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2015 team preview: Are the Toronto Blue Jays contenders in the AL East?

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An aggressive offseason has put the Blue Jays back into a conversation they were in two years ago: are they the best team in their division?

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

You could argue that no team has been more penalized for simply being a member of its division than the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays have finished in third place in the American League East nine times since 1998, the most recent coming in 2014. In the first eight episodes of this now-syndicated production, the Jays finished well behind the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Only once were they less than 10 games behind the eventual division winner, including a surprise second-place finish in 2006.

The last two years have been different, and thus more disappointing. With the Yankees currently in one of their rare-but-not-uncommon lulls between dynasties and the Red Sox apparently yo-yoing through the decade, the Jays took a shot at contention with a pair of blockbuster trades prior to the 2013 season. They brought in Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson... and lost 88 games.

Fast forward two years, and not much has changed. The Red Sox are coming off another last place finish, while the Yankees are in an even more perilous position than they were after getting swept by the Tigers in the 2012 ALCS. The Jays again decided to one-up the rest of the East this offseason, acquiring Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Justin Smoak, and Michael Saunders.

Will this flurry of moves be enough? The Jays have beefed up their depth with some young talent, but this roster is eerily similar to the "stars and scrubs" behemoth that toppled over quicker than a stack of Jenga tiles in 2013. There isn't a lot of depth, and losing top starter Marcus Stroman for the season is a big hit. However, the Jays have plenty of firepower, enough to take the division if Boston's rotation doesn't hold up and Baltimore can't replace its losses from 2014's roster. Will we see playoff roster north of the border in 2015?

Manager: John Gibbons (3rd season)
2014 record: 83-79
SB Nation blog: Bluebird Banter
First series vs. Tigers: July 3-5 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

As has been the case since Jose Bautista broke out with an All-Star season in 2010, the Blue Jays' lineup packs a wallop. Bautista carries the heaviest stick of the bunch, with an incredible .952 OPS over the past five seasons. His 187 home runs lead baseball during that stretch -- Miguel Cabrera is second with 181 -- and Bautista's 158 wRC+ only trails three players. He showed no signs of slowing down in 2014, hitting .286/.403/.524 with 35 home runs and 103 RBI. Rookie Dalton Pompey has been awarded the starting center field position after a stellar 2014 season in the minor leagues. The toolsy 22-year-old hit .317/.392/.469 across three levels, and made a brief appearance at the major league level in September. Left field will be more of an adventure after Michael Saunders tore his meniscus in spring training. While the initial prognosis was grim, it appears that Saunders may be able to return at some point in April. How long he lasts after that is a legitimate question, as he has struggled through a plethora of injuries throughout his career. Kevin Pillar hurt himself sneezing, and his abilities with the bat are equally questionable.

The Blue Jays made one of the earliest splashes of the offseason, signing catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract. The deal seems risky for a 32-year-old backstop, but Martin is coming off two highly productive seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit .290/.402/.430 last year, numbers well above his career norms. Expect a return to the 15-20 home run range this year, similar to what he did in his days with the New York Yankees. Martin's true value comes from what he does behind the plate, though. He is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, and his ability to help mold a pitching staff is a big reason why the Pirates ended their own long playoff drought in 2013. Backup Dioner Navarro isn't as good of a defender as Martin, but has hit .284/.331/.429 over the past three seasons. If Edwin Encarnacion moves to first base at any point, Navarro could see time as the team's designated hitter.

Speaking of Encarnacion, the 32-year-old slugger "walked the parrot" 34 times last season, his lowest total in three years. He has hit 158 home runs in roughly five season's worth of plate appearances with the Jays. His 150 wRC+ in 2014 was ninth in baseball among qualified hitters, but second on his own team. Encarnacion will DH most days, with newcomer Justin Smoak at first base. After a decent 2013 season, Smoak's bat flopped in 2014. He hit .202/.275/.339 in 276 plate appearances last season, but was limited by a quad injury for over a month. Second base will belong to former Tigers prospect Devon Travis, who won the job by hitting .352/.397/.463 in 23 games this spring. Travis was limited by an oblique injury while playing in Double-A Erie last season, but still hit .298/.358/.460 in 441 plate appearances. He beat out Maicer Izturis, Ryan Goins, and Ramon Santiago for the job, though Santiago broke his collarbone after making a diving catch in a spring training game.

While shortstop Jose Reyes still rated as an above average hitter in 2014, his game has noticeably declined in the past few years. He has rated negatively as a defender in each of the past five seasons, and he posted his lowest OPS since 2005 last year, largely thanks to a declining walk rate. He has spent time on the disabled list in five of the past six season as well. That said, he's still one of the better shortstops in the game, and was worth 3.4 WAR last season. Third baseman Josh Donaldson should enjoy his cozy new confines after playing in Oakland, but his durability might be what his employers are most excited about. Donaldson has almost as many plate appearances in the past two seasons as Brett Lawrie does in his entire four-year career, though it remains to be seen whether the hard turf has an effect on Donaldson's hard-nosed playing style. His batting average slid backward in 2014, but he still had a .798 OPS and finished eighth in AL MVP voting.

