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

Free agent slugger José Abreu signs 3-year, $58.5M deal with Astros

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HOUSTON — Jose Abreu and the World Series champion Astros agreed to a three-year, $58.5 million contract, adding another powerful bat to Houston’s lineup.

Abreu, the 2020 AL MVP, gets $19.5 million in each of the next three seasons.

He spent his first nine major league seasons with the Chicago White Sox. The first baseman became a free agent after batting .304 with 15 home runs, 75 RBIs and an .824 OPS this year.

With the Astros, he replaces Yuli Gurriel at first base in a batting order that also features All-Star sluggers Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker.

Gurriel became a free agent after Houston defeated the Philadelphia Phillies this month for its second World Series championship.

The 35-year-old Abreu becomes the biggest free agent to switch teams so far this offseason. Born in Cuba, the three-time All-Star and 2014 AL Rookie of the Year is a .292 career hitter in the majors with 243 homers, 863 RBIs and an .860 OPS.

The Astros announced the signing. Abreu was scheduled to be introduced in a news conference at Minute Maid Park.

He would get a $200,000 for winning an MVP award, $175,000 for finishing second in the voting, $150,000 for third, $125,000 for fourth and $100,000 for fifth. Abreu also would get $100,000 for earning World Series MVP and $75,000 for League Championship Series MVP, $75,000 for making the All-Star team and $75,000 for winning a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger.

Abreu gets a hotel suite on road trips and the right to buy a luxury suite for all Astros home games.