Another year, another runner-up performance in the American League Championship Series.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who looked really good on paper, couldn’t get it done against AL Central foes Kansas City in 2015 and Cleveland in 2016.
The Indians bullpen completely did in a Blue Jays batting order that failed to capitalize on a Cleveland starting rotation beset by injuries. They hit a collective .201 and clubbed all of two homers in 159 at-bats (one every 80 at-bats), a far cry from the pace they set during the season, 221 clobbered in 5,479 at-bats (one every 25 at-bats).
They also scored just eight runs in five games, after averaging 4.7 runs per game in the regular season.
On the starting pitching side, their strength all year, they wasted two quality starts by Marco Estrada, as well as decent efforts from J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez.
The off-season has been hectic, what with the departure of Edwin Encarnacion to the Tribe and Jose Bautista’s drawn out contract negotations, along with a few other notable transactions (signing Kendrys Morales, for one).
With spring training underway and expectations high yet again, there are 10 questions the Jays need to answer if they are to make a run in the post-season again (maybe a successful one).
10. Outside Of Roberto Osuna, Will The Bullpen Get It Done?
In 22-year-old closer Roberto Osuna, the Jays have a legitimate shut down guy who adjusts well in game and is mature beyond his years. As for the rest of the arms in the bullpen, all bets are off. The Jays lost Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit, Scott Feldman and Jesse Chavez in the off-season, two of which — Cecil and Benoit — will be hard to replace. They did sign veterans Joe Smith (2-5, 3.46 ERA in 54 games with Angels and Cubs), as well as lefty J.P. Howell (1-1, 4.09 ERA in 64 games with the Dodgers). Whether these two adequately compensate for Benoit and Cecil remains to be seen. Jason Grilli, now 40, was excellent in a set-up role, but how long can his old arm hold up? We’ll see. Joe Biagini was also outstanding in long relief (4-3, 3.06 ERA in 67.2 innings pitched), but the Jays may want to make him a fifth starter. Other than the usual cast of suspects, the wild card could be free agent pick-up Mat Latos. A standout starter his first six seasons in the big leagues, Latos has struggled somewhat in stints with five teams over the last two seasons. In answer to the question, the Jays bullpen may be solidly streaky.
9. Will Any Non-Roster Invitees Surprise Everyone And Make An Impact?
Jays management over the years has been pretty astute at finding lesser-light free agents to plug gaps in their 25-man roster. We’ve already spoken a bit about Latos, who could be a good in long relief, or as a spot starter. Two other pitchers of note, righthanded starter Lucas Harrell and journeyman righty Gavin Floyd are worth a watch. Harrell, who had the indistinction of going 6-17 (most losses in the AL) with Houston in 2013, was fairly solid in nine starts split between Atlanta and Texas in 2016, going 3-2 with a 4.21 ERA. Floyd resurrected himself as a reliever with Toronto (he has been in 243 big league games, 196 as a starter) and given a the right role, could be a useful piece. As for position players, utility infielder Gregorio Petit and top prospect first baseman Rowdy Tellez will get long looks. Petit got in a career high 89 games with the Angels last year, hitting .245 with two homers and 17 RBI. He had starts at third, second and shortstop and could push guys like Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins. Tellez, the first baseman of the future (or DH), will wow people in the Grapefruit League with his bat, but will likely go to AAA (with a possible promotion later). The answer to the question is: wait and see.
8. Is Catching Depth, Or Lack Thereof, Going To Be A Problem?
Toronto knows it can’t keep leaning hard on Russell Martin’s 34-year-old knees. The four-time all-star was solid in the dog days last year, but faded down the stretch offensively and defensively. His batting average, homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, OPS and runners thrown out all took dives from 2015 to 2016. Speaking of throwing out base stealers, he went from leading the majors at 44 percent in 2015 (32-of-72) to just 15 percent in 2016. As well, he was also just 3-for-33 at the plate in the playoffs. With Josh Thole gone (not unexpected when R.A. Dickey left), the back-up catching position is up for grabs. On the 40-man roster, the Jays have waiver claim Juan Graterol as the second catcher (nine games of big league experience). The signing of Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a minor league deal is interesting, should he be able to recover some of his former glory. Salty hit just .171 in 92 games with Detroit in 2016, but did stroke 12 homers and knock in 38 runs. We do believe that depth at catcher will be good until the trade deadline in August.
7. Is 2B Devon Travis Ready To Handle The Lead-Off Role?
Much of this question can be answered with: as long as he can stay off the disabled list. The Jays haven’t had a consummate lead-off man, even auditioning Jose Bautista there, in many, many years. From top to bottom, the Bluebirds aren’t blessed with a lot of speed (just 54 stolen bases in 2016), so it’s imperative they put a guy at the top who makes good contact and gets on base regularly. Travis, who’s missed 161 of 324 games his first two seasons in the majors, could be that guy. In 163 games, he has 189 hits for a .301 batting average. He doesn’t strike out a ton, but could stand to draw a few more walks to up his mediocre OBP (.342). He has a bit of speed, having swiped seven bases on nine attempts and some pop in his bat (46 doubles, 19 homers and 85 RBI). Therefore, he will be able to handle lead-off duties, providing he doesn’t stub his toe in spring training or something like that.
