the bullpen. Chavez could also find himself in a relief role should he get squeezed out of the rotation.

Middle Infield

The trade deadline pickup of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki helped change the Blue Jays’ infield defense, and a full season of him up the middle with Ryan Goins at second base will steal hit after hit from opposing batters. Tulowitzki also expects to be better at the plate with more time to acclimate to his new team and a new league. If his bat gets going, the Blue Jays lineup gets even scarier. Goins will open the season at second with Devon Travis recovering from shoulder surgery, and he showed enough production at the end of 2015 to carry his stellar glove. Darwin Barney, another defensive whiz, will provide protection at both positions as well as a right-handed option at second base for games against tougher lefties.

Corners

Between reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and the first base combination of Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak, the Blue Jays can count on getting a good chunk of their offensive production from the corners. Rescued from the cavernous parks of the AL West, Donaldson crushed in the hitter-friendly locales of the AL East, hitting at a .297/.371/.568 clip with 41 homers and 123 RBIs, mostly out of the two-hole. His defense often got lost amid his escapades at the plate, but the intensity he brought both with his glove and his bat set the tone for the team. Encarnacion played 59 games at first base and the rest at DH as he hit 39 homers with 111 RBIs. Colabello’s punch and Smoak’s ability to gobble up throws good and bad at the bag give the Jays a well-rounded combo of skills for the position.

Outfield

Right fielder Jose Bautista anchors a diverse group of outfielders adept at running down balls in the gaps and delivering at the plate, too. Bautista hit 40 home runs to reach that plateau for a third time while driving in 114 runs with 110 walks, both the second-best totals of his career. Thanks to the opportunity created by Michael Saunders’ springtime knee injury, Kevin Pillar was able to emerge as arguably the best defensive center fielder in the AL not named Kevin Kiermaier. Pillar also came up with several important hits. The Jays are hoping that Saunders’ knee issues are in the past and that he’ll be able to take over left field — vacated when Ben Revere was dealt to Washington for Storen — on a full-time basis.

Catching

The sturdy Russell Martin caught 117 games last season despite fighting through left hamstring issues in August and will be counted on even more heavily this season with backup Dioner Navarro leaving as a free agent. On the plus side, the return of Josh Thole as the backup means Martin will no longer have to deal with Dickey’s knuckleball, a task that he handled well but that often left him battered and drained mentally. Thole may be able to get more out of Dickey than any other catcher due to the volume of experience the two have together, so that change may pay dividends in other ways. If all that also helps Martin post another OPS in the .787 range or come close to his career-high 23 homers in 2015, the Blue Jays will take it.

DH/Bench

Encarnacion started at DH 85 times last season, and he may see more time there this year with the Colabello/Smoak combination working so well at first base. Manager John Gibbons also worked in some rest for various starters by giving them the occasional DH day, a trend he’s likely to continue. The Blue Jays lineup features few players who get pinch-hit for regularly, though Barney could see some at-bats in place of Goins, while Dalton Pompey can provide offense and speed off the bench.

Management

To some degree, Gibbons silenced the doubters who have dogged his second run as Blue Jays manager by leading the team to the American League East title. But with the departure of Anthopoulos, his fate under Shapiro will be closely watched. Former Cleveland Indians executive Ross Atkins was named GM in place of Anthopoulos, whose bold July dealings helped push the Blue Jays back into the playoffs. Atkins was only hired in December — assistant GM Tony LaCava, the runner-up in the process, oversaw the offseason business — and it will take time before a sense of his style emerges. His work will be compared against that of Anthopoulos by a fan base frustrated by the unexpected change, leaving Atkins with big shoes to fill.

Final Analysis

Though the Blue Jays have some questions about their pitching staff, they remain more than capable of repeating as AL East champions. On paper, the Red Sox appear to have closed the gap with a strong offseason, but making up the 15 games they finished off the pace in 2015 is a big leap. The same goes for their other rivals in the division. Now, one key ingredient they may be lacking this year compared to last is the type of prospect depth that allowed Anthopoulos to make so many impact July moves. Though another wave of prospects is coming, expect the Blue Jays under Shapiro to manage their assets a bit more carefully. But Shapiro has also identified the 2016 season as a win-now year, so they’ll have a chance to address needs midseason. Barring any surprises from the farm system, any help they get is likely to come from external sources, something they may or may not need, depending on how the AL East shakes out.

Prediction: 1st AL East (World Series champions)

Lineup

SS Troy Tulowitzki (R)

3B Josh Donaldson (R)

RF Jose Bautista (R)

DH Edwin Encarnacion (R)

1B Chris Colabello (R)

C Russell Martin (R)

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LF Michael Saunders (L)

CF Kevin Pillar (R)

2B Ryan Goins (L)

Bench

1B Justin Smoak (S)

C Josh Thole (L)

INF Darwin Barney (R)

OF Dalton Pompey (S)

Rotation

RHP Marcus Stroman

RHP Marco Estrada

RHP R.A. Dickey

LHP J.A. Happ

RHP Jesse Chavez

Bullpen

RHP Roberto Osuna (Closer)

RHP Drew Storen

RHP Aaron Sanchez

LHP Brett Cecil

LHP Aaron Loup

RHP Ryan Tepera

RHP Steve Delabar