The Toronto Blue Jays are enjoying their best run since winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993. Behind a formidable lineup led by Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, this team has reached the American League Championship Series in each of the past two seasons. The surge of baseball in the Great White North led the Jays to having the best attendance in the A.L. last season.
But the Blue Jays are facing a series of question marks in 2017. Their top slugger in Edwin Encarnacion joined the defending AL champion Cleveland Indians, and the AL East-winning Boston Red Sox added star pitcher Chris Sale. The Blue Jays limited their spending and added Steve Pearce, Kendrys Morales and other cheap veterans to stick to their payroll plan.
Though the Jays aren't a sexy pick to win it all like they were last year, your's truly has some optimism for 2017. Just how much? Read on to find out what I think happens in 2017.
*Note, all stats are via ESPN.com*
15 Steve Pearce Becomes a Bargain
The Jays chose to stay away from big-money players and signed utility player Steve Pearce on a two-year deal worth $12.5 million. He's coming off one of his best seasons yet (split with the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays), where he batted .288 with 13 home runs and a 2.3 wins-above-replacement.
Pearce can play all over the infield but should be used primarily as Edwin Encarnacion's replacement at first base. He plays above-average defence and will help cut down on the total strikeouts this lineup commits -- after fanning just 54 times in 264 at bats a season ago. Pearce will become a reliable option on defence and put up between 15-20 home runs while batting .277, giving the Jays an extremely reliable player at the plate and at the base.
14 Bullpen Has Major Turnaround
The Blue Jays bullpen was a disaster last year -- combining for 32 losses which was tied for the second most in baseball. Once they picked up Jason Grilli to set up Roberto Osuna, the Jays saw their late-innings guys turn it around. But the Blue Jays front office did some great moves during the 2016 season to ensure their bullpen wouldn't be such a failure again.
Drew Storen (three losses, 6.21 ERA), Jesse Chavez (two losses, 4.57 ERA), and Brett Cecil (seven losses), are no longer Blue Jays, so you have to figure that their bullpen will perform much better.
Pleasant surprise of 2016, Joe Biagini, pitched 67.2 innings with 62 strikeouts, eight holds and a 3.06 ERA. The Jays can easily expect even more from him in 2017. They also added proven veterans J.P. Howell and Joe Smith as relievers. Expect the Jays bullpen to be magnificent in 2017, finishing top-five in the American League.
13 Russell Martin Bounces Back
The perennial All-Star had a miserable 2016 season, compared to his usual standards. Russell Martin batted just .231 after batting .240 in 2015 and .290 in 2014. Martin also set a career high in strikeouts with 148; his previous career-high in that department was 108 in 2013.
Furthermore, is 1.7 WAR was a major letdown after being 3.3 or better in the previous seasons. Martin Also batted a miserable .091 with 14 strikeouts in the postseason. The fact he's 34 years of age doesn't bode well for rebounding.
While we've likely seen the end of Martin's superstar days, one can expect a bounce-back year at the plate. He's a career .254 hitter and is among the toughest catchers to strike out. 34 is ageing, but not ancient in baseball. Expect Martin to flirt with a .250 batting average while striking out just 115 times.
12 John Gibbons Gets Fired
It's not common to see a manager fired after guiding his team to the ALCS in back-to-back years, but there really is something that's not fitting with the Jays. John Gibbons was out-managed miserably in the 2015 and 2016 ALCS. He hasn't been the greatest at using the bullpen effectively, and he has far too many patience for slumping batters (see Michael Saunders last year).
Gibbons was on the hot seat when the Jays were below .500 through the first two months. Another slow start for the Jays will likely force Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins to act quickly. It's clear Gibby isn't the greatest leader in the locker room, and he doesn't have that ability to lead this team the extra mile.
The Jays are notorious slow starters, and if they're under .500 near the end of May, it's reasonable to believe that the Jays will make a change to save the season, and that means they Gibby for the second time.
11 Eric Wedge Replaces Gibbons
The Jays hired Eric Wedge at the start of 2016 to be a player development advisor. Wedge also has plenty of managerial experience, leading the Cleveland Indians from 2003-09 and the Seattle Mariners from 2011-13. His .478 winning percentage doesn't sound attractive, but those were primarily porous teams that Wedge was manning. Don't forget he took the Indians to the ALCS in 2007.
