Left to right, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk, pitcher John Axford, first baseman Justin Smoak, pitcher J.A. Happ, outfielder Kevin Pillar and catcher Russel Martin. Source: The Canadian Press
After breaking a two-decade playoff drought that saw them make it to the American League Championship Series two years in a row in 2015 and 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays got off to a dreadful 1-9 start and never got fully on track, finishing 76-86 in the 2017 season. The team would fight and claw their way back up to a game under .500 a handful of times throughout the year only to never reach it. They were in last place the whole time until the final day of the regular season, passing Baltimore to finish 4th in the American League East. Countless injuries, off-years and a franchise player in serious decline all contributed towards the record they finished with. Is this a team in decline that won't be in contention for a while? Or will they bounce back and prove it was an off year? That question could best be answered if they are still relatively healthy for the duration of the season, but could be a tall order given the age of some of their better veteran players on the team. Just like all teams, the Blue Jays will need to be injury-free to be in the 2018 playoff race.
Despite all of these problems, Toronto was still in the playoff race until early September due to the fact no other team ran away with the 2nd Wild Card spot, with the winner ultimately being a Minnesota Twins team that only had a mere 85-77 record, the lowest amount of wins for any 2nd Wild Card team since it was introduced in 2012. There is no reason to believe that all 5 playoff spots will be runaways this year either, as there has been a lot more parity around all of Major League Baseball particularly since the new TV deal came in within the last 5 years, with all 30 teams making a crazy amount of revenue and a lot more money to spend. In the case of the Jays, if you have the lowest amount of runs scored in the American League like they did last year it is hard to have any type of winning record to contend. The pitching, despite all of the injuries and off years, still finished middle-of-the-pack. Let's now have a look at every area of the team to see where the Toronto Blue Jays stack up in 2018.
KEY PLAYER ADDITIONS: OF Curtis Granderson, OF Randal Grichuk, SS Aledmys Diaz, INF Yangervis Solarte, INF Danny Espinosa, LHP Jaime Garcia, RHP Seung-Hwan Oh, RHP Jonathan Axford, RHP Tyler Clippard.
KEY PLAYER SUBTRACTIONS: OF Jose Bautista, INF Ryan Goins, INF Darwin Barney, OF Ezequiel Carrera, C Miguel Montero, RHP Dominic Leone.
Kevin Pillar is one of the best defensive Centre Fielders in the game, but with the bat he needs to stop trying to be a home run hitter and play within his abilities. He had a career year in home runs with 16 in 2017 mind you, but he needs to be at the bottom of the order and be crafty with more bunts to move runners over. If he can do that, he will be more effective and a lot more valuable to the team on the offensive side of the game. Left Field will see a platoon bewtween newly acquired veteran Curtis Granderson along with Steve Pearce, who played very well at times last season only to see him miss a lot of time due to injury as well. Randal Grichuk, who will be replacing franchise icon Jose Bautista in Right Field, is also a new acquisition and at just 26 years old with over 3 years of MLB experience , he is looking to have a breakout year with a change of scenery, which is what General Manager Ross Atkins was banking on when he acquired him. Waiting in the wings on their AAA Buffalo Bisons team are former Baseball America Top Prospect Dalton Pompey, Anthony Alford who is the 60th overall Baseball America prospect and Teoscar Hernandez, a major league-ready player they got for Francisco Liriano last year from the World Champion Houston Astros at the non-waiver July 31st trade deadline. We could see the future of this outfield on the big club sooner than later.
This is an area where management has protected themselves from another huge drop-off in the event that any injury-prone players go down again like they did in 2017. That's where Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte come in. Diaz, who mostly plays shortstop, was an all-star with St. Louis in his rookie season of 2016 but became expendable with a crowded Cardinals infield much like Grichuk was in their outfield. He will indeed be the interim starter at shortstop with starter Troy Tulowitzki starting the season on the DL. Solarte, who has the better bat, primarily plays 2nd base and will be valuable insurance in the event regular Devon Travis goes down again. Both Diaz and Solarte are good enough to be starting infielders on other teams but are on the bench with this Blue Jays squad. At 3rd base you will have their best player in Josh Donaldson, who could be in his final year in a Blue Jays uniform hence his pending free agency at the end of the season. 1st baseman Justin Smoak, who had a career last year and led the team in all offensive categories with a .270 average, 38 home runs and 90 RBI, will need to have another good year and protect Donaldson in the meat of the order to prove last year was no fluke. At DH you have Kendrys Morales, who we can all agree is not Edwin Encarnacion whom he replaced last year but is a solid veteran bat nevertheless.
