Just weeks away from Opening Day, the Toronto Blue Jays feel that they have what it takes to make a run at the postseason for a third consecutive year.
It’s manager John Gibbons‘ fifth season with team, with two straight trips to the postseason under his belt. After a dramatic win against the Baltimore Orioles in the Wild Card Game, a sweep to their rivals the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, they fell short once again in the American League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians.
Moves from the front office were cautious, yet important since they kept the window open for contending. This is good since they did not have to make any sacrifices to its minor league depth however, they did lose some key assets this winter.
It was a wild and crazy off-season for the Blue Jays. Management tacked a self-destructive take-it-or-leave-it offer for Edwin Encarnacion. Both sides seemed destined to get a deal done. Unfortunately, Encarnacion settled for less money with the Cleveland Indians as he signed a three-year, $60 million deal with an option of a fourth year. Blue Jays fans watched Encarnacion take less money after the team offered him a 4-year, $80-million deal.
Many fans did not expect Jose Bautista to return. Jose Bautista sat in limbo for months before the Jays snatched him back up on a favourable one-year deal. Bautista will make $18.5 million, that’s $1 million more than his rejected qualifying offer. The deal also includes a mutual option for 2018, and vesting options for 2019. The 36-year old will be healthy, and motivated in hopes of having a bounce back season after an injury plagued 2016 season. The surprise reunion could work out for both sides.
The starting rotation remains talented. Among one of the best, and more solidified rotations in the American League, it’s Toronto’s top asset heading into the 2017 season. There is no clear number one starter, but it is set with Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Francisco Liriano.
Sanchez and Stroman have plenty to prove this year. Sanchez had a remarkable campaign as he finished with 15 wins and the lowest earned run average (ERA) in the American League with a solid 3.00. Stroman had an up and down season that saw his ERA inflate to 4.37. Estrada has one of the best change ups in the League and he’s looking to bounce back after having a nagging back injury that lingered for most of the second half. Lefty J.A. Happ is looking to build off a very successful 20-win season, and Liriano is looking improve his consistency when he first came to Toronto after he was traded.
The bullpen was terrible in the first half, but picked up some consistency in the second half of the season. The Blue Jays improved their pen by signing southpaw J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith to one-year deals. Howell is the obvious replacement for Brett Cecil after he signed a four-year, $30.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals where as Smith is the replacement for Joaquin Benoit who also left for the Phillies. Howell and Smith will most likely handle the middle innings along with Joe Biagini. After that, veteran setup man Jason Grilli will come in before closer Roberto Osuna takes the mound in the late innings.
It’s clear that this roster is still built as a “must win now” team. The lineup may not have Encarnacion, but it still has 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitizki, Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales.
Kendrys Morales is the switch-hitting designated hitter who is being counted on as a middle-of-the-lineup order presence, and the obvious replacement for Encarnacion. Most Blue Jay fans seem to forget that Morales was a key contributor with the Kansas City Royals in their back-to-back World Series appearances. With a ring to his name, Morales will look to bring his experience, and depth to the lineup in hopes of making another postseason run.
With the lead-off hitter in question, it’s no doubt that second baseman Devon Travis will likely serve as the lead-off man on Opening Day. When healthy, Travis sparks the play at the top of the lineup. However, he missed 61 games last season so he has a lot to make up for this season. He will have to find a way to stay healthy and be consistent at the plate.
Catcher Russel Martin was another Blue Jay who had an up and down year.Back up Josh Thole wasn’t too much to rely on as he was only used when R.A. Dickey pitched. Dionner Navarro came in to fill the void as the backup near the end of the season and it didn’t turn out so well. So, the Blue Jays signed a legitimate backup catcher, who has a very long last name.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia will provide more offense then Josh Thole. He’s a respectable a hitter who has much needed flexibility if Martin needs rest.
Justin Smoak and Steven Pearce will be interesting to watch as to who will play first base. Smoak, a switch-hitter, and Pearce, a versatile right-handed hitter, could end up in a platoon at first base after a signed a two-year, $12.5 million contract. Both hitters will be given a chance to win the starting job throughout Spring Training.
Left-field is up for grabs after Michael Saunders signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. There was zero offense from Saunders in the second half of the season and guys like Ezequiel Carerra, Melvin Upton, and Dalton Pompey could fill in the hole. All three have speed, agility along with the small-ball skill that the Blue Jays lacked last season. Kevin Pillar will need to keep doing his thing defensively in centre-field. Who knows, maybe we’ll see Pillars numbers jump if he can cut down on the strikeouts and try for more walks this year.
Last but not least, Josh Donladson. The Bringer of Rain is arguably one of the best third basemen in the game. He’ll continue to be a strong force in the lineup offensively and on the field defensively.
The AL East will be a tough battle. The Boston Red Sox have some of the top young offensive players, and with the addition to Chris Sale, their rotation can be matched to the Blue Jays. Also add the tough Baltimore Orioles, the pesky Tampa Bay Rays, and the New York Yankees who have promising young players. This division will be more challenging than it was a year ago.
Expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays have increased over the last few seasons. Before the 2015-16 seasons, the postseason was a foreign concept to Canadians, but now, not so much. Toronto, nor its fans, will no longer settle for second. For this season to be successful, they have to make the postseason again. However this time, they have to at least play in the World Series.