Coming off consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series, the Toronto Blue Jays are a team that remains a contender, but also a club entering a period of transition. Back for 2017 is the majority of the pitching staff that led the junior circuit with a 3.78 ERA last year, along with cornerstones Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista (at least for one more year), Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. They’re now the foundation of the enterprise with Edwin Encarnacion gone. A lineup built around big power in recent years is sure to have a somewhat different identity now, with switch-hitter Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce headlining the more notable reinforcements. Whether the revamped order can avoid the feast-or-famine nature of the offense in 2016 and better support a pitching staff that must repeat its dominance will be pivotal in deciding whether the Blue Jays can emerge from a deep AL East to make a third straight postseason appearance.
Between Aaron Sanchez’s development into a legitimate ace, J.A. Happ’s steady brilliance, Marco Estrada’s continued dominance and Marcus Stroman’s 200 innings of stability, everything went right for the Blue Jays rotation last year. Can they do it again, or be even better? Francisco Liriano, acquired at the trade deadline to serve as a sixth starter, pitched well down the stretch after struggling with Pittsburgh and is likely to provide an upgrade over departed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Sanchez may just be scratching the surface, while Stroman is sure to benefit from going wire-to-wire for the first time. On the other hand, Happ, a 20-game winner, and Estrada, a first-time All-Star who posted a 3.48 ERA despite ongoing back woes, can’t be asked for much more. Depth is a major concern.
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After breaking in as a 20-year-old in 2015, closer Roberto Osuna followed up his splendid rookie season with an even better performance last year, collecting 36 saves in 42 chances while striking out 82 batters in 74 innings. The issue is that the Blue Jays lacked enough reliable setup men around him, so manager John Gibbons rode the righthander hard, which led to a few September blips. Complicating things is that longtime lefty setup man Brett Cecil and righty Joaquin Benoit departed as free agents, leaving Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini to do much of the heavy lifting. There’s also opportunity for others, with big-stuff righties Bo Schultz, Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes among those to watch. The Blue Jays also need lefty Aaron Loup to rebound from two subpar seasons. Veterans Joe Smith and J.P. Howell also were signed to one-year contracts shortly before the start of spring training and should factor into the mix.
Tulowitzki’s first full season with the Blue Jays was solid, as he continued to provide sublime defense, although his .761 OPS was roughly 100 points off his career average. Much of that can be attributed to a poor opening six weeks of the season. If he can extend his performance over the final four months to the full season in 2017, the Blue Jays won’t feel Encarnacion’s loss quite the same way. Second baseman Devon Travis will be Tulowitzki’s partner up the middle as long as his surgically repaired right knee, the one he aggravated during the ALCS against Cleveland, holds up. Should he not be ready to go, the Blue Jays will turn to Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins to fill the void.
The Blue Jays will need Donaldson to deliver another MVP-caliber season at the hot corner to keep their offense from taking a step back. A big question is whether he’ll be pitched differently without Encarnacion batting behind him. Still, Encarnacion’s loss will be felt far more heavily across the diamond, where Justin Smoak is set up to carry the majority of playing time, with Steve Pearce expected to split duties between first base and left field. The Blue Jays heavily value Smoak’s defense at first, as his wingspan and ability to pick balls allow Donaldson and Tulowitzki more margin for error with their throws when making athletic plays. But Smoak’s strikeout percentage spiked up to a career-high 32.8 percent, which is a cause for concern.
Center fielder Kevin Pillar and right fielder Jose Bautista anchor a group that remains a work in progress. Bautista is back on a one-year deal (with two option years), and the Blue Jays need him to return to his MVP form after his numbers dropped significantly in an injury-plagued 2016 campaign. The key for Bautista will be how the 36-year-old holds up in the outfield, since the DH spot is spoken for. Pearce, Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera give Toronto some capable depth, but not the proven production of the departed Michael Saunders, who signed with Philadelphia as a free agent. Pillar is among the game’s most gifted defenders, but his OPS dipped from .713 in 2015 to .679 last year. He’s heading into his age-28 season, and the Blue Jays are hoping there’s still some upside for him at the plate. Pearce is a more proven offensive player, and his bat will get into the lineup regularly between left field and first base. Upton regained his power stroke last year, although his production dipped once the Blue Jays picked him up from San Diego. Carrera provided some big hits during a couple of extended stints in the lineup. Dalton Pompey is expected to open the season at Triple-A Buffalo as is fellow prospect Harold Ramirez, who could make his big-league debut next year.
Martin proved his worth time and again in 2016, and the Blue Jays can now better manage his playing time. How much of an adjustment is made to his workload — Martin’s 1,069.1 innings caught ranked second in the AL last year — will depend on who ends up as his backup. Longtime farmhand A.J. Jimenez is in position to grab the role, but the Jays also will be hunting for an experienced upgrade.
Morales takes over as the DH, and he should see his numbers tick up at hitter-friendly Rogers Centre and in the homer havens of the AL East. Too often, the Jays’ right-handed-heavy lineup made it easy to plan for late in games for the opposing manager. Now with a productive switch-hitter in the heart of the order, opponents will have to burn more relief arms. With some combination of Pearce, Upton Jr., Smoak and Carrera on the bench, manager John Gibbons should have more matchup options.
The front office’s failure to re-sign Encarnacion and the quick reallocation of his money to Morales and Pearce will be the prism through which much of this season is viewed. Succeed, and president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins will be forgiven for allowing a franchise icon to depart. Fail, and their offseason will be held against them. Gibbons will likely be the one to bear most of the immediate fallout. He remains a holdover from the Alex Anthopoulos regime and is an obvious target if the team doesn’t start strong, even after back-to-back appearances in the ALCS.
The gap between the Blue Jays and Boston appears to only have widened. The Blue Jays will once again be heavily reliant on their pitching staff, and they’ll have precious little margin for error on that front. And the new-look offense bears watching, as the Blue Jays can no longer count on being able to bludgeon opponents into submission. Still, they are too talented to count out, and another playoff berth is a realistic possibility.