Pitchers

The Jays were dealt a huge blow when Marcus Stroman, arguably the ace of the staff already, tore his ACL during bunting drills. Stroman will miss the entire season, but he's not just sitting around. The 23-year-old righthander plans on completing his degree at Duke University, where he pitched prior to being drafted in 2012. Taking Stroman's place in the rotation will be righthander Aaron Sanchez, who was originally projected to slot into the back end of the bullpen this year. Sanchez worked 33 innings out of the 'pen for the Blue Jays last season, allowing a 1.09 ERA and 2.80 FIP. A consensus top-50 prospect for the past few years, the 22-year-old Sanchez has just one season above A-ball under his belt. However, after throwing 133 1/3 total innings last season, he should be able to handle a starter's workload for most of the year.

Sanchez won't be the only young arm in the rotation. Daniel Norris, a 21-year-old lefthander whose van gets more attention than his live arm, is expected to make the team after a strong spring. He struck out eight batters in six innings during his last start, and has a 2.41 ERA and 10.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in five starts. While expectations should be tempered because of his inexperience -- he started the 2014 season at Advanced-A Dunedin before a meteoric rise to the majors -- many have already labeled him a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. Drew Hutchison will eventually be the old man of this promising rotation, but right now he's still 24 years old and coming off his first full season in a major league rotation. He allowed a 4.48 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 184 2/3 innings, but struck out three batters for every walk and recorded a 3.85 FIP. This was also Hutchison's first full season after having Tommy John surgery in late 2012, and his 3.59 SIERA was just three points higher than Sonny Gray, at 3.56.

The Blue Jays have enough offense to hang with the Red Sox, and their young pitching has the potential to be the best staff in the division.

Veteran lefthander Mark Buehrle is currently riding a 14-year streak with 200 innings pitched, but he has been cutting it close in recent years. He hasn't logged 210 innings since 2010, and his last 220-inning season was way back in 2005, when the Chicago White Sox won the World Series. Regardless, it is a remarkable achievement. Buehrle made his fifth career All-Star team last season, compiling a 10-6 record and 2.64 ERA in 19 first half starts. He lowered his walk rate and improved his FIP in the second half, but the ERA ballooned to 4.64. R.A. Dickey is on his fourth year with 200 innings or more, but his ERA has been a disappointment since he arrived from the New York Mets prior to 2013. Dickey improved somewhat last year, but I'm sure the Jays would much rather have Noah Syndergaard breaking into their rotation right now. Righthander Marco Estrada was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers this offseason, but an ankle injury and low upside will probably relegate him to a swingman role.

With Sanchez heading to the rotation, the closer role likely falls to lefthander Brett Cecil. Originally slated to be a "co-closer" with Sanchez, Cecil and fellow lefty Aaron Loup are the only bullpen locks to be in a Jays uniform on Opening Day. Loup has been a workhorse out of the Jays' bullpen the past two years, totaling 138 innings in 135 appearances. His career 2.77 ERA and 1.11 WHIP are impressive, but he makes his starters look better too. He has allowed just 26 percent of inherited runners to score in his career, below the 2014 league average of 29 percent. Colt Hynes will be a third lefty in an eight-man bullpen to start the year, while righthanders Miguel Castro, Todd Redmond, Liam Hendriks, and Roberto Osuna are in the hunt. One player that won't be in Toronto: righthander Steve Delabar, who is not happy about this fact.

Down on the farm

One of the basic tenets of Alex Anthopoplous' tenure as the Blue Jays' general manager is building from a strong farm system. The Jays don't rank as highly as heavyweights like the Chicago Cubs or Minnesota Twins, but Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus both put the Jays 10th on their 2015 organizational rankings. Their top-end talent, most of which will debut this season, is a big reason for this. Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez are both top-50 prospects set to join the rotation, while Dalton Pompey and Devon Travis are less-heralded youngsters who have already been awarded starting jobs. Add in Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna in the bullpen, and the Jays could head north with six rookies on their Opening Day roster. This doesn't bode well for their 2016 rankings, as there isn't a ton of depth to this system in the lower minors.

Player to watch: Josh Donaldson

How much do park factors matter? The trade that sent Josh Donaldson from Oakland to Toronto will provide an interesting case study over the next few years, as Donaldson is going from one of baseball's stingiest venues to an absolute launchpad at the Rogers Centre. His 2014 splits suggest that the change in home ballparks could provide a big boost to some already impressive offensive numbers. Donaldson had a .718 OPS at home last year, but hit .276/.361/.513 with 18 of his 29 home runs away from O.Co Coliseum. Add in 18 games at Camden Yards and Fenway Park, and Donaldson will be playing almost 100 games in very hitter-friendly venues, a stark contrast from road tilts at Safeco Field and Angels Stadium last year.

Outlook

The more research I do into the AL East, the more I like Toronto's chances of finally snapping their 21-year playoff drought. They have enough offense to hang with the Red Sox, and their young pitching has the potential to be the best staff in the division. They are relying on a lot of rookies, though. Norris, Sanchez, Pompey, and Travis are all quite green, with 25 combined games played at Triple-A. The other big problem is their depth; if the rookies falter, there are no veterans to step in and help out. The Jays have had trouble making last-minute additions in the past due to their corporate ownership structure, and that lack of flexibility could make the difference in a tightly-contested AL East in 2015.