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2018 MLB team preview: The Toronto Blue Jays are a team in transition

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Better days are ahead for a Blue Jays team with a loaded farm system.

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Toronto Blue Jays Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere out there, there’s an alternate universe where the Toronto Blue Jays become the best team in baseball over the next couple years. It’s not that far-fetched — one could argue they achieved that same goal in 2015 despite losing in the ALCS — but the math here is pretty simple. They already have one of the better farm systems in baseball, complete with two of the top 10 prospects in the game according to Baseball America. Their top two pitchers, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, are both in their mid-20s. And they have an ownership group that could, in theory, make a giant splash on next winter’s free agent market.

Bryce Harper, Toronto Blue Jay? It could happen.

While that probably won’t become a reality, the Jays will still be better in a year or two than they are now. The 2017 Jays were fairly average, winning 76 games amid a flurry of injuries. Only three pitchers threw more than 100 innings for them. Josh Donaldson missed six weeks with a calf injury, and Devon Travis only played in 50 games. Reigning ERA champion Aaron Sanchez only made eight starts. They used 33 pitchers, four more than the Tigers.

The core of the 2018 squad doesn’t look all that much different, but they made a lot of small moves that fit their current timeline. From adding Curtis Granderson on a one-year contract to trading for cost-controlled depth pieces like Randal Grichuk and Yangervis Solarte, the Blue Jays supplemented their current roster without sacrificing any of their promising future. They might have a hard time sneaking into the postseason this year — playing the Yankees and Red Sox 19 times apiece is not fun — but have the pieces in place to enter the conversation come 2019 and later.

And if their owners give them the green light to add one more, it would make things even more interesting up north.

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 76-86 | 2017 pythag: 72-90 | 2018 farm system rank: 7
Manager: John Gibbons (6th year)
SB Nation site: Bluebird Banter
Key additions: LHP Jaime Garcia, IF Aledmys Diaz, OF Randal Grichuk, OF Curtis Granderson, IF Yangervis Solarte, RHP Seung-hwan Oh
Key departures: OF Jose Bautista, RHP Dominic Leone, C Miguel Montero, IF Darwin Barney, IF Ryan Goins

Lineup

New left fielder Curtis Granderson might not be the most important player on the Blue Jays roster, but he’s undoubtedly the most important player for the purposes of this preview. The former Tiger hit just .212 last year, but drew enough walks and hit for enough power to still be an above-average hitter. He also did so playing a fair amount of center field for the Mets, who traded him to the Dodgers in August. Granderson should slot into a platoon role with lefty masher Steve Pearce this year, which might offset some of his further decline. Pearce was awful last season, but produced a gaudy 176 wRC+ against lefties in 2016. Another option for that platoon role could be Teoscar Hernandez, who the Blue Jays received in a trade for Francisco Liriano last summer. Hernandez enjoyed a monster September with the Jays, and is continuing that run this spring, hitting .340/.370/.660. His plate discipline could use some work — he struck out 36 times in 95 MLB plate appearances last year — but he could be an everyday corner outfielder one day.

Center fielder Kevin Pillar was a defensive savant once again in 2017, amassing +15 defensive runs saved in 154 games played. The +15 DRS were tied for fourth among MLB center fielders, while his 93 out-of-zone plays ranked fifth. Offensively, he couldn’t regain that magic that made him just a tick below average in 2015. He hit a career-high 16 home runs, but so did just about anyone else who played full-time. Local product Dalton Pompey was once breathing down Pillar’s neck, but is dealing with a wrist issue that will eventually require surgery. In right field, the Jays will rely on former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk. He declined in each of his last two seasons in St. Louis, but only because his rookie season in 2015 was rather unsustainable. Even last season, Grichuk had his ups and downs but still produced 1.1 rWAR in 122 games. While he can lose his way at the plate sometimes, he should still be a solid option. He is an above-average defender in the corners, and will probably benefit from playing his home games in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.

