By Rob Ficiur
Last week’s column was entitled “Why the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays Won’t make the playoffs.” This week, I will list the reasons why the Toronto Blue Jays will make the playoffs this season.
1. Solid Core – On paper, the Blue Jays have improved from the roster they had last season. The only core player they lost was Edwin Encarnaceon. His 42 home runs and 127 runs batted have been replaced by Kendrys Morales. Morales hit 30 home runs and 93 runs batted in, which is on par with EE’s stats last year. In comparing, we must remember that Kansas City’s stadium allowed the second fewest home runs (155) of any ballpark in the majors. Toronto’s Rogers center allowed the fifth most (205) of any park. A 25% increase in Morales home runs comes close to cancelling out the Blue Jays lost slugger.
2. The starting rotation could be the best in baseball in 2016. The team’s five-man rotation started 152 out of 162 games. This year the staff looks stronger. Young stars, Marcus Stroman (MVP of World Baseball Classic finale) and Aaron Sanchez (AL leader in earned run average) should improve. The team replaced RA Dickey’s unpredictable knuckle ball with Francisco Liriano. On most teams Liriano, the number five starter, would be a number three.
3. Minor League Contracts Galore – During the off season the Jays kept signing veterans to minor league contracts. Why do that when you need depth for the big team? The answer comes from the Blue Jays 2016 success in a couple of reclamation projects. They acquired aging pitchers Jason Grilli and Jacquin Benoit for almost nothing. In both cases, the former stars had been struggling for their respective teams. In Toronto, something clicked and they became a dependable seventh and eighth inning relievers. This off-season the Blue Jays signed several major leaguers to minor league contracts. This list includes Gavin Floyd, Matt Latos, Lucas Harrel and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. If any one of these players contributes to the big team in 2017 like they have in past seasons, then the Jays will have got something out of nothing. Saltalamacchia made the team’s opening day roster. Already their bargain hunting has brought in a better back up catcher than they had last year.
4. Relief Pitching – The last few seasons baseball has come to value solid relief pitchers. The 2015 and 2016 Kansas City Royals made it to two World Series with almost perfect relief pitching. Once their starters got them to the seventh inning the dynamic trio of relievers was almost a guaranteed win. The 2017 Blue Jays have seven solid major league pitchers to start the season. Closer Roberto Osuna has exceeded expectations in his first two years. Jason Grilli was a solid 8th inning man last year. Joe Biagini came out of nowhere to give them depth. New comers Joe smith and JP Howell were solid major league relievers in 2016 – and there is no reason they won’t be the same in 2017.
5. Jose – 2016 was a forgettable year for Jose Bautista. His .234 batting average was the lowest in his 13 years as a major league ball player. His 22 home runs was half what he did the year before and his lowest since 2009. Fans know that two freak injuries slow Jose down last year, is that an omen for this year? In the pre-season Bautista was hitting like the Jose that lead the league with 54 home runs in 2010. Fans cautioned themselves that pre-season numbers don’t matter. However, when Jose made key hits for the Dominican team in the World Baseball classic, we saw (we hope) the Jose that will be in the Jays outfield in 2017. He won’t keep up the .333 batting average he had at the WBC, but he will be better than last year.
6. Who Else? When you look at the other teams in the American League East, there are holes in even the favorite teams.
On paper, many experts believe the Boston Red Sox are the team to beat. However, there are visible flaws in Bean Town. Ace pitcher David Price has had elbow problems in the pre-season (not a good sign for a 31 year old). The Sox top hitter last year, David Ortiz has retired with no heir apparent to take his spot.
The New York Yankees were solid the last month of 2016 when they played their young (future) stars. Winning in September when it does not matter, is different than winning for an entire season. Baltimore made the playoffs last year with what looked like a weak pitching staff. Can they over achieve two years in a row?
After arguing the pro’s and con’s of the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays season, what do I really think? As the regular season starts twenty of the thirty teams have the potential to make the playoffs. Injuries, slumps, rising stars and unexpected stars will make or break each team’s season. In the case of the Blue Jays, they have more going for them than they have going against them. The Blue Jays will be playoff bound for the third straight year in a row.