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Did the Blue Jays acquire the biggest pitching upgrade of the entire off season?

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Well no, but it just might feel that way when watching Aaron Sanchez take the mound again.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Atlanta Braves Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Entering spring training, I had no idea what to expect from Aaron Sanchez in 2018. The golden arm that posted the lowest ERA among starters in the AL in 2016 was still there, but so were the question marks surrounding the blisters that completely derailed his 2017 campaign. Now as we approach Opening Day, those question marks seem to be fading with Sanchez cruising through start after start without issue.

So as uncertain hope turns to cautious optimism, it’s worth speculating just how much a healthy Sanchez could boost the Blue Jays’ chances in 2018. Russell Martin offered his thoughts on the topic in an interview during Monday night’s game:

“Getting Sanchez back, it’s like signing one of the best free agents out there.”

While most comments of this nature in March tend to be overstated wishful thinking, this one might actually have some truth to it from a pure production standpoint. While Aaron Sanchez was physically a member of the Blue Jays last season, blisters rendered his production pretty much non-existent.

His bWAR came in at exactly zero, and in four of the eight starts he did make, he had to leave before he reached 80 pitches. From a production standpoint, the Aaron Sanchez of 2016 probably started about two games last year. This is another way of saying that Aaron Sanchez was a part of the 2017 Blue Jays in name only, and that whatever he gives you production wise this season is going to feel like something acquired off the free agent market over the winter. Potentially something big that eats into the 13 extra losses the Jays piled up in 2017 compared to 2016.

Of course, Sanchez wasn’t the only reason the Jays’ stumbled in 2017, but he does seem to represent the biggest piece of production from Toronto’s last playoff run they can get back without anything drastic happening.

Recently, I was scanning the Blue Jays’ 2016 page on baseball reference and noticed something amazing: Each of the top 11 producers from that season (based on rWAR), gave the Blue Jays less production in 2017. Here’s the exact breakdown ordered by how much less rWAR they gave the Jays in 2017 compared to 2016: (Edwin Encarnacion did put up 2.8 rWAR last year, but he did it in Cleveland, so for the purposes of this exercise, he posted zero rWAR for the Jays.)

If you want to know what went wrong with the Jays last season, most of the answers are in this chart, particularly with those top six names, accounting for a loss of 17.7 wins between them. The drop-off with the next five guys didn’t help, but the more remarkable thing about them is they continued the streak of nobody matching or surpassing a good to great 2016 campaign. I’d imagine if you did this exercise with every team you’d find more guys dropping off than building on their production since the sample is from a group of guys hitting high notes, but you shouldn’t expect the clean sweep of slippage we see here.

Some of these loses were mopped up by a rise in production from Marcus Stroman (he was 12th on the rWAR list in 2016), and the great season from Justin Smoak, but not enough to make August and September meaningful.

Either way, Sanchez represents the biggest single loss of production from 2016, and getting that back would be a huge first step back towards the post season. The other guys on that list represent trickier, although not impossible paths to recapturing lost production from 2016.

Encarnacion is gone, so you’re not getting his production back; and the Jays actually probably already retained most of it last season with Smoak’s 3.2 rWAR. Donaldson’s certainly a candidate to have a big bounce back season in his contract year if he can stay healthy (especially with how he played in the second half of 2017), but it’s hard to go into a season and expect a guy to post 7.5 rWAR. Tulo and Travis could certainly post their 2016 numbers again if healthy, but the injury bug seems to absolutely hate them.

Perhaps the other easiest place for the Jays to make up for lost 2016 production is actually through Darwin Barney. Not him specifically, but in the form of Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte, who will be sucking up his playing time and have a good chance to post positive production.

No matter how you slice this though, the biggest and most obvious block of production the Jays lost in 2017 was Sanchez, and the silver lining there is that based on his health going into April, he’s also the biggest and most obvious candidate to reclaim his 2016 form.

The Jays need more to go right than just Sanchez if they want to get back to October, but getting back an arm back that has the potential to amount to an acquisition as solid as anything anybody got on the free agent market this winter would be a massive first step, and a strong foundation to build on.

The lineup may be in a completely different state from two years ago, but with a healthy Sanchez, you don’t have to squint too hard to see the 2016 rotation and the production it provided.