It's been many, many years since the Blue Jays entered an April with a roster this talented. Yes, every team enters each season dreaming of a World Series, but few have as good of a chance of making that a reality as this Toronto team does.
Armed with the most dangerous lineup in the game—a batting order that includes four guys who could hit cleanup just about anywhere, a defense up the middle that's as efficient as it is exciting, and a back end of a bullpen that's more than capable of consistently nailing down games—the Blue Jays seem ready to defend their AL East crown and make another deep run into the playoffs.
Let's examine them closer.
While the core of the lineup that propelled the Jays' high powered offense in 2015 will be returning, there's also been some important changes on the fringes of this roster. Let's take a look at some of the key moves.
Mark Buehrle: Retired
Steve Delabar: Released on March 29, 2016
Jeff Francis: Retired
LaTroy Hawkins: Retired
Liam Hendriks: Traded to the A's for Jesse Chavez on Friday, November 20, 2015
Maicer Izturis: Re-signed with the Blue Jays on Friday, January 29, 2016 only to retire on Friday, March 4, 2016
Munenori Kawasaki: Signed a minor league deal with the Cubs on January 21, 2016
Mark Lowe: Signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Tigers on December 8, 2015
Dioner Navarro: Signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the White Sox on December 4, 2015
Cliff Pennington: Signed a two-year, $3.75 million deal with the Angels on November 17, 2015
David Price: Signed a seven year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox on December 4, 2015
Ben Revere: Traded to the Nationals for Drew Storen on Friday, January 8, 2016
David Adams: Signed a minor league contract on November 20, 2015
Darrell Ceciliani: Acquired from the Mets for cash or a player to be named later on February 2, 2016
Jesse Chavez: Acquired from the A's for Liam Hendriks on Friday, November 20, 2015
Gavin Floyd: Signed a one-year, $1 million deal on February 6, 2016
J.A. Happ: Signed a three-year, $36 million deal on Friday, November 27, 2015
Arnold Leon: Acquired from the A's for cash on January 5, 2016
Jesus Montero: Claimed off waivers from the Mariners on March 28, 2016
Drew Storen: Acquired from the Nationals for Ben Revere on Friday, January 8, 2016
Catcher: Russell Martin
First Base: Chris Colabello / Justin Smoak
Second Base: Ryan Goins (at least until Devon Travis returns, which won't be for a while)
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
Third Base: Josh Donaldson
Left Field: Michael Saunders (although Dalton Pompey could take this job by the summer)
Centre Field: Kevin Pillar
Right Field: Jose Bautista
Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion
We're rapidly approaching Opening Day, which means answers to some of these burning questions could be revealed soon.
How will the Blue Jays handle life after Alex Anthopoulos?
One of the most important departures isn't mentioned on the list above, but the man who built much of the core of the 2016 Blue Jays is now working as the vice-president of baseball operations for the Dodgers. This is a very unusual situation. It's not often a general manager builds a team that makes the playoffs for the first time in over two decades and then parts ways with the club just as (what looks like) a very promising window opens, but that's where we are right now. The pressure is now on new president Mark Shapiro and new general manager Ross Atkins to deliver a run of success that will leave fans glued to the product on the field and forget about the recent turmoil in the front office.
Who will leadoff for this lineup?
This is the question that seems to have no logical answer. Troy Tulowitzki hit leadoff for a while when he first arrived from Colorado last season, but it's not something that really fits his history as a player. The real issue here is that all of the best on-base percentage guys in this lineup also tend to hit a bunch of home runs (not a bad issue to have). Ideally, you want a guy who gets on base to set the table for your sluggers, but this team has so many sluggers, there's nobody who really fits that description.
Two guys in the organization who might fit this role at some point in the future are Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey, but the former is injured and the latter still needs a bit more minor league seasoning, so they're not options here for at least the first half of 2016. If spring training is any indication, expect Kevin Pillar to get the bulk of the early action in this role.
Will Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion be extended before they hit free agency?
Time seems to be running out here, but until we know for sure, this is a topic that will remain on everyone's mind. Both of these players have been tremendous finds for Toronto and have vastly outproduced their current contracts, but they're also both getting older, and with large contracts to Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin already on the books, as well as expensive payouts due to Josh Donaldson as he approaches his free agent years after 2018, the Blue Jays can't afford to pay Bautista and Encarnacion for what they've done in the past.
Ultimately, this story will have little impact on how the 2016 club performs, but it will have a very large impact on where the story goes after that point. In all likelihood, this is the only season you'll get to see Bautista, Encarnacion, Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Martin in the same lineup from start to finish. So enjoy the show.
Which Troy Tulowitzki will the Blue Jays get in 2016?
