Canada seems increasingly like a nice place to live these days, but for Canada’s national baseball team, it’s possible that their championship window has finally started closing. With the beloved Maple Leafs finally ascendant, maybe it’s only fitting that the Jays take a back seat to their country’s national pastime, but even if they do, in fact, finally fall from contention, they won’t do it quietly. The Rogers Centre doesn’t do quiet.
Baseball Prospectus’ projected standings put the Jays at an even 81-81, fourth in the AL East, well within striking distance of both the Yankees (82-80) and Rays (84-78), but lagging behind the Sox (90-72). Oddsshark is more confident, putting the Jays at +300 to win the division, the second-best chances to Boston’s, with the Sox at -110. The biggest question for Toronto is whether or not it can absorb the loss of the Edwin Encarnación and the potential decline of Jose Bautista, and while it seems unlikely, stranger things have happened. Did I mention the Leafs are good again? And that they’re led by a 19-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona?
Those are your stranger things. Before we look forward to this year, let’s back on what worked and what didn’t work for Toronto last year, when they once again came up just short of the World Series, falling to the Indians in the ALCS in five games.
The best thing to happen to the Jays may have been Buck Showalter’s refusal to use Zach Britton in the Wild Card game, allowing the Jays to advance in the playoffs on a walk-off Encarnacion dinger, but that’s a little narrow for this section.
More broadly speaking, itinerant J.A. Happ’s 2016 was the best story of the season, as the lefty went 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA over 195 innings. Wins may not mean all that much, but venti vittori for a 33-year-old journeyman is something to celebrate. Also worth celebrating: Aaron Sanchez’s breakout season. Sanchez, a full decade younger than Happ, went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA over 192 IP amid organizational threats to limit his innings that were scrapped by the Jays’ playoff run. As the pitcher the Jays kept over Noah Syndergaard in the Jose Reyes trade, Sanchez is making good on that promise; he’s no Thor, but he’s quite fine as it is.
The rest of the rotation was also solid. Nominal No. 1 starter Marcus Stroman threw 204 innings with a 4.37 ERA, which isn’t much to write home about outside of the durability, but his second half was strong, with a 3.68 ERA and nearly 1:1 K/inning ratio. (Plus, he wears number 6, and it’s cool to see single-digit number pitchers.) Marco Estrada pitched well (3.48 ERA) and almost no-hit the Red Sox in June, and R.A. Dickey, now in Atlanta, acquitted himself just fine.
In the bullpen, closer Roberto Osuna masterfully led a good bullpen that included Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, Jesse Chavez and the now-departed Brett Cecil. He will be missed.
On offense, Josh Donaldson put up another MVP-ish season, going .284/.404/.549 with 37 home runs. Encarnación banged 42 homers and Michael Saunders, finally springing to life, hit 24, as did Troy Tulowitzki, who otherwise had some struggles at the plate. Russell Martin hit 24, Bautista 22 and Justin Smoak 14 on Toronto’s typically swole roster. Devon Travis wasn’t a big bopper, but had a damn nice year at second base, hitting .300/.332/.454.
Bautista, whose ascent came notably late in his career, showed real signs of decline; so did Tulo, whose chronic inability to stay on the field was finally matched by an inability to perform at an All-Star level when he did play. Outside of those two, and the misfortune of playing a fire-breathing Cleveland club in the ALCS, things went pretty well for the Jays last season.
The Year Ahead
The Jays won 89 games in 2016, but outside of the addition of Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales, they haven’t done much to improve. That doesn’t mean they can’t get better: Sanchez and Stroman have room to improve, which bodes well, but Happ doesn’t, and with Francisco Liriano replacing Dickey as the fifth starter, it’s pretty much a wash on the back-end, even if they add Mat Latos for rotation/bullpen depth, which seems likely at the moment.
Losing Encarnación is a huge blow, and while Bautista is back, it’s hardly because the Jays couldn’t bear to see him leave. Donaldson will be great, but it’s hard to think Travis will repeat his breakout year or that
Saunders or Martin will be quite as burly as they were in 2016. If they are, the Jays once again have a shot, but there’s enough slippage here that as a Sox fan, they won’t keep me up quite as long at night as they used to, unless the actual Blue Jays in my backyard won’t shut up. If you thought Rogers Centre was loud, try listening to those buttheads day after day.