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Power Core - A Toronto Blue Jays preview

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A look ahead at the first opponent on our seven-game AL East roadtrip

Hi! Remember me?
Hi! Remember me?
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

On October 23, 1993, Joe Carter hit a walk-off three-run homer off of Mitch Williams to win the World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays. It would be the last time the Blue Jays played in a playoff game for almost 22 years, a streak that was the longest active drought in baseball heading into last October.

Jays fans were finally rewarded for their patience in 2015 with an explosive offensive team that made a bat-flippingly entertaining postseason run to the ALCS. The Jays' scoring ability was unprecedented this decade; not since the 2009 Yankees has any team surpassed the 891 runs tallied by Toronto in 2015. For years, the Blue Jays offense has been anchored by a pair of late bloomers who didn't achieve stardom until age 29.

Before arriving in Toronto in 2008, Jose Bautista was a pretty unremarkable major league player. He spent most of his mid-20s getting overexposed as a four corners supersub without the bat to match on some pretty bad Pittsburgh Pirates teams. Then, he randomly hit 54 homers for the Blue Jays in 2010, 38 more than he'd hit in any previous season. It was an unbelievable breakthrough and it was no fluke. In 2015, Bautista belted another 40 homers at age 34 while leading the American League in walks, and that doesn't include his decisive blast in Game 5 of the ALDS, after which he gave the world a bat-flip for the ages. It was one of the most dramatic moments in modern baseball history. Joey Bats is an animated superstar that plays the game with a great deal of passion and helps to #MakeBaseballFunAgain. We should enjoy him while he lasts.

His partner in crime with the Blue Jays has been slugger Edwin Encarnacion. The man they used to call E5 in Cincinnati (for his lackluster defense at third base) has acquitted himself well to DH duties by clubbing 151 dingers over the past four seasons, which is second in all of baseball to Chris Davis over that span. Bautista ranks sixth himself, and these two have batted adjacent to one another in the same lineup the whole time. Scary.

Now, consider that the 2015 AL MVP batted in the same lineup and it wasn't either of those two guys.

On November 29, 2014, the Oakland Athletics traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Franklin Barreto. Oops.  All Donaldson did last year was hit 41 homers batting in front of the aforementioned monsters while scoring the most runs in the American League, driving in the most runs in the American League, playing his usual stellar defense at third base, and taking home baseball's top individual hardware. Meanwhile, Kendall Graveman.....hung sinkers.

As if that lineup core wasn't enough, the Blue Jays got plenty of help from their supporting players. Russell Martin, the Jays' big free agent acquisition from last year, chipped in a .208 ISO from catcher while keeping up his excellent pitch framing. Center fielder Kevin Pillar, whom many had labeled a fourth outfielder, emerged as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game and a superb baserunner. Even platoon first baseman and Minnesota Twins castoff Chris Colabello got in on the fun, hitting .321 by standing on the shoulders of a .411 (!!!) BABIP. Predictably, Colabello reverted to being a horrid baseball player in 2016. Unpredictably, he tested positive for a banned substance and is now suspended for half the season, pressing an underqualified Justin Smoak into everyday duty.

Seeing a chance to capitalize on a talented roster, the Blue Jays upgraded big at the 2015 trade deadline by bringing in ace starter David Price and All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is still in tow for 2016. Tulowitzki was something of a disappointment after his acquisition. After years of being considered the best shortstop in baseball (when healthy!), it seems like Tulo is finally starting to slow down, as his strikeout rates and power numbers have been going the wrong direction. It's telling that he batted leadoff upon his acquisition but was batting seventh by the end of the season. He's still an adequate starter, but no longer a special one.

With Price having departed for a big payday with the Red Sox, the Jays' rotation is now fronted by diminuitive Marcus Stroman. The 5'8" righty tore his ACL before the beginning of last season and most thought he'd miss all of 2015. His recovery progress shocked Dr. James Andrews and Stroman actually wound up pitching four games in September and starting the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS. He's not overpowering but he's good at keeping the ball on the ground, an important skill for pitching in Toronto's homer-friendly environment.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is a great baseball story. Few starting pitchers can say they threw their first successful season at age 35. That Dickey was born without an ulnar collateral ligament and won a Cy Young award at age 37 makes him all the more compelling. He's lost some velocity on the knuckler (which he throws about 90 percent of the time) and he's now 41, but he's still close to an average major league pitcher and there's precedent for knuckleballers being useful well into their forties.

Marco Estrada earned himself a $26 million payday despite three straight seasons of his peripherals trending the wrong direction. Though he's not one to allow particularly high BABIPs as an extreme flyball pitcher, the .216 figure he posted in his walk year will surely not repeat itself, making his ostensible breakthrough something of a mirage. J.A. Happ, too, appeared to take a massive step forward in the latter stages of last season, but unlike Estrada, there's some chance the better results reflect actual improvements. Working with pitching coach Ray Searage in Pittsburgh appeared to do wonders for Happ, as a more aggressive approach and increased focus on pounding the zone with his fastball led to great results down the stretch with the Pirates. The Blue Jays bet $36 million on a three-year deal that his development was real.

Rounding out the rotation is 23-year-old Aaron Sanchez, a hard-throwing righty that doesn't use his secondary pitches with great frequency. As the breakdown suggests, Sanchez most often throws a sinker and that contributes to his very high ground ball rate. The curve is a true out pitch even though he doesn't throw it all that often, but the changeup is still rough. He'll likely need the change to be passable for his long-term role to be as a starter.

The Jays are pretty well set in the back of their bullpen with 21-year-old Roberto Osuna closing and new acquisition Drew Storen in tow. That said, the departure of Price put the starting rotation on shaky ground and Price's decision to sign with the Jays' toughest competition in the division further complicates matters. Toronto is no longer ahead of the pack talent-wise like they were last September. Still, any team that can put up runs like this is going to be tough to keep down. The wildly entertaining playoff run of the 2015 Blue Jays may yet have a second act.

Projected Record and Finish: 85-77, 2nd place AL East

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Monday, April 25: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Marcus Stroman
  • Tuesday, April 26: Chris Sale vs. R.A. Dickey
  • Wednesday, April 27: Jose Quintana vs. Marco Estrada

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Ezequiel Carrera - LF

SP1. Marcus Stroman - RHP

2. Josh Donaldson - 3B

SP2. R.A. Dickey - RHP

3. Jose Bautista - RF

SP3. Marco Estrada - RHP

4. Edwin Encarnacion - DH

SP4. J.A. Happ - LHP

5. Troy Tulowitzki - SS

SP5. Aaron Sanchez - RHP

6. Justin Smoak - 1B

CL. Roberto Osuna - RHP

7. Russell Martin - C

RP1. Drew Storen - RHP

8. Kevin Pillar - CF

RP2. Brett Cecil - LHP

9. Ryan Goins - 2B

RP3. Gavin Floyd - RHP