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2017 Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Toronto Blue Jays.

There are no two ways about it: Edwin Encarnacion is no longer a Blue Jay, and Toronto is worse off because of it.

Some offseasons are characterized by their gains — splashy free agent signings, front office overhauls, record-breaking extensions — and others are marked by their losses. This winter was of the latter variety, one that saw Encarnacion pack up his .886 OPS and 42 home runs and chicken wing home run trot and head south to Cleveland on a three-year, $60 million deal. There were other losses, too, like those of veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and outfielder Michael Saunders, among others, but none felt quite as cataclysmic as Encarnacion’s departure.

With both Encarnacion and fellow slugger Jose Bautista scheduled to hit free agency after the 2016 season, it quickly became apparent that the club lacked the resources to retain both candidates with long-term deals. Encarnacion rejected the team’s initial four-year, $80 million proposal, prompting the Blue Jays to sign first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales and infielder/outfielder Steve Pearce in order to reclaim some of the value they lost in their star infielder. Bautista, meanwhile, found the market lacking, and eventually returned to Toronto on a one-year, $18 million contract.

It’s not all gloom and doom for the Blue Jays just yet, however. Bautista will anchor a lineup that also features Troy Tulowitzki and former American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who mashed 37 home runs in 2016 and produced more fWAR (7.6) than Encarnacion and Bautista combined (5.3). The only thing standing in Donaldson’s way is the calf injury he sustained during spring training, though he’s currently projected to make a full recovery by Opening Day.

Even more reassuring is the state of the Jays’ rotation, which made it through the offseason remarkably unscathed. Right-hander Aaron Sanchez heads the group after breaking out with a 3.00 ERA, 3.0 BB/9 and 7.5 SO/9 in 2016, earning his first All-Star nomination and delivering a league-best 0.7 HR/9 rate. Marco Estrada, who was touted as the Jays’ ace in 2015, comes in at No. 2, while J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman and newcomer Francisco Liriano round out the back of the rotation.

Liriano impressed during the second half of the Blue Jays’ season, delivering a 2.92 ERA and 9.5 SO/9 after coming over from the Pirates in August. He’ll effectively replace R.A. Dickey in the rotation, who jumped ship for the Braves’ cadre of veteran starters in November.

It’s a rotation solid enough to offset some of the team’s offensive concerns, though it’s tempered with the changing landscape of the bullpen. Left-hander Brett Cecil and veteran righty Joaquin Benoit signed elsewhere during the offseason, replaced by lefty specialist J.P. Howell and right-hander Joe Smith. On paper, neither Howell nor Smith offers the consistency and sub-1.00 ERA of Cecil and Benoit. Still, they should benefit from the stability of a starting rotation that made Toronto’s bullpen the most under-utilized among 2016 contenders.

Heading into 2017, the Blue Jays’ offense is their biggest question mark, especially with Donaldson and Pearce still on the mend and Bautista looking to bounce back from a lackluster performance in 2016. They’re thin on infield depth and need standout performances from Liriano, Howell and Smith to anchor their place in the No. 2 spot, but barring those few hurdles, shouldn’t have a hard time working their way back to another playoff role come October.

Prediction: 2nd place, AL East

Dustin Pedroia leaves game with a sprained left wrist

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Bad news for the Red Sox today. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia was involved in a collision at first base with Jose Abreu of the White Sox. Pedroia stayed in the game at the time but was replaced by Josh Rutledge in the second.

The injury: sprained left wrist. Which, no, is not good, but there was some initial concern that he may have aggravated the knee which has been bothering him of late. They’ll no doubt provide an update after the game. As of now, the Sox lead the Sox 1-0 in the bottom of the third.

 

Brad Ausmus is not a fan of the Tigers’ schedule

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Everyone in baseball has a tough schedule. The season is a grind. Some teams, however, due to weather and happenstance, have stretches which are a tougher grind than others. The Tigers are in one of those right now.

Detroit played the Astros on Thursday night, and lost in a three-hour and thirty minute contest. It was a getaway day, er, night, and they didn’t get to Chicago to face the White Sox until the wee wee hours of the morning on Friday. Waiting for them: a double header which was to start at 4pm. The first game of it was rained out, though, so they woke up after a short “night’s sleep for nothing. Then the nightcap was delayed over an hour, giving them another late bedtime. On Saturday it was another double header, so it was another early wakeup and another long day at the park. And, of course, another day game on Sunday, before a flight to Kansas City.

This stretch has made Brad Ausmus grumpy. Here he was after Friday night’s late finish:

“Give some credit to the White Sox pitchers, give some credit to the schedule we have. We’ll try to get about 5 hours of sleep and come back tomorrow and play two more.”

He was particularly miffed at the scheduling of two doubleheaders in a row:

“You can’t control the weather but I think it would have been prudent to play the second game tomorrow in August,” he said. “That would have made a lot more sense to me.”

Ausmus did note, however, that it’s not the White Sox’ job to make a schedule that is convenient for their division rivals.

You can look at this in a few different ways. One one level, Ausmus is understandably upset about a particularly arduous stretch of games. On another level he’s probably trying to protect his players, who have looked flat, by changing the subject from their play to the schedule. On a different level, you could say that he’s making excuses for a team that is underachieving. And, of course, those three things are not mutually exclusive.

The thing is, though, that the Tigers have lost seven of ten, are five out of first place, four games under .500 and could conceivably leave their series with the Royals this week in dead last in the Central. Ultimately, extenuating circumstances like the weather and an unfortunate schedule don’t save a manager whose talented and highly-paid team struggles like the Tigers have. If they don’t turn it around soon, Ausmus could be hitting the bricks and the Tigers could be fixing to sell off and rebuild.