Once again, the Blue Jays are built to slug.
The core of the offence that topped baseball with 891 runs last season is back in 2016, a batting order led by AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Behind that powerful trio are slugging shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and catcher Russell Martin.
Yet while Toronto’s lineup looks sturdy, the starting rotation is another matter. Left-hander David Price, who went 9-1 in 11 starts after joining the Blue Jays last July, was allowed to leave as a free agent and joined AL East rival Boston. Left-hander Mark Buehrle also departed, leaving knuckleballer R.A. Dickey as the only Blue Jays pitcher with a 200-innings season.
The presumptive ace is right-hander Marcus Stroman, who missed most of 2015 while recovering from a knee injury but returned to go 4-0 in four September starts. Behind him will be righty Marco Estrada, who signed a $26 million, two-year deal to stay with Toronto after a career-best 13 wins last season. The Blue Jays have high hopes for J.A. Happ, who signed a $36 million, three-year contract after going 7-2 in 11 starts for playoff-bound Pittsburgh.
Only 24, Stroman is set to be a star for years to come. Still, if Toronto’s other starters can’t deliver, it won’t matter how many home runs their slugging lineup hits.
Here are some other things to watch as the Blue Jays get set for spring training:
FIGHT FOR FIFTH STARTER’S SPOT:
Candidates for the fifth spot include right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who began 2015 in the rotation but returned to the bullpen following a midseason muscle strain; right-hander Jesse Chavez, another former Blue Jay who was acquired from Oakland last November; oft-injured righty Gavin Floyd; and right-hander Drew Hutchison, Toronto’s opening-day starter in 2015.
NEW DEALS FOR SLUGGING DUO?:
Bautista and Encarnacion both have one year remaining on their contracts before becoming eligible for free agency. The new executive team of president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins have held preliminary talks with Bautista (35) and Encarnacion (33) about new deals, and more substantive talks are possible during spring training. At the winter meetings, Encarnacion’s agent said his client would cease negotiations once the regular season begins.
WHO’LL HANDLE THE NINTH?:
Roberto Osuna rose from Class A to the major leagues after a strong showing at spring training in 2015. By late June, the unflappable rookie had emerged as Toronto’s closer, saving 20 of 23 chances with a 2.58 ERA. But the January trade that saw reliever Drew Storen join the Blue Jays has created competition for the ninth-inning role. In early February, Atkins said Toronto likely will use at least half of spring training, and maybe more, to decide whether Osuna or Storen will be the go-to guy in save situations.
LOOKING FOR NEW LEADOFF MAN:
To acquire Storen from Washington, the Blue Jays gave up speedy outfielder Ben Revere, who served as Toronto’s leadoff hitter throughout the playoffs. Before Revere moved to the top of the order, Tulowitzki briefly batted in the leadoff spot after his trade from Colorado. Manager John Gibbons has indicated he’d rather not have Tulo reclaim the role. With second baseman Devon Travis (left shoulder surgery) set to begin the season on the disabled list, the job could be won by centre fielder Kevin Pillar, one of several Blue Jays players who arrived early at spring training for extra work.
Revere’s departure created Toronto’s only position battle, with Canadians Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey set to compete for the left-field job. Saunders sustained a knee injury in spring training last year and never fully healed, playing just nine games. Pompey (23) spent much of the season at Triple-A but saw action as a pinch-runner in the post-season, stealing four bases.