It's clear the Jays value Wedge's experience and leadership, and he's one of the few reliable candidates out there to steer the ship if Gibby is indeed fired. The Jays simply have the talent but really need the right captain to lead them, and Wedge's experience somewhat speaks for itself.
With very few options available and the team in desperation, look for Wedge to come back onto the bench as the new Jays' manager for at least the rest of 2017.
10 J.A. Won't Be As Happ-y
After years as an average bottom-end starter, J.A. Happ saw his fortunes change when the Seattle Mariners traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015. Happ went 7-2 with 69 strikeouts in 63.1 innings pitched with a remarkable 1.85 ERA. The Jays brought him back on a three-year deal worth $36 million -- and got rewarded.
Happ went 20-4 with a 1.17 WHIP, 3.18 ERA and 163 strikeouts, giving him one of the best seasons in Jays history. But Happ was 33 years old when that happened, and you don't usually see pitchers become stars that late in life.
Though Happ will remain a valuable part of the Jays rotation in 2017, don't expect him to come close to those career-best numbers. A 15-10 record, an ERA of over 3.50 and a WHIP around 1.30 is more likely. It's just hard to expect another great year judging by what he's done in the last 1.5 seasons.
9 Jays Trade for Jay Bruce
The Jays were close to acquiring Jay Bruce last offseason in a three-team trade that would involve Michael Saunders, but the latter's knee injury from the previous season cancelled the trade.
Bruce was traded to the New York Mets in 2016, and multiple rumors around the baseball world have linked him to another trade going to the Jays. The Mets reportedly want to clear Bruce's $13 million salary, as the mega extension for Yoenis Cespedes left them with too much dough tied up in outfielders.
Though the Mets are expected to keep Bruce for at least the start of the season, look for Ross Atkins to bring Bruce in once and for all. The fact he's a pending UFA means he'll be cheap, and the Jays don't have enough left-handed bats. Bruce is the ideal fit and will head to the Jays at the trade deadline in exchange for C-level prospects.
8 Edwin Who?
The Jays and their fanbase were dealt a major punch to the stomach when fan favorite Edwin Encarnacion signed a three-year contract worth $60 million with the Cleveland Indians, who eliminated the Jays in the 2016 ALCS. What made it more frustrating was that the Jays offered him $80 million over four years, but Encarnacion and his agent thought he'd top that offer.
Toronto went immediately to switch-hitting slugger Kendrys Morales on a three-year deal worth $11 million. Morales is a career .273 hitter and hit 30 home runs in 2016 -- his highest in seven years. Consider that Rogers Centre was baseball's sixth-most hitter friendly ball park in 2016, and you can bet he'll put up similar numbers in Canada.
Though losing Encarnacion hurts, Morales will replace some of the power as he hits 32 home runs and bats .270. And the Jays got him for $47 million less than Encarnacion!
7 Marco Estrada: A.L. ERA Leader
Aaron Sanchez was the American League's ERA champion in 2016 at 3.00. Little will some remember that Marco Estrada was the Jays' top pitcher for most of the season, however.
Thanks to a lack of run support and a couple of iffy seasons with a herniated disc in his back, Estrada's 9-9 record won't sound that sexy. But his 165 strikeouts, 1.12 WHIP, 3.48 ERA and opponent batting average of .203 simply made him look like Sandy Koufax and Greg Maddux for much of the season. Estrada's ERA was 2.92 and 2.14 in April and May, respectively. In three starts during the playoffs, he struck out 19 batters and posted a 2.01 ERA. So as long as he's healthy, you know he's going to flat-out dominate.
So with that, Estrada will be the American League's ERA leader, meaning that title goes to a Blue Jay for the second-straight year.
6 Return Of The Bat Flip
The Toronto Blue Jays franchise star had a major let down in 2016 -- batting just .234 with 22 home runs, a .366 OBP and .452 slugging percentage. It was far-and-away Jose Bautista's worst season since 2009. He's good for 30-45 home runs a season when healthy (and that's a big when), and is a career .255 hitter.
But Bautista was limited to 116 games with toe and knee injuries, so that explains a lot of it. He still drew a ton of walks (87), and can hit a clutch home run at any given moment. The Jays brought him back on a one-year deal worth $18.5 million, and let's just say the front office will be rewarded.
