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The Blue Jays have already transformed their identity

Big names are on the market, but Toronto’s figured out a new way to remain competitive in the A.L. East.

MLB: ALCS-Cleveland Indians at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Blue Jays were like a cosmic explosion. By the time they were done acquiring stars, the team with a 22 year playoff drought suddenly boasted the most fearsome lineup in baseball, and it wasn’t even close.

When the deal making started, they already had two franchise cornerstones in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion tearing it up at the plate, but then they also added an MVP in Josh Donaldson, a catcher in Russell Martin who posted a .402 on base percentage the year before in Pittsburgh, and a defensive wizard in Troy Tulowitzki who spent the last six seasons in Colorado distinguishing himself as the best hitting shortstop in baseball. With that bevy of moves, Alex Anthopoulos transformed the Blue Jays in a way that was almost unimaginable before it happened.

Just the thought of Bautista, Encarnacion, Donaldson, Martin and Tulowitzki all getting hot at the same time was enough to generate a buzz at the ballpark no other team in could match. But a thought is all it ever became, because as good as the 2015 Blue Jays were at the plate - And oh were they good - we never truly got to see what they looked like with all of their stars at the top of their game.

Martin batted just .138 with a .484 OPS in August of 2015, and then Tulo broke his scapula in a freak collision with Kevin Pillar in September. There was still hope that the core could get healthy and shine in 2016 before age and free agency caught up with them, but it never all came together at the same time.

Once Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on all those moves, the theory was that the Jays had a window to win with a flashy, overpowering offense, and once it closed, they were in big trouble. On paper, that window appears to be closing now with Martin entering his age 34 season, Tulo not putting up the same numbers at the plate as he did in Colorado, and Bautista and Encarnacion about to hit the open market.

For this reason, most stories surrounding the Blue Jays now center around what the team will look like in a post offensive fireworks world. But here’s the dirty little secret about the 2016 Blue Jays that’s both good and bad news: They’ve already been operating in a post offensive fireworks world.

The writing is already on the wall. Jose Bautista had his worst season since 2009, the team posted a .693 OPS in September (the second worst number in the American League), and they got bounced from the playoffs in an ALCS against Cleveland in which they scored just eight runs in five games (Last year it felt like they might score eight runs in any given inning).

See, the 2016 Blue Jays were not good for the same reasons the 2015 Blue Jays were good. Despite the big names in their lineup, this team made it to the ALCS on the back of their pitching and defense, which is a bittersweet accomplishment. On one hand, it means the offensive core the Jays assembled in 2015 fell apart faster than anybody wants to accept, but at the same time, it means the Jays are much better positioned to remain competitive over the next few years than many people in the baseball world are willing to acknowledge.

Coming into 2016, the long term question was how would the Jays hold up when the 2015 type offensive production dried up as Bautista and Encarnacion’s contracts expired and the core naturally aged. Instead, that long term question became a short term question as the Jays scored 132 fewer runs in 2016 than they did in 2015.

But actually, it was even worse than that. 2016 saw more runs scored in MLB than we’ve seen in years, so in comparison to the American League average, the Jays offense slumped by 153 runs. Here’s the hard numbers:

2015 AL average runs scored: 710

2015 Blue Jays runs Scored: 891

Difference = +181

Compare that to this year:

2016 AL average runs scored: 731

2016 Blue Jays runs scored: 759

Difference = +28

The data makes it pretty clear that the Jays went from a historically frightening offense to one that’s merely above average. That’s a sobering thought, but here’s the important note; they’ve already survived that transition and remained a playoff team. No matter what happens with Bautista and Encarnacion, I’m pretty confident we’re not going to see the offense fall anywhere close to 153 runs (181 - 28 = 153) in relation to league average again next season.

Sure the Blue Jays might literally lose Jose Bautista’s production in 2017 if he goes elsewhere, but they already figuratively lost it in 2016. Bautista posted just 1.0 rWAR this year after averaging 5.6 rWAR over the previous six seasons.

The club was able to survive this storm and make the playoffs for the second straight season because they transitioned into a team propelled by pitching and defense. The 666 runs they allowed in 2016 was the fewest of any team in the American League. (Cleveland was second allowing 676, so it’s probably not a coincidence those two teams met in the ALCS.)

The run prevention was also excellent in the post season. Despite losing to the Tribe in five games, Jays pitching held Cleveland to a .168 batting average in that series; the lowest batting average for an LCS winning team of all time. Once again, it’s a double edged sword. There’s a decent chance the Blue Jays win the World Series in 2016 if their offense didn’t collapse, but because their pitching demonstrated they can be dominant both over the course of a long season and on the big stage of October baseball, they’re set up better in 2017 than most people realize.

Unlike their lineup which has big names up for free agency, the most important pieces on the glove side of the ball are coming back. The Jays have a young core of Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna set up for years. They have Marco Estrada controlled through 2017 and J.A. Happ controlled through 2018 (How good do those signings look now?). They have Francisco Liriano controlled for another season after he seemed to recapture some magic in the second half, and they can have Jason Grilli’s presence back too assuming they pick up his $3 million option. The Jays probably need more help in the bullpen with Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit eligible for free agency, but that’s a heck of a base to start with going into an off season.

Just as importantly, the Jays also have their star defenders controlled for at least two more seasons. Russell Martin’s game calling will remain behind the plate. Troy Tulowitzki will still be dazzling us at short, and Kevin Pillar’s brilliant work in center field will all still be a part of the 2017 Blue Jays barring a trade. The Blue Jays are and should remain a very strong defensive team in the middle of the diamond going forward. (That Josh Donaldson guy is pretty good at third base too.)

So yes, two franchise icons are up for free agency, the historically good offense of 2015 is a thing of past, and the front office has some work to do this winter. But this team still isn’t that far off from being a club that can win the World Series, and they’re in this position because they’ve already transformed their identity.