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2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Toronto Blue Jays.

A lot of the talk between the end of the Blue Jays’ playoff run last year and midway through spring training this year has centered on outfielder Jose Bautista’s memorable bat flip in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Rangers. The three-run shot in the seventh inning broke a 3-3 tie and propelled the Jays into the ALCS to face the eventual world champion Royals. Very little of the attention paid to the Blue Jays had anything to do with roster construction or how the AL East is shaping up for them in 2016.

At the beginning of November, the Jays exercised options for Bautista, 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion, and starter R.A. Dickey at $14 million, $10 million, and $12 million, respectively. Reports indicated that the club would try to extend Bautista and Encarnacion, but those haven’t materialized yet. New team president Mark Shapiro and new GM Ross Atkins were able to extend third baseman and defending AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a two-year extension worth $28.65 million, buying out two of his three remaining years of arbitration eligibility. They also signed Marco Estrada, who enjoyed a breakout with the Jays, agreeing to a two-year, $26 million pact.

Elsewhere, the club acquired pitcher Jesse Chavez in a trade with the Athletics and signed free agent starter J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36 million contract. The Jays pried reliever Drew Storen from the Nationals and made a handful of low-risk gambles, signing players like Domonic Brown and Rafael Soriano to minor league deals.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the team is largely the same as it was five months ago. The Jays hope to enjoy a full, healthy year from ace Marcus Stroman as the right-hander was limited to only four September starts after missing the previous five months recovering from a torn ACL. Stroman was considered baseball’s 27th-best overall prospect going into the 2015 season, according to Baseball Prospectus.  He showed why he’s so highly touted, as in those four starts, he yielded only five runs with an 18/6 K/BB ratio in 27 innings.

Estrada slots in behind Stroman in the rotation, coming off a career year. He had shown flashes of brilliance while with the Brewers, but never held it over a particularly lengthy period of time. He finished the 2015 regular season with a 3.13 ERA and a 131/55 K/BB ratio in 181 innings. The ERA and innings total represented career bests for the right-hander. While Estrada should be expected to return to the mid-to-high 3.00’s in terms of ERA, no one would be surprised if he repeated last year’s success.

Dickey and Happ make up the 3-4 slots. Happ enjoyed a rebirth in Pittsburgh under the guidance of pitching coach Ray Searage, authoring a 1.85 ERA with 69 strikeouts and 13 walks in 63 1/3 innings as a Pirate. He parlayed that into a hefty contract when it looked like early in 2015 that he was on his way out. The back of the rotation is up for grabs with Aaron Sanchez, Gavin Floyd, Drew Hutchison, and Roberto Hernandez battling it out this spring.

Of course, when one thinks “Blue Jays”, one does not think of pitching; one thinks of offense. The Jays led the majors in home runs with 232 of them and in runs scored with 891, averaging 5.5 per game.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson was responsible for 41 of those home runs, racking up a sterling .297/.371/.568 triple-slash line with 123 RBI and 122 runs scored. He finished first in AL MVP balloting, edging out Angels outfielder Mike Trout for the honor. Donaldson eclipsed his previous career bests, helped in part by moving from the pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum to the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre. The Rogers Centre is one of only two stadiums left that use AstroTurf. AstroTurf is notoriously tough on players’ bodies – it exacerbated Scott Rolen’s injury woes, for example – so the worry isn’t whether Donaldson can replicate last year’s numbers, but whether he can match 158 games played, his total in each of the last three seasons.

Bautista joined Donaldson in the 40-homer club, hitting the number right on the dot with 114 RBI, 108 runs scored, and a .250/.377/.536 triple-slash line. He is a free agent after the season, so if the Jays don’t sign him to an extension –  reports have indicated Bautista is seeking anywhere from five to seven years and around $150 million – then the Jays’ window could slam shut after the season. While Bautista is 35 years old, the slugger goes to great lengths to take care of his body, as Peter Gammons reported earlier this month. For now, at least, he should be expected to rank among the game’s best hitters once again.

Tulowitzki is arguably the Jays’ biggest wild card. The five-time All-Star shortstop has averaged fewer than 100 games played in each of the last four seasons, but he was able to log 128 games this past season, his most since 2011. His numbers were subpar for him, however, as he batted .280/.337/.440 with 17 home runs and 70 RBI. Tulowitzki doesn’t have nearly as drastic a home/road platoon split as most players who have called Coors Field home, so it’s worth wondering if injuries have taken a toll on the 31-year-old’s body. If Tulowitzki stays healthy and bounces back to form, the Jays’ lineup will be even scarier than it was last year.

We could spend a week discussing the offense – I haven’t even gotten to Edwin Encarnacion or Russell Martin — but let’s not leave the bullpen out of the picture. The Jays haven’t yet decided whether newcomer Storen or incumbent Roberto Osuna will claim the closer’s role. Osuna, 21, flew under the radar last season, saving 20 games in 22 chances after being thrust into the role in late June, putting up a 2.58 ERA overall with 75 strikeouts and 16 walks in 69 2/3 innings. Storen had a topsy-turvy year, pitching lights-out until Jonathan Papelbon arrived to the Nationals from the Phillies. Through July 22, Storen was 29-for-31 in save chances with a 1.73 ERA; from July 29th (his next appearance) through September 9 (the end of his season), he posted a 6.75 ERA. Storen, because of his experience, is likely the favorite in the battle for the ninth inning, but Osuna is equally as capable of handling the responsibility.

What do the Jays need to do to repeat as AL East champions in 2016?

  • Repeat performances from Estrada and Happ
  • Tulowitzki stays healthy
  • Stroman lives up to his billing as a top prospect
  • Bautista staves off age-related decline
  • Storen and Osuna make for a devastating one-two punch at the back of the bullpen

Prediction: 94-68, second place in the AL East

Pirates hire Ben Cherington as their new general manager

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have hired Ben Cherington as the team’s new general manager. They do so after the general manager meetings ended, but better late than never.

Cherington served as GM of the Boston Red Sox for four years, winning the World Series in 2013, but resigned during the 2015 season after Dave Dombrowski was named Boston’s new president of baseball operations. Which was a defacto demotionn for Cherington who, until then, had the final say in baseball decisions. Dombrowski, of course, was fired late in the season this year. Cherington went on to work for the Toronto Blue Jays as a vice president, but was seen as biding his time for another GM position. Now he has one.

Cherington takes over in Pittsburgh for executive vice president and general manager Neal Huntington, who was fired after a 12 years at the helm. Also fired was team president Frank Coonelly. Travis Williams replaced Coonelly recently. While the Pirates experienced a few years of contention under Huntington and Coonelly, they have slid out of contention in recent years as the club has traded away promising players for little return, all while cutting payroll. There’s a very big rebuilding job ahead of Cherington.

The first move he’ll have to make: hire a manager, as the team still hasn’t replaced Clint Hurdle since he was dismissed in the final weekend of the regular season.