During the first week of June in 2009, Troy Tulowitzki changed his batting stance to a more upright position and turned himself into one of the best players in the game (when healthy). Over his next 630 games, Tulo produced 30.3 fWAR until a hip injury ended his 2014 campaign. If you average that out, Tulo was worth an average of 7.2 WAR over 150 games during that stretch of baseball. This is the guy the Blue Jays hope they got last July when they sent Jose Reyes, Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco to Colorado.
The question now is whether or not 2015 was blip in an otherwise Hall of Fame career or the start of a sizable decline in production for Tulo. There's plenty of reason to think it's the former as he spent the first half of last season recovering physically from the hip surgery that derailed his MVP campaign in 2014, and the second half recovering mentally from being blindsided by Jeff Bridich and the Rockies front office. We should get our answer pretty quick, but if Tulowitzki does get back to being the player he was in a Rockies uniform, Toronto fans haven't even come close to seeing how good this guys is on an everyday basis.
How much production will the Blue Jays get from first base this season?
It's only March, but boy has Justin Smoak been raking down in Florida. He already has eight extra base hits in just 36 at bats this spring. This means nothing if he doesn't carry it over into the regular season, but he could be a sneaky breakout bat for this club in 2016 with his new, more balanced weight action at the plate.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we have Chris Colabello who had a breakout campaign in 2015, but will likely need to maintain an outrageously high BABIP to repeat that production. A year ago, Colabello had zero track record of success at the major league level, so I'm not sure how much a .411 BABIP paired with a 25 percent strikeout rate makes me believe he's going to have much success in the future. The hottest bat will get the most playing time here, and I have a feeling it's going to Smoak.
Today the Blue Jays claimed Jesus Montero on waivers, who is now more of a first baseman and designated hitter, but one would think that he would not contribute much either way with the big club.
Will Dalton Pompey break out?
One of the best things that could happen to the Blue Jays is for this hometown guy to take a big step forward. It won't only help the second half of this season, but it will set them up much better in future seasons as it will be easier to absorb the likely loss of Bautista and / or Encarnacion. His journey will start in Buffalo, but the long-term implications of his growth will influence the look and feel of the Toronto outfield for years to come.
What will happen when Devon Travis returns?
Travis enjoyed a solid first half of 2015 and made the swap with the Tigers for Anthony Gose look like a steal. However, he also suffered a devastating shoulder injury that will ultimately keep him out of action for the better part of a year. Oddly, his last game of 2015 occurred just as Troy Tulowitzki was traded, and since that time Tulo and Ryan Goins have established an outstanding middle infield defense together.
Travis has the better bat at second, but if Goins shows any sign that the .770 OPS he put up after the Tulo trade is real, he may be much harder to keep out of the lineup than most people realize. If all goes well, the Blue Jays will have three capable middle infielders to choose from by mid-season, which is ideal if any more injuries pop up.
Will the Blue Jays lead all of baseball in runs scored again?
It's hard to say anything less than being at the top of the runs scored column would be a disappointment, but we're talking about a club who not only was the best offense in baseball last year but outscored the second-best offense by a colossal 127 runs, an MLB record. With the same core returning in 2016, and a (hopefully) full season of Troy Tulowitzki (please baseball gods, please!), it's hard to envision too many scenarios where the Blue Jays stay healthy and aren't kings of the boomstick again.
Marcus Stroman (R)
R.A. Dickey (R)
Marco Estrada (R)
J.A. Happ (L)
Aaron Sanchez (R)
Just how good is Marcus Stroman?
At this point, it's pretty well established that Marcus Stroman is awesome. Everything from his attitude to his pitch arsenal and from his energy level to his ability to recover from a devastating knee injury is top notch. So the question now isn't so much if Stroman can be a top of the rotation pitcher, but if he can be a true ace. Here's the distinction I make: Every team has a number one or two starter, but not every team has an ace. Aces are guys like Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, David Price, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez and Jake Arrieta. Stroman doesn't belong in that group right now, but it's possible he could knock on that door by late summer with a great season. I often like to think of starting pitchers as a deck of playing cards. Stroman is at least a face card, and probably a king, but if all goes right, he could turn into an ace.
Did J.A. Happ find any magic in Pittsburgh?
When the Mariners sent J.A. Happ to the Pirates last summer only moments before the trading deadline, he appeared on the verge of completing his fifth consecutive season with a ERA+ below 90 (at least ten percent worse than average). Then something remarkable happened. In eleven starts in black and gold, he posted a K/9 of 9.8, a BB/9 of 1.8, cut his HR/9 to 0.4 (less than half his career average), and pumped out a sparkling 1.85 ERA over 63.1 innings.
