MLB preview roundtable: What to make of Blue Jays roster

MLB insider Jonah Keri joins Blair and Brunt for his A.L. playoff predictions, leaving the Blue Jays out based on the “horrible scenarios” at both first base and left field.

A new MLB season begins today, so we polled Sportsnet’s baseball writers about the upcoming season.

What player could the Toronto Blue Jays least afford to lose? Which MLB team will our writers go out of their way to watch? And which players are on the verge of a monster year? Our writers weigh in before the season opener:

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Who’s one Blue Jays player whose 2017 season could have an unexpectedly significant impact on the team’s success?

Shi Davidi

I’d love for it to be Justin Smoak to spite all the people who needlessly dump on him, but my guess is there’s a bullpen arm that emerges and becomes an X-Factor. That could be someone like Tim Mayza or Chris Smith, who come up later in the season, or maybe even Joe Biagini, who could find himself in a more prominent role as things play out. Both Joe Smith and J.P. Howell could be those guys, too, if they recapture their past form.

Jeff Blair

I’m not certain it’s a good thing that a guy who has averaged 77 games played since 2011 holds the key to two positions. Probably not. Steve Pearce is being counted upon a little too heavily for my liking.

Ben Nicholson-Smith

Even if Jarrod Saltalamacchia only plays a couple of times a week, he has a chance to make a real impact on the Blue Jays. Offensively, the switch-hitting catcher has legit power, with 12 home runs last year and 110 in his career. Considering that Blue Jays backups Josh Thole and Dioner Navarro combined for four extra-base hits last year, the offensive upgrade to Saltalamacchia could be significant.

Arden Zwelling

Roberto Osuna. He’ll begin the season on the disabled list with a cervical spasm, which is certainly troubling. If he returns and picks up where he left off as the lights-out closer fans have grown accustomed to over the last two seasons, he’ll be a tremendous boon to a bullpen that doesn’t have much high leverage depth behind him. But if his pre-season velocity dip and struggles with neck and back stiffness turn out to be a foreboding sign of things to come, the Blue Jays will be hard pressed to protect narrow leads late in games.

Mike Wilner

The easy answer here is Justin Smoak, because I don’t think any fans expect anything from him, but the truth is for any team to win it needs lots of positive surprises. I’m going to go with Kevin Pillar and suggest that this might be the year that he hits .300 and sparks a lot of rallies from the bottom of the lineup.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

What player could the 2017 Blue Jays least afford to lose for an extended stretch?

Shi Davidi

This is a tough one because the Blue Jays have so little depth at triple-A. You can make a strong case for any of the five starters given how steep the decline is to the Bisons depth options, but I’m going to go with Jose Bautista because of how little offensive production you get from the outfield without him. The Blue Jays also need him to recover past form and make up for some of Edwin Encarnacion’s lost production.

Jeff Blair

Let’s think for a second what the bullpen would be like without Roberto Osuna. OK, that’s enough.

Mike Wilner

Russell Martin. Always Russell Martin. The Jays have a more capable backup this season in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but Martin is so integral to the success of the pitching staff that he’d be missed the most.

Ben Nicholson-Smith

With apologies to Russell Martin, whose absence would devastate the Blue Jays, I’m going with the 2015 AL MVP, Josh Donaldson. An offensive force who also adds value with his defence and baserunning, Donaldson’s a seven-win player when healthy. You simply can’t replace that kind of production.

Arden Zwelling

In past seasons, I would have said Russell Martin considering the options—or lack thereof—the Blue Jays had behind him. But with Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the roster, the team is better prepared to absorb the absence of its starting catcher. Now, it’s Josh Donaldson, who has led the team in wins above replacement by a mile each of the last two seasons.

What MLB team will you go out of your way to watch in 2016?

Shi Davidi

I love watching west coast games after coming home from work and I’m going to miss listening to Vin Scully, but I’m still going to say the Dodgers. The Astros with Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick added to their young core are super intriguing but the Dodgers are always a scene. Corey Seager and Joc Pederson should be better, Forsythe is a great add and Puig is a reality show.

Jeff Blair

Francisco Lindor’s team.

Arden Zwelling

The New York Mets could have the best rotation in baseball, with Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom forming a terrific 1-2, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler boasting ace potential behind them, and intriguing youngster Robert Gsellman rounding things out (and that’s not to even mention the currently injured Steven Matz). Mix in a hard-throwing relief corps, underappreciated grinders like Neil Walker and Curtis Granderson, and the always-entertaining Yoenis Cespedes, and you’ve got a pretty fun team to watch.

Ben Nicholson-Smith

Mike Trout’s a modern-day Mickey Mantle, and yet I don’t go out of my way to watch Angels games often enough. This year I’m going to try to change that by making more time to watch baseball’s best player.

Mike Wilner

I watch 162 Blue Jays games and pretty much sleep the rest of the time.

Who’s one player you could see putting together a monster year (other than Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw)?

Mike Wilner

There doesn’t seem to be too much reason that Andrew McCutchen’s 2016 was any more than a bump in the road, so look for him to get back to being what he was before last year – which is awfully good.

Ben Nicholson-Smith

Byron Buxton will almost certainly be a star-calibre defender and baserunner. If he hits, we could be looking at an elite player.

Jeff Blair

The Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa hasn’t even scratched the surface yet, and with that lineup in that ballpark he’s primed to explode in 2017. If he’s healthy this season, he’ll be in the MVP discussion.

Shi Davidi

Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and George Springer all come to mind but I’ll go more obvious with Bryce Harper. Just feels like he’s due to really put up a massive season.

Arden Zwelling

It was pretty incredible to watch what Corey Seager did in his rookie season as a 22-year-old. With a year of big-league experience under his belt, I’m very much looking forward to the encore.

The Rays, Angels, Marlins, Rockies and Diamondbacks all finished below .500 last year. Are any of those teams potential 2017 sleepers in your view?

Shi Davidi

Well, every year I pick the Rays as a sleeper and get burned on it, so I won’t pick them even though I think they’re going to be better than people believe. I like what the Rockies have going, with Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson and Tyler Chatwood in the rotation and Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, D.J. LeMahieu, CarGo and Trevor Story fronting the core. Ian Desmond should be a big help once healthy, too.

Jeff Blair

The Rockies are getting a lot of love, but some of the pre-season projections show them actually winning fewer games. The Rays are always going to worry folks – especially in this city – but I have a feeling that the Marlins lineup and bullpen might be enough to sneak away with a wild-card spot. That outfield is simply too good to overlook.

Ben Nicholson-Smith

The Rays and Angels will compete if everything breaks right, but I don’t see the Marlins or Rockies as viable sleeper teams. I do wonder about the Diamondbacks, whose pitching staff has the chance to be much stronger than it was last year.

Arden Zwelling

Is it crazy to think the Colorado Rockies could surprise this year? Probably. But their offence is legit—Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, et. al.—and there’s reason to believe their young rotation could take a step this year, even while playing half their games at Coors Field. While there are a couple big fish in their division, there are also a couple minnows in Arizona and San Diego who could cough up 100 losses apiece. If the Rockies can combine strong pitching with a bit of luck, they could hang around in the wild-card race.

Mike Wilner

You never know with the Rays, they seem to play over their heads a lot, and they have starting pitching anchors in Chris Archer, Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi, at least for now. But what the heck, let’s say the Rockies.

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