When MLB fans hear the name Toronto Blue Jays, they tend to think of a power-hitting team who crushed home run after home run. They were led by the likes of Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Troy Tulowitzki. With such high profile names on offense, the clubs’ pitching staff would often be an afterthought. Many fans would just assume that the team still had a starting rotation that was merely average at best like they did a few years back.
But that is about to change. Not only is Encarnacion gone and Bautista in free agent limbo, but the Jays’ starting staff has quietly emerged as one of the best in the league. With names like J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada, Toronto’s staff will likely have more recognizable names than the offense by the end of the 2017 season.
Let’s start with the team’s changing offensive outlook. In the last three seasons, the Blue Jays have ranked third, first and fourth in home runs in the entire league. But now as we enter 2017, their lineup looks a lot different. Encarnacion will no longer be manning first base or DH, and he has been replaced by Kendrys Morales. While Morales did hit 30 home runs in 2016, it was only the second time in his career he has reached that mark, and it is still well shy of Edwin’s 42.
But it is the outfield that will see the biggest change. Both Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders are free agents and if there have been no reports that indicate a reunion with either man is close to coming to fruition. It sounds like Saunders would like to return, but there is he is still waiting for an acceptable offer. If neither man re-signs with the club, the Jays have Steve Pearce, Kevin Pillar, Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera ready to man the outfield.
The loss off Bautista and Saunders will result in a loss of 46 home runs in 2016. That is with Bautista coming off an injury plagued season as well. Pearce does have the potential to be a power hitter, but he is also a man who is known for getting hurt. He has never had more than 338 at-bats in a single season. And given the Jays other outfield options at the moment, that is not going to be good for their offense. Carrera and Upton are two guys who should be fourth outfielders, at best. In this current setup, they are both set to see their fair share of at-bats.
So if the Jays do not make any more moves for any kind of offensive additions, then the Jays bats will certainly take a step back. And that is where the change in identity will come into play, as their starting staff is set to become the focal point of the team.
The Blue Jays pitching has quietly been growing into a dominant force for a few years, and now they have plenty of great names to fill their rotation. After ranking 12th in ERA back in 2015, the Jays improved to rank sixth in 2016 in the category. As for strikeouts, the team jumped up to 13th in 2016 after finishing 26th in 2015.
It is clear the rotation is headed in the right direction, and when you look at the names, it is certainly understandable why. After spending the 2015 season away from the club (he split the year between the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates), J.A. Happ made his return for the 2016 season after signing a free agent deal in the winter. Happ would go on to win 20 games to go along with a 3.18 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. It was hands down a career year for the lefty, who now enters his age 34 season. It is extremely likely that Happ sees some regression, but that is fine since he does not need to be the teams ace.
That title will go to one of the teams extremely talented young arms, Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman. Sanchez had his first full season as a starter in 2016, and the now 24-year-old righty did not disappoint. He showed some electric stuff on his way to 15 wins, a 3.00 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP.
As for Stroman, he entered the season as the favorite to be their ace following a stellar 2015 season. But the former Duke Blue Devil, who will be 26 this season, had a rough 2016 campaign. But more specifically, a rough first half. Stroman looked more like himself in the second half, but still suffered from some bad luck, specifically with home run per fly ball percentage. He keeps the ball on the ground, and showed a shift in the use of his sinker that led to better results. He also knows how to strike people out, and Jays fans should be excited to see what Stroman can do as he reaches his peak ages.
After those three, we have Marco Estrada, who certainly can handle the fourth starter role. There is nothing special about Estrada, but he still managed to put up decent numbers in 2016, despite suffering from a herniated disk during the season. He held a 3.48 ERA with nine wins to go along with 165 strikeouts in 176 innings last season.
Then we have the true wild card of the rotation: Francisco Liriano. Compared to Happ and Estrada, Liriano’s upside is certainly higher, as his stuff is simply filthier. He is a former ace who has dealt with plenty of ups and downs over the course of his career. He was acquired from the Pirates during the season last year, and upon his arrival in Toronto, Liriano’s numbers greatly improved. Over the course of 49 and a third innings, Liriano struck out 52 compared to 16 walks, while posting a 2.92 ERA. If the 33-year-old can tap into some of that potential we have seen from him before, and he could easily join Sanchez and Stroman as part of one of the best trios in the league.
So forget about a team that is built on its bats, as 2017 will see the Jays’ rotation will enter the spotlight. Fans will soon forget about the names Bautista and Encarnacion, as they will be rushing to buy shirts that read Sanchez or Stroman on the back.