Blue Jays winter primer: What comes next after a solid run

Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russel M

TORONTO – There is room both for frustration and disappointment about another Toronto Blue Jays loss in the American League Championship Series, and recognition that consecutive trips to baseball’s final four is an accomplishment worth savouring.

For the better part of the franchise’s 22 years out of the post-season, even meaningful September games were an unattainable goal. The playoffs were something that happened in other places, the Rogers Centre reduced to a cavernous, empty shell that used to house great moments.

Now? The Blue Jays led the American League in attendance, their vibrant crowds the envy of clubs around the sport, and baseball is alive in Toronto, as well as across the country. Before the misery of the entitled takes hold, remember that from 1994-2014 fans would have gladly taken this.

“We made it to the last four teams,” says Russell Martin, who’s been to the post-season in six straight years and nine of 11. “Right now there’s the bitterness of not getting to where we want to get to, because everybody wants to get to the World Series and win a championship. But you can’t take anything away from what we accomplished. We had a good run, but not the run we were looking for. Everybody should hold their heads up high. And that’s it man.”

Brett Cecil, a pending free agent who debuted with the Blue Jays in 2009, echoes similar sentiments.

“There were times when getting to the post-season seemed impossible, there were times when it seemed so close you could taste it and we just didn’t get there,” he says. “I’ve been here through the worst of times and the best of times and if I leave, I’m happy to be leaving on top. But I’d love the chance to get back here, make the ground with all these guys and do it all over again and get to where we want to be.”

The challenge for the Blue Jays is in keeping things going next year. Here’s a look at where they stand heading into the winter:

Free Agents: 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion; OF Jose Bautista; OF Michael Saunders; LHP Brett Cecil; RHP R.A. Dickey; C Dioner Navarro; RHP Joaquin Benoit; RHP Scott Feldman; RHP Gavin Floyd.

Club Options: RHP Jason Grilli, $3 million (expected to be exercised)

Arbitration (projected salaries via MLB Trade Rumors): RHP Marcus Stroman, $3.5 million; INF Darwin Barney, $1.6 million; OF Ezequiel Carrera, $1.2 million; LHP Aaron Loup, $1.2 million (non-tender candidate); C Josh Thole, $900,000 (non-tender candidate).

Salary guarantees: $103.3 million to eight players: C Russell Martin, $20 million; SS Troy Tulowitzki, $20 million; 3B Josh Donaldson, $17 million; RHP Marco Estrada, $14.5 million; LHP Francisco Liriano, $13.667 million; LHP J.A. Happ, $13 million; 1B Justin Smoak, $4.125 million; OF Melvin Upton Jr., $1 million (San Diego covers the rest of his $17.05 million salary).

Strengths: The Blue Jays led the AL with a 3.78 ERA, just ahead of Cleveland’s 3.84, and were tops in rotation ERA at 3.64, a half-run better than the AL champions. At the plate, their 759 runs ranked fifth while they were third with 223 home runs and a .330 OBP. Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin and Travis are four players you can build a lineup around.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jays’ batting average of .248 ranked 12th in the league and combined with a .249 average with runners in scoring position and a slugging percentage of .426 that was only seventh, is a major reason why their offence was so feast or famine. Further complicating things is that Saunders was the only left-handed bat to play consistently all year, making them very susceptible to right-handers with good fastball command and a decent slider. Though it improved over the course of the year, their bullpen ERA of 4.11 ranked 12th in the AL. Their 22 blown saves were fourth most in the AL.

Starting Pitchers: Aaron Sanchez, Happ,  Estrada, Stroman and Liriano return next year and form the foundation of a contender. They’re the team’s major strength for 2017. “Every game is certainly different, because their styles are so drastically different,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of the Blue Jays starters. “They’re really good and people don’t talk about it very much, because it’s fun to talk about the home runs and everything. And, I get it, but their pitching is really good.”

The main issue is building up depth behind that group. Joe Biagini, the Rule 5 pick who became an integral setup man, could be stretched out to provide some of that depth. Top prospects Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene touched double-A, but can’t be relied upon to contribute in a pinch.

Relief Pitchers: Roberto Osuna is an all-star calibre closer still a year away from arbitration, but he needs more support. Grilli should be back but Joe Biagini may be pulled away from a relief role, thinning a bullpen likely to lose lefty Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit. The lack of lefty depth may lead to Aaron Loup being kept around but help is needed on that front.

Rookies Danny Barnes and Matt Dermody got brief September looks and may factor. Chris Smith, a flame-throwing righty, was added to the 40-man roster in September after Benoit tore his calf, and while he didn’t pitch, one player said he was very excited to see him on the mound. Still, external fortifications will be needed.

Catcher: Martin was a beast behind the plate, finishing second in the AL with 1,069 innings during the regular season before tacking on 82 more in the playoffs. Making it even more impressive is that he spent the last three months of the season playing hurt and handling a stuff-heavy staff. But it’s clear adding a competent backup to ease his workload will only make him more effective.

“Maybe it was a little bit of survival mode for me the last little bit, just my knee, man, from the incident in the freaking sauna,” Martin says, referencing his July fall. “That was something that just lingered, but that’s not something that affects my swing, something that affects me throwing to the bases. It was more just running and running isn’t a huge part of my game anymore. But injuries are a part of the game, I’ve battled through some injuries the last three, four years. There are no excuses.”

With Dickey bound for the open market, the Blue Jays will have more freedom since their backup won’t need to handle the knuckleball. That means Thole won’t be back while they may seek a backup with stronger defensive credentials than Navarro.

Infield: The Blue Jays are set at second, shortstop and third base with Travis, Tulowitzki and Donaldson but replacing Encarnacion’s offence will be a very tall task. Smoak is under contract after being extended through 2018, but at minimum a right-handed platoon complement will be needed to augment the offence.

First-base prospect Rowdy Tellez is rolling through the system and could very well debut at some point next year. Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins, meanwhile, provide plus defence off the bench.

Outfield: This is where the Blue Jays’ heaviest lifting looms with Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders headed to the open market. Kevin Pillar returns with Upton Jr., and Carrera, while Dalton Pompey offers a potential option after a season of progress at triple-A Buffalo.

No one there is going to cover the lost production from Bautista and Saunders, but it’s in those spots where the Blue Jays are likeliest to achieve their goal of becoming faster, more athletic and more left-handed.

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