Last year’s Blue Jays zoomed back to relevance for the first time since the Clinton Administration (or the Kim Campbell one, if you are reading this and are north of the border). They had, in fact, been the only major league team to not qualify for the playoffs since the advent of the first wild card playoff slot. They fortified a strong lineup by adding one of the game’s best bats in Troy Tulowitzki and upgraded a decent, but not overpowering starting rotation by adding a true ace in David Price.
The team with the majors’ largest fan base – an entire country – lost Price in the offseason but added a few other key pieces as they look to return to and go deeper into the playoffs. What do we think of the defending AL East Champs’ chances for 2016?
Any discussion of this team begins with the offense. The 2015 Blue Jays scored 891 runs, which were 17 percent more than the second place New York Yankees and the most of any team in the league since the 2009 Yankees lit up scoreboards from coast to coast. American League MVP Josh Donaldson led the league in both runs scored and runs batted in while mashing 41 homers and batting just under .300. He wasn’t exactly the only offensive threat on a team with Edwin Encarnacion (at least 34 homers each of the past four seasons) and Jose Bautista (has averaged 38 homers a year since 2010). Bautista is 35 and Encarnacion is 33 and at some point they will start to decline. However, both are entering free-agent walk years, so regression might not come quite yet.
After those three, there’s not even a huge drop-off. Troy Tulowitzki didn’t play all that well with the Blue Jays in his short time there last year, but it’s hard to believe he won’t pick up his game over a full season in Toronto, since he’s normally good for a .300 average and 30 home runs when healthy. He’s got a lengthy injury history, though, so the good times can be interrupted at any time. Even so, he joins Donaldson, Encarnacion and Bautista as four potentially monster bats. The Jays also have Russell Martin at catcher and he hit 23 homers last season — and provided strong defense behind the plate. That home run total marks a career high that he’s unlikely to repeat, but he’s still going to provide some pop out of a traditionally light-hitting position. When even a team’s shortstop and catcher are hitting well, your lineup is going to scare a lot of opposing pitchers.
The Jays have some decent depth, too. Outfielder Kevin Pillar plays an outstanding center field and has a pretty good bat to go with it. Michael Saunders would have gotten a good look in left field last season were it not for a horrific knee injury. It remains to be seen if he’s made a full recovery from that, but they Jays will surely give him the chance. Dalton Pompey is a useful fill-in for outfield spots. They also have Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak to play some combination of first base, DH, and provide depth on the bench. Smoak can hit for power but not really average, and Colabello hit a somewhat surprising 15 homers last year. It seems that anyone wearing a Jays uniform, right down to the batboy, can hit at least 15 homers. Also don’t forget young second baseman Devon Travis. He’s out until at least May after shoulder surgery, but last year he hit .304 with eight home runs in just 62 games.
So they have the offense and some decent depth. The pitching is what stalled a bit for them last season and could well do so again. David Price was outstanding for the Jays down the stretch. Unfortunately for them, he not only left but went to the rival Boston Red Sox this offseason. They brought back former Blue Jay, J.A. Happ, to take his spot. Happ is an average pitcher who threw way above his career norms down the stretch last season for Pittsburgh. It’s not reasonable to assume that at age 33 he’s suddenly become an ace, but he’s a .500 pitcher who will eat up close to 200 innings and there are worse things for your staff than that.
The Jays also bring back R.A. Dickey, who, at 41 years old, is on the young side for a veteran knuckleballer. He can probably go 11-13 for the Jays while eating up another 200 innings. Marco Estrada is another .500-ish pitcher who pitched above his career norms last season, the first in which he established himself as a fairly dominant pitcher. He does give up a fair amount of home runs, and it’s natural to wonder if his 2015 season was the start of something new or an aberration. Late last season, promising young pitcher Marcus Stroman returned from a gruesome knee injury and pitched really well down the stretch. He looked like the ace he was projected to be, and there’s no reason to expect anything but a great season from him. If Estrada, Dickey and Happ can win 50+ games combined behind Stroman, the team’s offense can take care of the rest. Aaron Sanchez and Jesse Chavez round out the potential group. Sanchez could well take a step up this season, but it seems Chavez has shown us all he can do by now and it really isn’t that much.
The Blue Jays had young Roberto Osuna closing for much of last season. He just turned 21 and has a world of promise. The team also brings back Brett Cecil as a bullpen lefty, but added former Nationals closer Drew Storen as well. Storen was doing just fine closing for the Nationals last season until they inexplicably added Jonathan Papelbon to the bullpen and demoted Storen. He’s likely to close this year with Osuna helping out, and that’s a fine tandem for any team at the back end of the bullpen. Storen is also likely relieved to be with a team that clearly wants him.
This team’s offense looks to be a powerhouse and their bullpen and depth are above average. It will come down to starting pitching for them, with one ace and four guys who could each win either five games or fifteen and either outcome wouldn’t be a total surprise. If this team is in it come July, we might see another big trade deadline deal for a starting pitcher to take them down the stretch and into the playoffs.