If nothing else, his time as a Pirate made him very rich (the Blue Jays handed him a three-year, $36 million contract as noted above), but it remains to be seen if it also made him a better pitcher. If Spencer Bingol is right, Happ's success came from using his four-seam fastball more often and throwing it at a more consistent release point. If that continues in 2016, the Blue Jays just got themselves a steal.
How many starts will Aaron Sanchez get before he has to leave the rotation?
Now that we know Sanchez will begin the year in the rotation, the question becomes how long he'll be able to stay there. When John Gibbons announced today that Sanchez will open the year as a member of the starting five, he also noted that Sanchez could transition to the bullpen later in the year to manage his innings.
The powerful young righty has never thrown more than 133 innings in a season, and the Blue Jays are concerned about the long term health impacts a wire to wire MLB season could have on his arm. I'd expect the club to rely more on conditioning and fatigue signs than a strict innings limit when it comes to making this decision, but it's safe to say that this franchise values this arm for seasons well beyond 2016.
Who else will start games for the Blue Jays this season?
As great as the rotation looks now, it's going to need some help to get through the entire season. Stroman and Sanchez have never pitched a full MLB marathon before (and we already know Sanchez will be departing the rotation at some point), Happ has never thrown more than 172 inning in a season, and Marco Estrada has already been battling back soreness this spring. Dickey does throw a knuckleball and has made at least 32 starts for each of the last five seasons, but he's also 41 and coming off a knee surgery, so I'm not sure it's wise to count on that again.
In other words, guys like Gavin Floyd, Jesse Sanchez and Drew Hutchison are all likely to have an opportunity to crack this rotation at some point if they pitch well, and perhaps (hopefully not) even if they don't pitch all that well.
Drew Storen (R)
Roberto Osuna (R)
Brett Cecil (L)
Gavin Floyd (R)
Jesse Chavez (R)
(Aaron Loup is likely to begin the year on the DL)
The fight for the final spot
If the Blue Jays go with an eight-man pen (an arrangement not favoured by many fans), that would leave three spots to open the season, and there's a bunch of contenders battling for those spots including:
Randy Choate (Choate was released after this piece was posted), Ryan Tepera, Pat Venditte, Arnold Leon, Ben Rowen, and rule 5 draftee Joe Biagini.
When you get down to cuts on this point of the roster, options and flexibility usually play a bigger role than who is necessarily pitching better. Guys like Tepera, Venditte and Rowen all face a huge disadvantage here since they can all be optioned and called back up later. However, Leon and Biagini have to make the team out of the gate if the Jays don't want to risk losing them.
Then there's also the matter of needing a second lefty in the pen until Loup comes back.
This could be Choate's ticket onto the roster. Then again, they could also just use Venditte in that role for a little while since he comes at hitters from both sides. This remains a complex squeeze with numerous factors weighing on the final outcome.
For the most part, the Blue Jays are a team that's already established at the major league level and won't be getting much help from the farm in 2016, but that doesn't mean there's not a couple of exciting prospects to watch. Anthony Alford and Conner Greene topped this year's Bluebird Banter list.
Alford may have been selected in the third round of the 2012 draft, but that's only because he hadn't committed to the right sport yet. Last year he got his first full baseball season under his belt and excelled at both Lansing and Dunedin, showing incredible feel for the strike zone as a 20-year-old. If he continues to demonstrate this kind of ability as he hits the higher levels, he'll rocket up prospects boards across the country.
Greene meanwhile should spend most of the year at double-A New Hampshire after making five starts there late last year. His fastball has been generating plenty of swings-and-misses at the lower levels, but it's unlikely that continues at the same rate as he starts to run into stiffer competition. If all goes well, he projects as more of a middle of the rotation starter, but if Stroman and Sanchez reach their potential and anchor this staff for years to come, Greene as a cost-controlled option in the middle or back of the rotation will work out just fine.
This is a critical season for the Blue Jays. Their window won't close after 2016, but this is probably their last chance to win it all with both Bautista and Encarnacion on the roster. After 2016, they're likely going to be relying more on a solid lineup built around Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin and Pompey (with perhaps a return of one of the big free agent bats) to go along with a more established one-two rotation punch of Stroman and Sanchez.
If nothing else, this era of Blue Jays baseball has already reminded Toronto of how good a baseball city it can be when the right ingredients come together. Attendance is likely to crack three million this season for the first time since 1993, and Rogers Centre will be rocking all summer long. The new level of energy and excitement that surrounds this team is palpable, and while the Tulowitzki trade, Donaldson MVP campaign and Bautista bat flip are now all well entrenched in the past, they seemed to be setting the foundation for some bigger journey that's just beginning. A journey that's going to take us to more great places and deliver more unforgettable moments. A journey that continues now.