Bautista has also been a liability on defence over the last few seasons, but hopefully Steve Pearce and Melvin Upton Jr. can take some of that workload off of him in right field. That would help Bautista stay healthy. Look for him to club 32 home runs and bat around .267, showing his All-Star form once again.
5 Josh Donaldson Finishes Second In MVP Voting
Josh Donaldson won the 2015 American League MVP, but incredible seasons from Mike Trout (2016 MVP), Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve placed Donaldson fourth in voting. His 37 home runs, .284 batting average and 7.4 wins-above-replacement definitely screamed MVP-caliber, but Donaldson was just not as great as the other greats in 2016. That'll change in 2017.
Tough to see Trout repeating as A.L. MVP when his Angels team looks destined for another tough season. Mookie Betts is good, but the Boston Red Sox lineup is loaded with stars -- making him slightly less "valuable". My pick is for Altuve to win the American League MVP, so it's a no-go for J-Don
That being said, you can expect him to compete for the league lead in home runs, RBIs, batting average and WAR. Expect Donaldson to have another fine season that'll place him second in A.L. MVP voting.
4 Jays Score Third-Most Runs in A.L.
Besides Edwin Encarnacion, most Blue Jays saw rather steep dropoffs in 2016 from the season prior. That includes Donaldson, whose batting average dipped .13 with 24 less RBI and a WAR reduce by 1.4.
The Jays led the majors in scoring by miles in 2015 -- finishing with 891 runs which was 127 more than the next closest team. Though they finished fifth in the American League with 759 runs in 2016, that was a significant decline from the season prior. It was deemed a frustrating season by the offence.
Boston led the league in runs scored with 878, but with David Ortiz retiring (supplying 127 of the RBIs), you can expect them to see a decline in 2017 that the Jays did in 2016. I expect the Indians to lead the league in runs, with Boston finishing second. The Jays will score 797 in 2016, giving the team a much more formidable and reliable lineup.
3 Aaron Sanchez Finishes Second In Cy Young Voting
Aaron Sanchez went 15-2 in 2016 with 161 strikeouts, a 1.17 WHIP and 3.00 ERA -- the best in the American League. But the Jays watched his innings limit closely, which held him back from potentially winning 20 games.
Rick Porcello won the 2016 American League Cy Young, and he can thank the incredible run support by baseball's best lineup for that. His 3.15 ERA wasn't even close to being as impressive as that of Sanchez's. Consider he's also been a fourth or fifth starter for most of his career, and you can expect a decline.
But who will win the American League Cy Young? Hard to go against new Red Sox pitcher, Chris Sale. He's been the league's best pitcher for some seasons and should take his dominance to Beantown. Sanchez will build off a breakout 2016 season, but Sale will sail away with the A.L. Cy Young.
2 Jays Win 95 Games And The Wild Card
Though many are expecting the Jays to decline in 2017 (FanGraphs has them pegged at 84 wins), this is a very well-rounded unit that should be just as good or better than they were in 2016.
There's no reason to think the league's top rotation in 2016 will decline. In fact, having proven veteran Francisco Liriano as their fifth man instead of the inconsistent and departed R.A. Dickey could make it even better. Their bullpen will be much better in 2017, because it's hard to be as awful as 2016. If Bautista stays healthy and Pearce and Morales come as advertised, the Jays offence will balance itself out. Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are due for bounce-back years, and Donaldson won't stop hitting either.
The Jays rotation and lineup isn't as talented as that of Boston's, so the Red Sox should win the AL East for the second-straight year. But Toronto will beat the Seattle Mariners in the wild card game, reaching the Division Series for the third-straight year.
1 1...And Lose To Indians In ALDS
The Blue Jays are good enough to make the playoffs, but Cleveland unfortunately showed how much better they are than the rest of the American League. Their three-man rotation and Andrew Miller shut down the Red Sox' league-best lineup and embarrassed the Toronto Blue Jays even more in the ALCS, beating them in five games with ease.
Cleveland's lineup has more depth, speed, contact and power. Adding Encarnacion makes them more dangerous and the Jays less intimidating. Their rotation of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Danny Salazar is just as dangerous as Toronto's. Their bullpen of Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen is that much better than the Blue Jays'.
Toronto will meet Cleveland in the ALCS, but my pick to win the World Series in 2017 will make the Jays their first postseason victim in a three-game sweep.
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