It's easy to get trapped in a narrative from the start of the offseason and not realize it until you're talking about how much worse the Blue Jays offense is going to be in 2016. Then you look at the order and you still see Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista at the top. They may not be as scary, but there's no way this offense is bad.
What will determine if they're great is how the other two-thirds of the lineup performs. Can Kendrys Morales continue his late career resurgence? Is there any hope left for Troy Tulowitzki or Russell Martin could do the same? Who in the heck is going to play in the bottom third of the lineup?
That's a lot of questions without even mentioning the pitching staff. While the names are the same as they were last year, it's fair to ask if career years from J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez are the new normal. There's also the issue of Marcus Stroman's upside, and whether he's already reached it.
The Blue Jays have as many questions as any major league team, but there's a good chance they're going to like the answers to those questions.
Do we really know what to expect from anyone in the Blue Jays rotation?
It sure seems like the Blue Jays rotation should offer more certainty, since the names are the same, but for at least one of their pitchers, the only certainty I feel is that he will be worse.
J.A. Happ was a 20-game winner and posted a 3.18 ERA and a career-best 1.17 WHIP. Any time a 33 year old has a career year you have to expect regression, but Happ's 2016 in retrospect looks wholly unsustainable. Happ struck out fewer and walked more than he did in 2015, but a strand rate near 80 percent and a .268 BABIP against helped tremendously. I don't expect Happ to come anywhere close to duplicating his 2016 numbers.
To be fair, I said the same thing about Marco Estrada heading into 2016. Of course, Estrada reinvented himself, striking out nearly a batter per inning while maintaining his ridiculously low BABIP-against. In fact, if Estrada had made 32 starts, the difference between him and Happ would have been almost entirely in the win department. I wouldn't expect the gap between the two to be near as great in 2017.
Speaking of great, the Blue Jays also have a pair of young pitchers they still think can been great. In fact, both have been great in the past. Aaron Sanchez took his turn last year, showing much better command and setting a career high with 192 innings. While Marcus Stroman actually reached 200 innings and already had elite control, he wasn't anywhere near as good as Sanchez. I've never believed in Stroman's upside as much as the consensus, but I have no problem seeing him as an innings eater who with good BABIP luck can post an outstanding ERA.
What does the playing time breakdown look like in the bottom third of the order?
The Blue Jays have several players they can plug into their outfield and first base roles. At some point production and injuries will work things out, but in the beginning of the season at least, it's going to be a bit hairy. Kevin Pillar should be locked into playing time in center if only because he's Toronto's only real option. Pillar took a small step back in 2016, and we're past the point of believing he has any Fantasy upside outside of AL-only. The rest of the candidates for playing time may all end up on platoons.
Steve Pearce is the most interesting name and the most likely to get regular playing time. Pearce crushes lefty pitching, but he'll have to prove that he can succeed against right-handed pitchers as well because his career OPS against them is .728. If he can't, Justin Smoak will play first and Ezequiel Carrera will man left against righties. Pearce is the only one of these guys with a chance to emerge as useful in standard mixed leagues.
Can Kendrys Morales fill Edwin Encarnacion's shoes?
No. That's the short answer. Now let's talk about how close he can get.
Over the past two seasons, Morales has hit 52 HR and driven in 199 runs. In 2017, he'll move to a better hitter's ballpark and hit behind Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. In other words, the environment is getting much better for Morales. I would expect near 30 home runs and 90 RBI, which aren't Encarnacion numbers but still excellent utility numbers in any format.
Morales should have manageable strikeout numbers and a decent average, making him an excellent mid-rounds source of power. Most importantly, I wouldn't downgrade Donaldson or Bautista due to the loss of Encarnacion. Morales has enough pop to maintain their run totals.