This off season was a tough one for the Blue Jays as they made the decision not to re-sign Encarnacion, who joined the Cleveland Indians, the team that eliminated the Jays last postseason. Toronto did bring in designated hitter Kendrys Morales from the Kansas City Royals, an early sign the team would unlikely bring back EE. While Morales did hit 30 home runs last season, his batting average dropped 27 points and OPS fell over 50 points from where it was in 2015. The Jays also signed free agent outfielder Steve Pearce and relief pitchers JP Howell and Joe Smith. In addition to losing Encarnacion, outfielder Michael Saunders signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Pitcher RA Dickey signed with the Atlanta Braves and reliever Brett Cecil left to join the St. Louis Cardinals.
Assessing the Blue Jays off season is very interesting. On a positive note, their starting pitching looks very good. Their staff, anchored by Sanchez, Happ, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman, looked great last season and hope is that Stroman is going to get better. It is scary if Sanchez gets any better, but it is quite possible. I like their bullpen depth, led by closer Roberto Osuna (2.68 earned run average, 82 strikeouts in 74 innings pitched). Veteran Jason Grilli returns after he was acquired mid season in 2016 by the Atlanta Braves. Joe Biagini was a pleasant surprise last season after throwing quality ball over 60 innings. Smith and Howell are veterans with postseason experience. And on the offensive side of the ball, Donaldson is a legitimate MLB candidate each and every season.
However, there are a couple of things that do not make a return to the postseason a sure thing. First, the loss of Encarnacion will not just be felt in his numbers, but in his presence in the clubhouse. And he hit 42 home runs, which added to Saunders' total of 24 means the team is missing 66 home runs from their 2016 offensive output of a year ago. Last season, it is fair to say that the Blue Jays saw some depreciation from Bautista. He did battle some injuries and missed quite some time, but his OPS last year was its lowest it has been since his first year in Toronto in 2009. Surely, Bautista's 2016 season effected his free agent stock and was part of the reason he waited as long as he did to sign. That being said, Toronto is the perfect spot for Bautista and is the ideal place for him to return to form. Finally, the competition in the American League East is getting stronger and everybody is getting younger and deeper and though the Jays have some younger starting pitchers, most of their position players are considered on the older side according to baseball standards.
Donaldson has emerged as one of the best players in all of baseball, a title he has held over the past two seasons. Perhaps having Donaldson, who will be a free agent after this season, allowed General Manager Ross Adkins to feel he could part with Encarnacion and possibly even Bautista. Morales will hit some home runs in the DH spot, but there is a concern on how they will replace the balance of EE's numbers and all of Saunders offense in left field. They will go into the season with free agent signing Pearce, Melvin Upton as well as Ezequiel Carrera all battling for playing time. Upton did hit 20 home runs last year and could produce playing a full season of home games at Rogers Centre and reputation shows right handed bats have had big seasons there. Plus, Upton is also a free agent after the season. Tulowitzki used to be one of the best players in baseball but has not hit for a high batting average since his trade from Colorado. First baseman Justin Smoak hit just .217 last year with Pearce an option to push him for playing time.
Russell Martin has had a big impact on the success of the Blue Jays starting pitchers. He hit .290 in 2014, his last season in Pittsburgh and parlayed that into a five year free agent deal in Toronto. He has his average dip to .233 last season, though he still does have some home run power. Center fielder Kevin Pillar is a great defender, but he has also dropped off a little bit offensively from where he was in 2015. The Jays are looking to get a full season out of second baseman Devon Travis, something that injuries have kept the .300 hitter for being able to do over the past two seasons. The lineup I would put out there is Travis 2B, Donaldson 3B, Bautista RF, Morales DH. Tulowitzki SS, Martin C, Upton LF, Pearce/ Smoak 1B, Pillar CF. The Blue Jays bench includes infielders Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, Carrera and either Pearce or Smoak. Veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be the Blue Jays backup catcher.
A key to Toronto's success this season will be how the starting rotation holds itself together. Sanchez really can get better, which could put him as one of the top pitchers in the American League, which is pretty much where he was headed last season. Stroman did a great job to return to the mound September of 2015 and help the Jays in the postseason but did not have a good season last year. If he improves, it will help them immensely. Happ will probably not win 20 games last season but he should be able to throw nearly 200 innings of 3.00 ERA ball. Estrada increased his strikeout percentage and in spite of his record and pitched just as well last year as he did in 2015. Veteran Francisco Liriano looked washed up last year in Pittsburgh, but showed some life after the trade and is expected to be their fifth starter. Manager John Gibbons has toyed with the idea of using Biacini as a starter, but I do not believe he will start unless the Jays suffer a major injury. Outside of Osuna, Biacini, Grilli, Howell and Smith, the Blue Jays have Gavin Floyd, who has shown some life as a reliever. Mike Bolsinger can either help out in long relief or maybe be a spot starter.
Shortstop Richard Urena is a year away, but is a solid all around player. Pitchers Sean Reid Foley and Jon Harris are well on their way to helping out within the next year or so. Vladimir Guererro Jr and Dwight Smith Jr are still moving up the pipeline from where they were when I mentioned them last year. The player I would watch out for is first baseman Rowdy Tellez, who hit 23 home runs last year in Double- A.
Overall, the Blue Jays are equipped to run away with the American League East if things work out. If they made it back to the American League Championship, I would not be shocked. I do not think Morales will be anywhere near as productive as EE and questions have to exist over how good Bautista will be. Saunders is a very underrated loss for them as well. The Jays over/ under number is 86.5 and they can very easily get to that. However, I think 2017 will be a down season for them, I have them finishing at 79-83, fourth place in the American League East division.