Speaking of former Cardinals, shortstop Aledmys Diaz will likely be the Jays’ Opening Day starter in place of the perpetually injured Troy Tulowitzki. Diaz was an offensive powerhouse in 2016, hitting .300/.369/.510 in 111 games. However, he fell off a cliff last year, eventually losing his job to Paul DeJong. Diaz did suffer a hand injury in 2016 that reportedly bothered him last year, but as our friends at Viva El Birdos so thoroughly pointed out, there were other reasons for his drop-off. Yangervis Solarte could also see some time at short, but the 30-year-old utility man seems better served in that more versatile role. He was somewhat victimized by a low BABIP last season, but a hike in his pop-up rate is also a reason why his average fell by more than 30 points. Former Tigers prospect Devon Travis will be Toronto’s Opening Day second baseman, but as we have seen throughout his career, that may not last long. Travis only played in 50 games last year and endured his worst offensive season to date. He has the skills to be an above-average second baseman, but staying healthy is apparently the one he lacks most.

Recent reports suggest Travis will be the team’s leadoff hitter, followed by third baseman Josh Donaldson. The three-time All-Star only played in 113 games due to injuries last year, but was his usual self when healthy. In particular, he shrugged off a slow July to hit .302/.410/.698 with 22 home runs over the final two months of the season. He and the Jays aren’t particularly close on a contract extension right now, and the presence of Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in the minors could lead Toronto to invest elsewhere when Donaldson hits free agency next winter. Until then, expect more elite production from one of the best players in the game. First baseman Justin Smoak finally had that long-awaited breakout season in 2017, vindicating Toronto’s decision to sign him to a two-year extension in 2016. Smoak hit a career-best .270/.355/.529, topped the 30-homer plateau for the first time, and made his first All-Star team. The switch-hitter was slightly better against lefties, but still managed an excellent .856 OPS against righthanders.

Behind the plate, it’s Russell Martin or bust for the Jays. Backup Luke Maile hit .146/.176/.231 in 46 games last year, while other stand-ins (including Miguel Montero) didn’t fare much better. Maile should be around next year, but Martin will get as many starts as he can handle. The 35-year-old Martin saw his batting average fall again in 2017, but he drew enough walks and was on pace for 20 homers in an injury-shortened season. Prospect Danny Jansen torched three minor league levels last year (including Triple-A), and could be in line for a call-up if Martin misses significant time again. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales wasn’t all that much better than Victor Martinez last year despite being more than four years younger. The two will battle with Albert Pujols to see who can be baseball’s slowest baserunner in 2018.

Pitching staff

The Blue Jays continued this year’s odd theme of naming veteran players as the Opening Day starter despite having younger and potentially more deserving pitchers in the pipeline. Lefthander J.A. Happ will get the ball for Toronto, followed by hard-throwing righthander Aaron Sanchez. Happ is a bit more deserving than certain other Opening Day starters, having limited opponents to a 3.53 ERA with a 3.76 FIP in 145 13 innings last year. It also marked his third consecutive season with a strikeout rate north of 20 percent, a surprising figure given his relatively pedestrian stuff. Of course, Happ’s Opening Day honors were also probably a result of an injury to Marcus Stroman. The 26-year-old righty has been dealing with a bout of shoulder stiffness, but is on track to start for the Jays on April 1. He topped 200 innings for the second year in a row in 2017, and produced a career-best 5.7 rWAR. The key was his bowling ball sinker, which helped him induce a 62.1 percent ground ball rate — his third consecutive season north of 60 percent.

If the Jays are to make any sort of playoff run in 2018, both Stroman and righthander Aaron Sanchez will need to be healthy and productive. Sanchez battled blister problems last year, and only threw 36 innings at the MLB level. They weren’t very good innings at that, with a 4.25 ERA and 5.74 FIP. However, he still averaged 95 miles per hour with his fastball and avoided any significant arm injuries, so there’s little reason to be concerned with him going forward. He may not win the ERA title like he did in 2016, but it’s hard to see a healthy Sanchez being anything but an above-average starter. Likewise, righthander Marco Estrada probably won’t regain the 2016 form that made him an All-Star. The home run revolution was not kind to Estrada’s extreme fly ball tendencies, but a higher BABIP than usual did not help either. Estrada asserts that the drop-off was related to stress and lack of sleep, issues that may not resolve themselves if he goes back on the trade block this summer.

