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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

Rangers, Rougned Odor finalize contract extension

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The Texas Rangers announced today that they have finalized a six-year, $49.5 million extension for second baseman Rougned Odor. There is an option for a seventh year that could bring the deal to $52.5 million. That a deal was done was reported over the weekend by Jon Heyman and Evan Grant.

The deal covers Odor’s first three years of arbitration eligibility. Odor had previously agreed to a $563,180 salary for 2017.

The 23-year-old second baseman tallied 33 home runs, 88 RBI, 14 stolen bases, and 89 runs scored in 150 games last season.

2017 Preview: Our Predictions

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By now I don’t need to tell you how silly it is to predict the outcome of a baseball season in which over 2,400 baseball games are played by over a thousand players, all of whom are subject to injury and/or wild variation from past performance or reasonable expectations. Baseball is freakin’ chaos, my friends. And while that is one of the top things to recommend it, it’s also the thing that makes predicting its outcomes a fool’s errand.

Let no one say that Bill, Ashley and I aren’t fools. We’re gonna make our picks anyway, because that’s what we do:

 

ASHLEY’S PREDICTIONS

AL East: Red Sox
AL Central: Indians
AL West: Mariners
AL Wild Cards: Astros, Blue Jays

NL East: Nationals
NL Central: Cubs
NL West: Giants
NL Wild Cards: Mets, Dodgers

ALCS: Astros vs. Indians
NLCS: Giants vs. Nationals
World Series: Astros vs. Nationals … Nationals win!

AL MVP: Mookie Betts
NL MVP: Kris Bryant
AL CYA: Chris Sale
NL CYA: Madison Bumgarner
AL ROY: Andrew Benintendi
NL ROY: Dansby Swanson
AL MOY: A.J. Hinch
NL MOY: Bruce Bochy

 

BILL’S PREDICTIONS

AL East: Red Sox
AL Central: Indians
AL West: Astros
AL Wild Cards: Rangers, Blue Jays

NL East: Nationals
NL Central: Cubs
NL West: Dodgers
NL Wild Cards: Mets, Cardinals

ALCS: Indians vs. Rangers
NLCS: Cubs vs. Dodgers
World Series: Dodgers vs. Rangers, Dodgers win in five games.

AL MVP: Manny Machado
NL MVP: Corey Seager
AL CYA: Chris Sale
NL CYA: Noah Syndergaard
AL ROY: Yoan Moncada
NL ROY: Dansby Swanson
NOTE: Bill did not pick Manager of the Year recipients because he is a communist who does not believe in honoring those who benefit from the labor of others. Then I shamed him about it on Twitter, so he pitched A.J. Hinch and Dusty Baker.

 

CRAIG’S PREDICTIONS

AL East: Red Sox
AL Central: Indians
AL West: Astros
AL Wild Cards: Mariners, Tigers

NL East: Nationals
NL Central: Cubs
NL West: Dodgers
NL Wild Cards: Mets, Giants

ALCS: Red Sox vs. Indians
NLCS: Cubs vs. Dodgers
World Series: Red Sox vs. Cubs, Cubs win in seven games

AL MVP: Mookie Betts
NL MVP: Yoenis Cespedes
AL CYA: Justin Verlander
NL CYA: Clayton Kershaw
AL ROY: Andrew Benintendi
NL ROY: Hunter Renfroe
AL MOY: A.J. Hinch
NL MOY: Joe Maddon

Mark it down, you guys. And then please forget it, because we’re gonna pretend these predictions never happened come October.