With a feeling of unfinished business after a disappointing ending to the 2016 ALCS, the long off-season for the Toronto Blue Jays is finally coming to an end.
The Blue Jays begin the 2017 MLB regular season April 3 in Baltimore, with the hope of returning to the postseason for a third straight year.
Here’s some of what you can expect from Canada’s team in 2017.
The departure of Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland had many Blue Jays fans rending their clothes and predicting doom for the offence.
But one player does not make a team, and for the contract dollars saved on Encarnacion, the Jays were able to acquire Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales (and one could argue, J.P. Howell for the bullpen).
Pearce can play left field and first base – meaning he can platoon with de facto first baseman Justin Smoak. That alone should cut the Jays strikeout rate in half.
Ezequiel Carrera, Melvin Upton Jr., and Kevin Pillar don’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of pitchers across the league, but Pillar has been working diligently on his plate patience, and Upton Jr. (more on him later) is a much better player than most fans give him credit for.
Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin both struggled to find their swings in the first half of 2016. If they return to form (and Martin will get more rest this year with a solid back-up catcher in Jarrod Saltalamacchia), you can expect much more production from them.
And speaking of Salty (can we agree to just call him that from this point forward?), without Josh Thole, it means there isn’t a gaping hole in the 9-spot every fifth game.
Josh Donaldson. Enough said.
And of course the biggest signing of the off-season, Jose Bautista. Joey Bats has looked exceptional so far in Spring Training and at the World Baseball Classic. And while he claims he has no chip on his shoulder, you know that he’ll have something to prove after having a disappointing free agency.
And angry Bautista is the best Baustista.
If the team stays healthy, you could potentially expect a similar offence to their monster 2015 season.
Barring injury, Morales should find the comfy confines of Rogers Centre a hitter’s dream. He posted impressive numbers last season in Kansas City, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 93, all while playing 81 games at spacious Kauffman Stadium.
Some of the doubles he crushed at home for the Royals will clear the fence at the Dome in Toronto.
If the Jays’ starting pitching stays consistent with 2016 levels, there are no real holes in this line-up.
Francisco Liriano has looked solid in Spring Training, and Opening Day starter Marco Estrada (who struggled with back issues all season) says he’s never felt better.
J.A. Happ may not win another 20 games, but he has proven himself to be a steady and reliable lefty.
And of course, Toronto can rely on a pair of young pitchers in Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez…
Stroman has been hinting on social media about having something to prove all offseason, and he certainly took more heat than he deserved for his pitching last season.
Never let 'em distract you from your mission.
— Marcus Stroman (@MStrooo6) February 21, 2017
Perhaps he was put under too much pressure, being named both Opening Day starter and looked at to be the new, youthful face of the team.
The 25-year-old was fantastic in his combined Spring Training and World Baseball Classic starts. He led Team USA to the championship, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in the final and being named tournament MVP.
Hopefully he can continue to pitch with this kind of dominance, and put up the numbers expected from him in 2016.
What a year 2016 was for Sanchez.
Despite the concern over pitch counts for the young pitcher, he ended up with the best ERA in the American League.
Sanchez looked a little rusty in Spring Training, which he attributes to working on some new pitches. The team has named him the fifth starter, suggesting there are still some concerns about innings limit.
Maybe he has a little less to prove and he feels comfortable working on new stuff. Or maybe he’ll have another career year, win the Cy Young, and 35 games. But it’s more likely he’ll have a little regression or ‘sophomore slump’ as the league’s hitters begin to figure him out.
Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini, J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith should provide the bullpen’s foundation. Aaron Loup offers left-handed relief and Mike Bolsinger and Ryan Tepera will likely see work this season.
Really though, the only constant is that unless your name is Andrew Miller (or one could argue, Roberto Osuna), there is no such thing as a guaranteed reliever. Grilli is 40 years old, Biagini is only in his second season, and Howell and Smith haven’t pitched with the Jays before.
The good news is there is some depth in Buffalo, and management has shown they aren’t afraid to make mid-season trades to bolster the bullpen if necessary.
Signing a nice contract extension in the off-season means that Blue Jays manager John Gibbons gets the chance to both surpass Cito Gaston in all-time wins, and put the record for most ejections by a Jays manager out of reach.
Gibbons is known as a hothead and he manages a team of hotheads, who love to argue calls. He’s a player’s manager – so this means defending his guys. He’ll take the toss for his team.
Look, it’s a long season and sometimes you want to relax with a glass of wine and ice cream. Be ready, Demarlo Hale.
Get ready for a blisteringly hot take: Upton is a much better player than most Jays fans believe.
His numbers in 2016 were far from bad – 20 home runs and 61 RBIs – and he has a career .321 on-base percentage. With a team of veterans around him, he could quietly have his best season yet.
If he plays as expected, and as he can, this could free Steve Pearce to play first base exclusively and may mean Justin Smoak may not survive the season.
When you have Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins as infield back-ups (and bullpen relievers!), you know the defence is strong.
Tulowitzki is one of the greatest shortstops of all-time, Josh Donaldson is incredible at third, and Devon Travis will hopefully be healthy enough to play a full season at second. Smoak and Pearce can both ably play first. Martin may not throw out as many runners as past seasons, but his ability to read batters and call games is unsurpassed.
Bautista is no longer a defensive superstar, but he’s also not a liability in right. While who will be the regular left-fielder is still a big question mark, with superman Pillar in centre, the outfield should be defensively sound.
If Toronto gets strong pitching from their starters and relievers, bounce-back seasons from some of their hitters, and strong play from their new acquisitions, not only will they make the playoffs, they’ll win the World Series.