As the Toronto Blue Jays’ off-season comes to a close and spring training begins, the narrative of the winter is one of loss. That’s an inevitable by-product of four months where the team saw a true ace in David Price walk out the door, and its biggest signing was J.A. Happ, who was mediocre in a Blue Jays jersey as recently as 2014.
Off-seasons tend to be evaluated that way, looking almost solely at additions and subtractions. It’s quick, easy, and intuitive, but it’s also unfair. By fixating on transactions we are assuming that players who are retained will perform the same way they did the previous season.
There are countless ways a player’s production can fluctuate year-to-year, which is why baseball divination is largely a fruitless pursuit. The biggest factor, though, is health, as even the best players can produce little to nothing if they miss enough time. And while it’s reductive to say that staying healthy is crucial to having a successful season, it’s also an angle that’s underplayed because, frankly, it’s boring. Tons of ink is spilled on injuries, which can be surprising and spur change within a ball club. In the absence of injuries our expectation is that players will play, so there’s nothing to write or talk about.
This makes it easy to forget what drives winning team performances, and last year the Blue Jays were driven by remarkable health, perhaps more than anything else. With the exceptions of Devon Travis, Michael Saunders, and Marcus Stroman, they didn’t have a starting position player or pitcher miss significant time all season. In fact, the Blue Jays were one of only three teams to have seven players appear in 125 or more games, and one of 10 to have at least four pitchers make 25 starts. Unsurprisingly, they were the only team to appear on both lists.
The training staff certainly deserves some credit. And employing guys with track records of durability like Josh Donaldson, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle decreased the chances of season-derailing injuries. But no player is invincible and everyone is durable until they’re not. The fact of the matter is the Blue Jays were particularly fortunate last season, and this year they likely won’t be so lucky.
It’s a gambler’s fallacy to assume that the pendulum will swing the other way and the entire roster will be on the disabled list in 2016. Even so, there are concrete reasons the Blue Jays could be much more reliant on organizational depth than they were in 2015 this year.
The most obvious is the age of the team’s stars. Players in their thirties get injured more often and take longer to recover. Last year the trio of Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion collectively missed 29 games, which includes routine off-days. With a combined age of 98, it’s hard to see them managing that again.
At the most physically demanding position on the diamond, the Blue Jays have a 33-year-old in Russell Martin. At shortstop, they run out a 31-year-old with an extensive injury history in Troy Tulowitzki.
All five of these players are aging gracefully, and they aren’t broken-down or nearing the end of the line. But they have reached a point where there is more uncertainty about their ability to stay healthy.
On the pitching side, Dickey is as safe a bet as there is. Beyond the knuckleballer, though, things are a little tricky. Happ, Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and Jesse Chavez have one 30-start season between them, and with the exception of Stroman, they are all coming off career-high workloads. It’s not unreasonable to believe one or two will spend some time on the shelf.
By relying on older position players and pitchers who have yet to prove they can carry the load, the team could wind up more vulnerable to the injury bug than most. As a result, there’s a pretty good chance the biggest difference between the 2015 and 2016 Blue Jays aren’t the new faces.
Instead, it could be whether this year’s team can keep last year’s stars on the field.