This is the second in a series looking at the Yankees' 2018 division competition as well as a few of the strong teams in other divisions. Today we cover the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Toronto Blue Jays will be much harder to dislike in 2018 without the focal point of that ire, Jose Bautista. As such, the old Blue Jays are becoming the new Blue Jays and present a difficult projection for the coming year. Keep in mind during this look that the Blue Jays were predicted to be great last year but fell on hard times, mostly due to injury. Could that upbeat projection be delayed to this year?
Current analyse of the team as it is built predict that the Blue Jays will win 84 games and finish third in the division behind the Yankees and the Red Sox. However, if positive things happen, they have some thump in their lineup, a chance at decent to above decent starting pitching and a good bullpen. Let's look at some of those positive things that could happen.
What Could Go Right?
The team had many injuries last year, particularly on the pitching end. Aaron Sanchez was counted on to take the next step in his development but pitched only 36 innings last year. If the team can get significant innings from him and he pitches as well as they have always hoped he could, then the team gets more interesting.
If Troy Tulowitzki could play 150 games, that would be a big plus. He was limited to just 66 games a year ago. More on Tulowitzki later in the What Could Go Wrong section.
It Tulo could get significant playing time, he joins a lineup with some potential pop. Justin Smoak emerged as a star last year and hit 38 homers. Josh Donaldson will be playing for his free agent contract after the season and could be ridiculous like he was in 2015. Donaldson missed forty games in 2017 and still clubbed 33 homers.
Kendrys Morales will strike out a lot but adds up to thirty homers from the DH spot. Kevin Pillar had a down season with the bat and could rebound and hit twenty more homers. Steve Pearce and Russell Martin add a dozen or more to the mix.
The most significant thing that could go right offensively would be an improvement in the team's batting average. The team batted .240 as a whole last season. That number included a lot of empty at bats for Bautista, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney. All three are gone this season.
Because of the lack of safely fallen batted balls, the team was eighth in the American League in Walks, but thirteenth in On Base Percentage. That is a tough way to win ballgames.
Barney and Goins are replaced by either a healthier Tulowitzki at short and a re-emergence of Devon Travis at second. Even the other option at short if Tulo cannot go is better than last year's option. Aledmys Diaz was acquired from the Cardinals and had a down year offensively in 2017. But Diaz showed promised in the previous couple of seasons and could make a loss of Tulowitzki non-toxic.
The outfield does not look particularly promising with Curtis Granderson, Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk. However, Granderson could have a swan song season in a good hitting park, Grichuk showed promise earlier in his career and could rebound and we have already discussed Pillar. It doesn't look great on paper, but it could be good enough in a pinch.
Russell Martin is still a reliable catcher who has had two sub-par years with the bat. Like many catchers, Martin's ability to hit depends on the level of dings he has received while catching. He seems due for an uptick year. Regardless, he has always had a good eye and a healthy walk rate. Plus, he is still good defensively behind the plate. The Blue Jays are hoping that Danny Jansen can show the great potential in the big leagues and may win the backup catching position.
Much of the Blue Jays' hopes will land on their starting rotation. Marcus Stroman is the young ace and did not miss a start last season. More on him in the next section as there is a dark cloud hovering there.
Marco Estrada is solid if not spectacular. He has his good months and his bad months. But he will give the team innings. JA Happ had a much better season than his record indicates. Plus, he finished really strong in September. He is another solid cog in the rotation. A healthy Sanchez will really help.
The fifth starter will either be Jaime Garcia or Joe Biagini. Neither inspire great hope, but how many teams have good fifth starters? Not too many.
If some positive things happen for the Blue Jays, they could be troublesome for the Yankees in their nineteen games during the season.
What Could Go Wrong?
Frankly, a lot could go wrong for this team and some dark clouds are already forming. Aforementioned ace, Marcus Stroman, has a shoulder issue and after not missing any starts a year ago, he will not be ready for the opener against the Yankees. That is a big concern!
The also aforementioned Tulowitzki has recurring bone spurs in his heel and is expected not to be ready to open the season. Tulo has been the Blue Jays' version of Jacoby Ellsbury and they need to move on. Diaz might allow them to do that.
If Stroman misses much time and Sanchez does not come back strong, the rotation becomes a huge mess and weakness.
The outfield of an aging Granderson (on turf no less), Pillar (great field, but will he hit?) and Grichuk could be a huge weakness if they do not hit. Only Pillar is projected as a great fielder but he needs to return to form as a batter. Grichuk is dealing with rib issues, strikes out (a lot!) and has seemed to suffer the more he is exposed to at bats.
The infield, even without Tulowitzki, is solid unless injuries again plague Donaldson (who missed 40 games last season) and Smoak cannot prove that 2017 was an outlier. The middle of the diamond with or without Tulo is much better than last year.
The Blue Jays have few viable prospects nearly ready for the Big Leagues. Therefore, they pretty much have to roll the dice with what they have. RHP Conner Greene is the only pitcher in their top 17 prospects that is close to being ready. The team's strongest area prospect-wise close to the big leagues are catchers.
Despite some ability to put the ball over the fence, the offense has huge question marks. Morales and Granderson are getting old. There are a lot of strikeouts in this lineup and only three or four batters who are patient at the plate.
The pitching, at least in the starting area, really is built on a shaky foundation that could completely crumble if Sanchez does not re-emerge and Stroman's shoulder ends up being serious.
There seems to be more things that could go wrong for the Toronto Blue Jays than right. If all goes exceptionally well, 87 wins seems to be a max. If things go wrong, despite having great fans, the Blue Jays could have a long, long season. Either way, they seem not to be a strong threat to the Yankees and the Red Sox.