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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

Bruce Maxwell is the first MLB player to take a knee during the National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.

Alex Wilson broke his leg on a 103-MPH comebacker

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This one is brutal. Tigers’ right-handed reliever Alex Wilson was diagnosed with a broken leg after taking a blistering 103.8-MPH line drive off of his right leg during Saturday’s game against the Twins. According to the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, it’s a non-displaced fibular fracture, but will still warrant an extended recovery period and signal the end of Wilson’s season.

Wilson replaced Drew VerHagen to start the eighth inning and worked a full count against Joe Mauer. Mauer roped an 93.3-MPH fastball back up the middle, where it struck the pitcher on his right calf. While Mauer took first base, Wilson got to his feet and tried to toss a warm-up pitch, but was in too much pain to continue and had to be helped off the field.

Even in a season that isn’t going anywhere in particular, this isn’t how you want it to end. The Tigers have yet to announce a recovery timetable for the 30-year-old reliever, but he won’t return to the mound until 2018. He exited Saturday’s outing with a 4.35 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 6.3 SO/9 over 60 innings.

The Tigers currently trail the Twins 10-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning.