Our AL East team previews, part of previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, conclude with a look at the Toronto Blue Jays, who came in third place in the division last season.
Coming off two straight ALCS appearances, both ending in losses, the Blue Jays are looking to take the next step and make it to their first World Series since winning back-to-back titles in 1992-93. Perhaps their biggest free-agent signing toward achieving that goal was re-signing one of their own players in inking OF Jose Bautista to a new deal in free agency. The team also signed veteran DH Kendrys Morales, who is essentially replacing 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion, who signed with the Indians in January. The team also lost OF Michael Saunders, who signed with the Phillies. Other than those changes, the roster looks pretty similar to what it was last season, with 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson manning third base, SS Troy Tulowitzki up the middle of the infield and SP Aaron Sanchez leading the starting rotation.
The Blue Jays ranked in the bottom 10 in Major League Baseball with a .248 batting average in 2016, but they hit the fourth most home runs, with 221, which helped finish in the top 10 with a .755 OPS. That home run total was helped in part by Encarnacion, whose 42 home runs led the team. Donaldson had the next highest homer total on the squad, with 37 to go along with a .284 batting average and .953 OPS; his 7.4 WAR was the fifth-best in the majors. Bautista had a below-average year last season, hitting 22 home runs with a .234 average and .817 OPS. 2B Devon Travis led the team with a .300 average to go along with 11 home runs on the season, while Tulowitzki smashed 24 homers. With the Royals last season, Morales hit .263 with 30 home runs.
The pitching staff posted a 3.78 ERA, which ranked as No. 6 in the league, but was near the league average with 1,314 strikeouts. The bullpen matched the MLB average with 43 saves, 36 of them from young RP Roberto Osuna, who had a 2.68 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 74 innings. In his first full season as a starter, Sanchez posted a 3.00 ERA and notched 161 strikeouts in 192 innings en route to a 15-2 record in 30 starts. SP Marcus Stroman, who was coming off a 2015 season in which an injury limited him to just four appearances, didn’t meet expectations coming back from the injury. He posted a 4.37 ERA and struck out 166 batters in 204 innings over 32 starts. SP J.A. Happ had a surprisingly strong season, becoming a 20-game winner for the first time in his career as he pitched to a 3.18 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 195 innings.
Losing Encarnacion and his 42 home runs is a blow to the offense, but Morales will make up the slack for most of those, and if Bautista can return to his 25-30+ home run totals he would also help the Blue Jays make up for those lost home runs, but at 36 years old 20-25 home runs may be the new normal for him as he gets older. On the mound, Stroman needs to bounce back from his subpar 2016 to help give the team a good 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation because Happ likely can’t be counted on to repeat the success he had last season as he will likely regress back toward his 3.98 career ERA. Slotting in toward the back of the rotation is SP Francisco Liriano, who has been too inconsistent in his career to be relied upon as a strong option in the rotation. Outside of Osuna, the bullpen consists of mainly mediocre relievers who have had moderate success in the majors.
The offense should continue to do well at the plate this season, but the pitching staff has some concerns. Even if Stroman is able to bounce back this year, which I expect him to, I don’t trust the rotation beyond him and Sanchez. I think the team is going to have to trade for starting pitching before the deadline to solidify the middle of the rotation to have a real shot to compete in an AL East that will likely be led by the Red Sox, with the Orioles and Yankees also looking to contend for the playoffs. Likewise, a lack of quality depth in the bullpen will cause problems for the Blue Jays if Osuna suffers an injury during the season. I still think the Blue Jays have a shot at securing a wild card in the American League, but questions on the mound should concern the team.