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Previewing the AL East: Toronto Blue Jays

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The Jays seem a touch better than last year, but they will only go as far as their impressive starting pitching can take them.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that the Toronto Blue Jays were one of the biggest disappointments in baseball last season. After advancing to the 2016 ALCS, where they were knocked out by the Cleveland Indians, Canada’s team was tipped to return to the playoffs in 2017. A disastrous April in which they went 8-17 and found themselves 10.5 games back in the AL East by early May sunk their season before it really started.

As bad as the Jays were to open the year, they were able to right the ship enough to catch the Orioles and leap frog them in the standings, finishing fourth with a record of 76-86. However, it didn’t happen because Baltimore handed wins to Toronto. The season series went heavily in favor of the O’s; 12 wins to seven. With the Yankees and Red Sox expected to battle for the top spot in the division, it’s possible that the East’s two bird teams will go beak-to-beak for the AL’s final wild card spot.

Additions and subtractions

Jose Bautista is gone and he may even retire. While he had a great late-career run with Toronto, he had become a drain on the team’s performance in the last year or so. Darren O’Day, among a number of other Orioles, will be more than happy to see Bautista leave.

Joining Bautista out the door are catcher Miguel Montero, outfielder Ezequiel Carrera, infielders Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins, as well as pitcher Dominic Leone (trade with Cardinals). Carrera could hit a little bit but was kind of a disaster in the field. Leone had a nice year in Toronto’s ‘pen (2.94 FIP, 180 ERA+) and is likely to be their biggest loss of the offseason.

Tyler Clippard, John Axford and Seung-hwan Oh are three familiar middle-inning arms new in town. Each of them has a number of big league saves to their name and should add depth to the bullpen. Jamie Garcia had a solid season (1.4 WAR, 4.41 ERA, 4.25 FIP) across three different teams in 2017. He will likely slot into a back-end rotation spot with Toronto.

On offense, the Jays added infielder Yangervis Solarte from the Padres, former National Danny Espinosa and a pair of outfielders in Randal Grichuk (trade with the Cardinals) and Curtis Granderson, who is still putting up decent numbers (.212/.323/.452, 26 home runs in 2017) as a 37-year-old.

Perhaps the greatest “transaction” will be Aaron Sanchez’s return from injury. The 25-year-old made just eight starts last year due to recurring fingernail and blister issues on his throwing hand. Having him for an entire season would be a huge boost.

Starting rotation

The team’s top three starters from a year ago (Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada) all return. Happ is being given the start on Opening Day, but Stroman is the “ace” and Sanchez likely has the best stuff on the staff. When the California native is right, he has the ability to win a Cy Young Award. Garcia will be given the final spot, giving the Blue Jays a solid starting staff from top to bottom.

Fangraphs expects Toronto to have the 13th-most valuable rotation in baseball (13.5 WAR, 4.28 ERA), but that is with Sanchez projected to toss just 140 frames. If his finger problems are under control, you can expect an even better showing from this unit.

Joe Biagini is another capable starting option in the organization (4.27 FIP in 2017). He will almost certainly be given a chance at some point when an injury pops up. While Stroman looked good in his start on Monday, he has been experiencing shoulder discomfort this spring. A flare up could lead to Biagini getting another shot.

The bullpen

The Blue Jays approach to stabilizing their bullpen reminds me of the 2007 Orioles, who signed Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Scott Williamson and Chad Bradford all in one offseason. Just get together a bunch of veteran arms (Clippard, Axford, Oh) that were once pretty good and see how it goes. They have to be better than whatever it was that Jason Grilli (6.97 ERA, 7.90 FIP) was doing with Toronto last season before being traded.

But this group stops and starts with closer Roberto Osuna. Although his ERA spiked to 3.38 last year, his FIP was a minuscule 1.74 to go with a career-high 39 saves and a first-time All-Star selection.

The lineup

Fangraphs projects Toronto to have one of the game’s top five offenses in 2018, which would be a massive jump from a season ago. One of Toronto’s biggest problems last season was their inability to score runs. The 694 runs they scored were the fifth-fewest in all of baseball and it was the worst mark in the American League.

Josh Donaldson is entering a contract year. As a 32-year-old that missed a quarter of the 2017 season with a calf strain, he will need to have another big year at the plate in order to standout in what is sure to be a cluttered free agent market next winter. There’s no reason to think he won’t do just that. Despite only playing in 113 games, Donaldson still hit 33 home runs and slashed .270/.385/.559. If he’s healthy, he’ll be very, very good again.

Troy Tulowitzki is going to miss some time with an injury (heel) to open the season. The shortstop spends a few weeks on the DL just about every season. Perhaps he’s getting it out of the way early? He is 33 years old and has already played his best baseball, but he can still be a solid MLB regular when he’s on the field.

If the Blue Jays can get players on base ahead of Donaldson, they will be in a good position. That responsibility is likely to fall to Devon Travis, who played in just 50 games last season because of cartilage damage in his knee, which required surgery. Do you sense a pattern here? Granderson (career .339 OBP) has also led off a lot this spring.

The defense

Advanced metrics suggest that Toronto was one of the worst defensive teams in baseball a year ago. They ranked 27th in defensive runs above average (-24.3) and 26th in UZR (-15.3). Bautista and Carrera were two of the Jays worst defenders. They will be replaced by Granderson and Grichuk. Neither is extraordinary in the field, but will be improvements on their predecessors.

Other than that, the team remains relatively unchanged around the diamond. Russell Martin remains a steady catcher, but he’s not quite as great as he once was and his pitch framing stats have taken a dive. Donaldson posted negative defensive numbers last year, but that could have been due to injury. Same goes for Tulowitzki. Kevin Pillar is still really good in centerfield, posting a 6.0 UZR in 2017. Travis should be above-average at second base. And Justin Smoak oscillates between solid and bad; he was good (1.7 UZR) last year.

The projections

Adding everything together, the Blues Jays don’t seem to be any better of a team than the Orioles. Fangraphs’ estimate of 86 wins certainly seems high considering the team has to rely on a number of older players staying healthy and playing up to their past abilities. That’s risky.

However, Sanchez and Stroman could represent one of the best 1-2 punches in MLB. Donaldson remains a superstar at a premier position. Osuna is only 23 years old and already a steady presence at the back of the bullpen. There are certainly some things to like with the Blue Jays, but they will need a lot to break right in order to compete with the elite teams in the league.