MLB 30 in 30: Blue Jays looking for return trip to playoffs

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons throws out a couple of names of young players that have impressed him at camp, like Rowdy Tellez and Chris Smith.

After back-to-back ALCS appearances, the Blue Jays will try to take things a step further in 2017 with a veteran core, a strong rotation and a revamped bullpen. This is undeniably a postseason contender. But it’s also a team with limited depth that will need to avoid injuries to key contributors in order to succeed.

As we approach the 2017 season, we’re previewing what’s ahead for each of the 30 MLB teams. The Toronto Blue Jays are first:

Up-and-coming player to watch

Rowdy Tellez put up impressive numbers at double-A New Hampshire in 2016—his age-21 season—hitting .297/.387/.530 with 24 homers and 29 doubles. Even more impressively, he walked 63 times against 92 strikeouts as he continued to refine an advanced plate approach that has Toronto talent evaluators salivating.

The left-handed hitting Tellez has committed himself to conditioning and nutrition in order to shed pre-draft concerns about his physique and spent most of his winter in Dunedin working out with Toronto’s high performance staff. With first base a serious question mark for the Blue Jays in 2017, Tellez could be a Justin Smoak injury away from playing at Rogers Centre.

What a successful 2017 season would look like

The American League’s best rotation in 2016 repeats its performance and continues its remarkable run of good health. Howell and Smith have bounce back years and set up capably for Roberto Osuna. Someone—anyone—hits well enough and defends capably enough to play every day in left field. Calling a hitter-friendly ballpark home for the first time in his career, Morales puts dents in Rogers Centre’s blue outfield walls and fills the standing-room only seats in deep centre with souvenirs. Jose Bautista remains healthy and puts up an eff-you season, leading the league in walks and hitting 35+ home runs. Josh Donaldson continues to be one of the best players in baseball. Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin avoid injury and have vintage campaigns. Devon Travis stays healthy, too, and has a breakout year at the plate.

The Blue Jays return to the ALCS for a third consecutive season, but this year they get through and a World Series game is played in Canada for the first time in more than two decades.

Biggest remaining question

Who plays left field? And what repercussions will that have on first base? If Pearce is the guy in left, then Justin Smoak and his career .700 OPS will likely see every day at-bats at first, which is less than ideal. If Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera can form a serviceable platoon in left—don’t hold your breath—then Pearce can spend time at first and keep Smoak in the bench role he’s likely best suited for. Dalton Pompey could also factor into the left field conversation with a strong start to a season that will all but certainly begin at triple-A.

This is, of course, all assuming health, which is potentially just as big of a concern. Pearce, Tulowitzki and Travis all boast decorated injury histories; Bautista made two trips to the DL in 2016; Martin had off-season knee surgery; Donaldson is sitting out the first few weeks of spring training with a calf injury.

The Blue Jays have terrific players but a scary lack of depth, which means a few key injuries could quickly derail their season. The drop off from Donaldson to Darwin Barney, or Martin to Saltalamacchia, or Tulowitzki to Ryan Goins, or Bautista to Carrera, is awfully steep.

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