Toronto’s fifth starter is lefthander Jaime Garcia, a 30-year-old who signed a one-year deal with a team option this offseason. Garcia pitched for three teams last year, including the playoff bound Twins and Yankees within two weeks of one another. Overall, he struggled with his command somewhat, but was able to keep the ball in the yard better than most other pitchers. He also induced his usual high volume of ground balls, a familiar pattern for this Blue Jays staff. So long as he is able to stay healthy — something he had a lot of trouble doing before to 2016 — he should provide solid innings for the Jays. There are several pitchers who could make starts if Garcia or one of the other Blue Jays starters falters, but none of them inspire much confidence. Swingman Joe Biagini is the nominal sixth starter, but has some pretty significant splits between the rotation and the bullpen.

Speaking of the ‘pen, closer Roberto Osuna will resume his role again in 2018 after a monster year in 2017. He struck out 83 batters in 64 innings and fanned more than nine batters for every walk. His 3.38 ERA wasn’t bad, but nearly every other metric suggests he was much better than that; only three relievers had a better FIP in 30-plus innings. His Deserved Run Average (2.19) was also more than a full run better than his ERA. Osuna will be backed up by former Cardinals closer Seung-hwan Oh, who struggled in the second half of 2017 after a monster 2016 season. Righty Ryan Tepera also struck out over a batter per inning, but may be in line for a little bit of BABIP regression. Lefthander Aaron Loup was the same, except his BABIP was a little higher than expected. Non-roster invites John Axford and Tyler Clippard also seem like safe bets to make the team.

Down on the farm

There is no better prospect one-two punch than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. The former is an offensive force with an 80-grade hit tool and double-plus raw power, but with much better plate discipline than Dad. Even if he is a question mark to stick at third base, Guerrero is a safe bet to be the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball next spring. Bichette is currently a shortstop, but probably won’t stick there long-term. He has the arm to slide over to third, and the power to hit anywhere in the lineup. His plate discipline and hit tool aren’t as polished as Guerrero’s, but he still projects to be a middle-of-the-order thumper. Behind those two is center fielder Anthony Alford, a five-tool prospect who might be ranked just as highly were it not for a lengthy injury history. Still, he’s only 23 and reached the majors last year. Righthander Nate Pearson, their first round pick in 2017, is a giant human (6’6, 245 pounds) who throws really hard. There is some solid depth to the system as well, but a bit of a gap between the top few prospects and the rest of the group.

Player to watch: Devon Travis

Consider this both a “keep an eye on this guy” tip, as well as a suggestion for your fantasy league. Travis was an offensive force in his first two seasons in the majors, and is a career .292/.331/.462 hitter while playing above-average defense at second base. However, he hasn’t been able to stay on the field; in three seasons with the Jays, Travis has only played in 213 games. A full season from him could result in 40 doubles and 15 homers, along with enough defensive production to be worth 3-4 WAR. They have enough depth behind him to survive another trip to the disabled list, but a healthy Travis (among others) represents their best chance at making a Wild Card run.

Outlook

The Jays have plenty of depth among their position players, and should be able to withstand the normal battery of injuries that befall an MLB team every season. However, with a fairly injury-prone roster, they can’t afford to lose the same amount of production they did in 2017 (though, to be fair, few teams could). Additionally, the Jays are quite thin in their rotation, a unit that already had trouble staying on the field last season. If Sanchez or Stroman aren’t as advertised, the Jays could struggle to top .500, let alone make the playoffs.

But that’s not the end of the world for Toronto, though. With a robust farm system filled with some premium top-end talent, they will soon again have one of the most fearsome lineups in baseball. We’ll just have to wait another year or two to see it in action.