6. Can The Jays’ Defence Make Up For Any Offensive And/Or Pitching Deficiencies?
In 2016, the Blue Jays were solid on defence, finishing eighth overall in the major leagues with a collective .986 fielding percentage. They were also able, from some quarters, like third (Josh Donaldson), shortstop (Troy Tulowitzki) and centerfield (Kevin Pillar) able to make game-changing, highlight reel plays. This year, there shouldn’t be a major shake-up in the order of things, as the rest of the infield/outfield featuring: Devon Travis at second, Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak at first, Russell Martin catching, Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton Jr. in left (and sometimes right) and Jose Bautista in right (when he’s not DHing). The Jays do have the luxury in bench depth of having Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, who can both play 2B, 3B and SS. The defence should be as solid as it was in 2016 and be able to make up for any offensive/pitching shortfalls.
5. Are Any Jays’ Farmhands, Like Dalton Pompey, Ready For Prime Time?
For three seasons going, homegrown outfielder Dalton Pompey has teased the faithful with his speed on the basepaths, a little bog in his bat and ability to play corner outfield defence. And yet, the 2010 draft pick has mostly languished at AAA Buffalo, despite grabbing the starting centerfield job in 2015. In all he has played 59 games with the Blue Jays, recording a .222 batting average with 14 extra base hits, 10 RBI and eight stolen bases in 10 attempts. He also has four stolen bases in five playoff games from the 2015 post-season. Defensively, he doesn’t hurt the Jays and if he makes the team will likely be a bench depth corner outfielder. Other than Pompey, there aren’t many rookies/farmhands who have a legitimate shot. One who will raise eyebrows is the aforementioned Rowdy Tellez, whose bat isn’t far from being major league (.297 BA, 29 doubles, 23 HR, 81 RBI at AA in 2016). We’ll answer the question by saying Pompey et al are not-quite-totally-ready-yet.
4. Is Gibby The Right Manager To Lead The Jays To The Promised Land?
The answer to this question is: maybe? John Gibbons enters his 10th season as manager (he had two part seasons in the first nine) with an overall record of 644-614. The affable Montana native has guided the Jays to the post-season two years in a row, with a combined record of 10-10, pretty much on par with his regular season mark. His job this season is to take the changes handed to him by the management team of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins and mold the team into a contender in a tough, tough AL East. He won’t have the luxury of Edwin Encarnacion batting clean up and doesn’t inherit an improved bullpen. However, he has better contact hitters in Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales to plug in around Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki. And that starting rotation, wow. If he’s not the solution, expect a change this season.
3. Can Kendrys Morales And Steve Pearce Replace Edwing’s Offence?
When Edwin Encarnacion spurned a four-year, $80 million deal from Toronto in the off-season — this after the team jumped at Kendrys Morales in the first week of free agency — and signed with Cleveland for three years and $60 million, the Jays immediately lost five years of near unparalleled production (193 HR, 550 RBI). In Morales, the de facto DH, the Blue Jays get a guy who had two bounce back seasons in 2015-16. He clubbed 65 doubles, two triples, 52 homers and drove in 199 runs. He’s about as much of a free swinger, with 223 strikeouts in those two seasons, but off-set his Ks with 106 walks. Signed by the Jays for three years and $33 million, Morales was good during the Royals 2015 title march, hitting .255 in 16 games with four homers and 10 RBI. As for Pearce, they got a guy who’ll make $12.5 million over two seasons who can play left field and first base. In 85 games for Baltimore, he hit .288 with 13 homers, 35 RBI and a slugging percentage of .492. Together, Pearce and Morales had 43 HR and 128 RBI, which amounts to one more homer and one more RBI than Encarnacion had. So, the short answer is: sure (and they’re cheaper, collectively).
2. Will Jose Bautista Have A Bounce Back Season?
Suffice to say that Joey Bats best seasons are behind him. After clubbing 97 homers between 2010 and 2011, the six-time all-star had 152 in the last five campaigns. Not chopped-liver production, but a sharp drop nonetheless. Bautista had an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, one which saw him hit just .234 (with an OBP of .366 however), along with 22 HR and 69 RBI. The most marked regression in his game is his outfield play, specifically ability to throw out runners on the bases. Formerly possessed of a cannon for an arm, Bautista had just five outfield assists in 2016, well down from his last best season in that department (12 in 2014). Adding to his malaise was an off-season of bewildering contract negotiations which saw him turn down a one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer, only to find the market dried up for his services and sign a one-year $18 million pact with the Jays, with options. Depending on his utilization (will he DH too?), health and slot in the batting order, he just might bounce back.
1. Is the Starting Rotation Going To Stymie The Opposition Like 2016?
The biggest strength the Jays have — without question — is an inning-eating starting rotation that tied the Chicago Cubs in quality starts with 100 in 2016. From top to bottom, this rotation was deep. J.A. Happ went 20-4, threw 195 total innings and got Cy Young votes. Aaron Sanchez went 15-2 in 30 starts (192 innings pitched) and had the rotation’s best ERA at 3.00. Marcus Stroman went 9-10 and threw a team high 204 innings and 166 strikeouts. Marco Estrad was 9-9 in 29 games and had the highest K/9 of 8.4. R.A. Dickey, since departed, went 10-15 in 30 games. Sanchez was seventh overall in quality starts with 24, followed by Estrada and Happ at 21 (T-14) and rounded out by Stroman with 19 (T-22). With Dickey in Atlanta, the fifth spot in a stellar rotation is up for grabs. Francisco Liriano is penciled in right now, but expect Lucas Harrell, Mat Latos and maybe even Joe Biagini to get looks too. Overall, the Jays still have the best rotation in the American League, at least.