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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

Report: Mets showing interest in Bartolo Colon

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Last month, free agent right-hander Bartolo Colon told reporters that he’d be open to taking a minor league deal in 2018, but only if he was guaranteed a return to the Mets’ system. The 44-year-old starter is nearing the end of a 20-year career, and it makes sense that he’d want to have one last hurrah in the city where he had some of his most productive years.

Now, Twins starter Ervin Santana tells Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press, it looks like the Mets might also be open to a reunion. It’s doubtful that Colon has all that much left in the tank, especially following a combined 7-14 record and 6.48 ERA for the Braves and Twins last year, but he’s not necessarily looking to reproduce the 15+ win, sub-4.00 ERA totals of years past.

Instead, Santana says, Colon is seeking the opportunity to win just six more games. He’ll enter the 2018 season five wins shy of the all-time record for a Latin American-born player, and is hoping to claim that title for himself before he enters retirement in 2019. Former Orioles and Expos hurler Dennis Martinez currently holds the record after clinching his 245th win back in 1998. While it took Colon a full season of starts to come up with even seven wins in 2017, he’s only one year removed from a 15-win campaign in 2016. Provided that the Mets are willing to gamble on him again, the milestone may not be that far out of reach.