Russell Martin's frequent absence from the lineup not only affected the teams hitting, but also the pitching staff. Offensively, much like Pillar, he gets too pull and power-happy and needs to shorten up his swing more often to be more effective. Luke Maile will be the backup and can call a game as good as any defensively as well, but so far has proven to have no bat at the major league level hitting .146 in 46 games last season. Management believes he is better than this and will contribute more offensively.
Marcus Stroman is slowly becoming what could be the Blue Jays ace for a very long time. He is a very fiery competitor that probably needs to tone it down with his emotions (especially on twitter) and not think too much and just go out and pitch. Aaron Sanchez made only 8 starts last year due to the lingering blister injury he had and will need to get back to his 2016 form where he had a breakout year with 15 wins and an ERA title for the team to contend. J.A. Happ was also banged up and missed 10 starts, and while nobody expected him to win 20 games like he did 2 years ago, he should be in the neighbourhood of 12-15 wins this year. Ditto for Marco Estrada, who had an awful 2 months in the middle of the season and also needs to regain his 2016 form. The 5th starter will be late off-season acquisition Jaime Garcia, who is coming off an off year pitching for 3 different teams but as a 2nd lefty in the rotation could prove to be very valuable if he can eat up a decent amount of innings. 1 through 5 there is no question they can compete with any teams starting rotation if all are healthy and having good years. In case of any injury, 1st one in will be former Rule-5 draftee Joe Biagini who after being in the Jays bullpen for the last 2 years will start this season in AAA Buffalo.
Closing games once again will be Roberto Osuna, who at just 23 years of age already has 95 career saves, but blew 10 last year and will need to have that corrected. Despite all that he still did have a career-high 39 saves in 2017. Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes are very solid setup men, as well as lefty Aaron Loup and late acquisition Seung Hwan Oh who has closed for the past 2 years on the St. Louis Cardinals. Filling out the last 2 spots are former closers Tyler Clippard and Canadian John Axford from Simcoe, Ontario.
The word on the street we keep hearing since last year is that the AL East is a 2-team race between Boston and New York the way it was in the 2000's, and that the Jays have no chance to compete for a playoff position. I highly disagree with that argument due to the following 3 reasons:
1) The Red Sox and Yankees aren't that much better than everyone else in the division like they were back then. Those teams were much deeper and had a lot more star power up and down every area of their rosters, which is far from the case today.
2) In contrast, the payrolls are a lot closer between the Blue Jays and these 2 teams were at that time (Toronto will actually have a payroll this year very close to the Yankees - around $160 Million - believe it or not) so that competitive advantage no longer exists.
3) There is something we have in baseball these days called the 2nd Wild Card. Even if Boston and New York were that much better than everyone else in the division (which I don't think they are) the Jays can still make the postseason finishing in 3rd place and not spin their wheels in quicksand like they did 10-15 years ago.
The Toronto Blue Jays should be competing for a playoff berth this season. What I will agree with is that finishing ahead of both the Red Sox and Yankees might be too tall of an order, but to say that they can't finish ahead of one of them, or to say they have no chance to make it in at all, I don't buy it. Especially when the Minnesota Twins (sellers at last years trade deadline and all) made it in with 85 wins. No question that with the unbalanced schedule those 18 games they play against each of Boston and New York will be tough. But it should be just as easy with those other 18 games each to beat up on both Baltimore and Tampa Bay. If the Jays can stay healthy, take care of their own business, play like their capable of and get around 88-90 wins, they will be back in the postseason in 2018. Count on it.