Toronto Blue Jays 2017 season preview: Ready to step up to the World Series?

In 1993, the Blue Jays won the World Series for the second straight season. They then followed that with 21 years of playoff drought, the longest in baseball after the 2014 season. 

These last two years, however, have seen the Blue Jays make the playoffs twice, advancing to the ALCS both times. Of course, they lost to the Royals in six games in 2015 and the Indians in five games last year. 

Two straight times in the league championship series without a trip to the World Series means it’s time to take the next step. Do these Jays have what it takes?  

The vitals

2016 record: 89-73
2017 depth chart: Click here
2017 schedule: Click here

The loss of Edwin

The first order of business for these Blue Jays is to show they can produce without slugger Edwin Encarnacion anchoring the lineup. In the past five seasons, Encarnacion averaged 39 home runs and 110 RBI per season while hitting .272/.367/.544 (146 OPS+). Last year, he hit 42 homers and drove home an AL-best 127 runners. 

This looks pretty weird, doesn’t it? USATSI

Needless to say, his departure leaves a big void in the middle of the offense. 

Kendrys Morales has been added to help fill some of the void. He hit .263/.327/.468 (108 OPS+) with 30 home runs last season for the Royals. He switches out from a homer-suppressing park to a hitter-friendly one and that should help. Of his 30 bombs last year, 18 came on the road. 

Steve Pearce will help against lefties, as he is a career .269/.353/.499 hitter against southpaws with 31 home runs in 603 at-bats. 

Further, a full season of a productive Jose Bautista would go a long way in helping replace Encarnacion. Bautista only managed 116 games played last season while hitting .234. He still took his walks (.366 OBP), but his power was diminished, as the .452 slugging percentage was his worst since 2009. From 2010-15, Bautista hit .268/.390/.555. The Jays need that guy to help mitigate the loss of his former mid-lineup partner. 

It should also be pointed out that Russell Martin was a disaster to start last year. Well, not just the start. Through June 1, Martin was hitting .192/.253/.265 with 51 strikeouts in 151 at-bats. The rest of the way, he’d hit .250/.372/.464. If he does that all season long, that’s even more help to the lineup. 

Strong rotation

Remember when the Blue Jays were all power and no pitching? That’s far from the case these days. They’ll have one of the best 1-5 rotations in the majors this season. At 3.64, the Jays’ rotation ERA was fourth in the majors and tops in the AL last year, and there’s reason to believe they’re even better. 

Aaron Sanchez is coming off a season in which he was 15-2, led the AL in ERA and finished seventh in Cy Young voting. He’s freed from an innings count this time around and is only 24 years old. The proverbial sky is the limit. 

J.A. Happ finished sixth in Cy Young voting and it’s fair to say he discovered something in his 2015 second-half stint in Pittsburgh with guru Ray Searage. 

In each of the past two seasons, the lowest hit rate (hits allowed per nine innings on average) in the AL belonged to Marco Estrada. During that time, he’s pitched to a 3.30 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He’s not a typical ace, but he’s pitching every bit like a frontline starter, and there’s little reason to believe that stops now at age 33. 

What version of Francisco Liriano will the Jays get? He’s capable of being one of the better lefties in the league and had a 2.92 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings after the Jays acquired him last year. 

What about Marcus Stroman? The WBC MVP has flashed All-Star upside at times, but he had a 4.37 ERA and 1.29 WHIP last season in his first full season in the bigs. It’s reasonable to believe he shaves half a run off his ERA this season while inducing lots of weak contact and eating up 200 or so innings. 

Can Marcus Stroman carry his excellent WBC performance over into the regular season? USATSI

If Stroman is their fifth-best starter -- and it’s possible that’s the case -- that’s an amazing rotation. 

Health concerns

It’s no secret that Troy Tulowitzki has been injury prone in his career. We’re probably already at that point with Devon Travis. In the rotation, it’s fair to say the same about Liriano. Bautista is 36 years old and coming off an injury-riddled campaign. 

Every team has concerns heading into the season about staying healthy. The Blue Jays have a few incredibly important players that could pretty easily miss large chunks of the season without it being too shocking. So that’s a definite concern. 

Glove love

The 2017 Blue Jays’ defense won’t look a ton different than the 2016 version, and that’s a very good thing. 

Last year, the Blue Jays ranked second in defensive efficiency behind the historically-good Cubs D. They were eighth in team defensive runs saved at plus-28 (the Cubs led at 82 with the Astros pacing the AL at 51). The Blue Jays were ninth in defensive WAR and sixth in ultimate zone rating. 

No matter how you slice it, the Jays grade out excellently in defensive metrics. It shouldn’t be surprising. You look around and see great defenders. 

Behind the plate, Martin doesn’t throw well, but otherwise is a great receiver and good framing metrics. 

Travis is good at second while Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson are both outstanding on the left side. In fact, it’s one of the best left-side defensive combos in baseball. 

‘We’re both really awesome at defense, you know?’  USATSI

Kevin Pillar in center is also exceptional while Bautista has a cannon in right. 

All around, it’s easy to see why the Jays rated out so well defensively last season, and we should expect that to remain similar in 2017. 

Probable lineup

  1. Devon Travis, 2B
  2. Josh Donaldson, 3B
  3. Jose Bautista, RF
  4. Kendrys Morales, DH
  5. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
  6. Russell Martin, C
  7. Justin Smoak, 1B
  8. Kevin Pillar, CF
  9. Ezequiel Carrera, LF

Bench: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C; Steve Pearce, IF/OF; Darwin Barney, IF; Melvin Upton, OF

Expect Pearce to see lots of time against opposing lefties while Upton and Carrera should platoon.  

The lineup doesn’t seem quite as scary without Encarnacion, but it’s plenty capable of finishing in the top five in the AL in runs scored again, should several things break correctly. 

Probable rotation

  1. Aaron Sanchez (R)
  2. J.A. Happ (L)
  3. Marco Estrada (R)
  4. Francisco Liriano (L)
  5. Marcus Stroman (R)

Order them however you wish. It’s a strong 1-5 here. 

Probable bullpen

Closer: Roberto Osuna (R)
Setup: Jason Grilli (R), Joe Biagini (R), J.P. Howell (L)
Lefty: Aaron Loup
The rest: Joe Smith (R), Mike Bolsinger (R)

Behind Osuna, who is already a superlative closer at age 22, there are a lot of questions here. Grilli surely can’t have much left in the tank. How good will Howell be in replacing Brett Cecil? He had a 4.09 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, and allowed opposing hitters to bat .281 against him last year. Loup allowed a .288/.355/.500 slash line last year. Smith was great in 2011-14, but he’s fallen back these past two years (3.53 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 1.26 WHIP). 

Sure, there are ways to paint an acceptable picture here, but almost everyone outside Osuna is a question mark and it would be surprising to see all questions answered in the positive. 

Sportsline projection: 91-71. Second in AL East, first AL wild card

That’s reasonable. I think most would agree the Red Sox look better on paper, but these Jays clearly have the look of a postseason contender. As noted up above, though, another trip to the ALCS won’t be good enough. It’s time for the next step in the progression: an AL pennant. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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