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2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Toronto Blue Jays were a fourth place team last year, winning only 76 games. Of course they were in last place almost all season long and avoided the cellar by a single game on the final day of the season, so it was actually a bit worse than that. With some additions, some additions-by-subtractions, some improved health and some pretty reasonable cases for bounce backs from key players, however, there’s a lot of reason to believe that they’ll improve on that showing in 2018.

The rotation looks to be pretty spiffy. It was middle-of-the-pack last year despite the far below average performance of Francisco Liriano and the absence of Aaron Sanchez for most of the year due to injury. Liriano is gone and Sanchez is back now, and he has looked great in spring training. New in town is Jaime Garcia, who ate 150 innings at about a league average rate last year, which would be a big improvement over Liriano.  Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ are both coming off of excellent campaigns and are the sort of 1-2 punch a contender needs. Marco Estrada had a down year after a really nice 2016, but he righted the ship pretty well in the last two months of last season and it’s not unreasonable to think that he’ll improve over last year. It’s a solid bunch, among the best in the AL. The only concern will be health, as there is not a lot of starting depth in the system after the top five.

The bullpen is anchored by Roberto Osuna. Or at least tentatively anchored. He was lights out in the first half last year but experienced some anxiety issues and performance falloff in the second half, blowing a lot of saves and seeing his ERA balloon. The Jays brought in a trio of former late-inning specialists to bolster the pen: John Axford, Tyler Clippard and Seung-hwan Oh. If none of them are needed to take over for Osuna — who looks great this spring — John Gibbons will still have a nice bunch of relievers to mix in wherever needed. The bullpen is a strength.

The same cannot be said for the lineup. It’s likely to be better than last year, but really, it can’t be worse, right? It was 15th in runs scored in 2017 despite playing in a hitter-friendly park and hitting a good many homers, suggesting that the team just didn’t have great all-around hitting. It’s still not great, but at least some improvement seems inevitable.

The big gun, Josh Donaldson, missed a lot of time last year and he’s healthy again. Justin Smoak had a breakout year in 2017 and, even if he falls back a bit, he’s not a problem. The rest of the infield was a big problem, but there’s reason to believe it’ll be better. No, you can’t depend on shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to be healthy — and he’s not at the moment, starting the year on the disabled list — but his fill-ins, and fill-ins for injured second baseman Devon Traivs last year were absolutely terrible. That situation has been improved with the addition of Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte. Health + depth will go a long way to fixing what was a mess of an infield at times in 2017.

The outfield is less certain to improve. Acquiring Curtis Granderson is not necessarily a balm. He looked good for the Mets last year but he looked absolutely lost once he was traded to the Dodgers. He just turned 37 and the Jays are counting on him to look like the Mets version rather than the Dodgers version. Not sure how safe a bet that is. Randal Grichuk will take over right from Jose Bautista, who was a big liability in 2017, and is an improvement. Not that that’s saying all that much given how Grichuk has experienced declines two years running. Elsewhere, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales aren’t spring chickens anymore and each of them were below average bats last year.

Overall, the offense looks certain to be bad, even if it’s better than it was in 2017. One way to make it better would be for the Jays to get aggressive with top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, currently slated for Double-A. There are no indications at present that they’ll do that and my guess is that they’ll be September callups at best.

Where does that leave us? The Yankees and Red Sox are stacked, of course, and the AL East looks like it’s back to the “Big Two, Little Three” model we saw back in the early-to-mid 2000s. In the era of two Wild Cards, however, you can finish in third place and still have some October glory. Given their offensive challenges, I think that snagging that second Wild Card may be harder for Toronto than it will be for fellow also-rans in L.A., Texas, Seattle or Minnesota. With this rotation they’ve got a puncher’s chance at it, but they’re gonna need a lot of bats to have renaissance seasons to get it done.

Prediction: Third Place, AL East.

MLB’s juiced baseball is juicing Triple-A home run totals too

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There has been considerable evidence amassed over the past year or two that the baseball used by Major League Baseball has a lower aerodynamic profile, leading to less drag, which leads directly to more home runs. If you doubted that at all, get a load of what is happening in Triple-A right now.

The minors have always had different balls than the majors. The MLB ball is made in Costa Rica at a Rawlings facility. The minor league balls are made in China. They use slightly different materials and, by all accounts, the minor league balls do not have the same sort of action and do not travel as far as the big league balls. Before the season, as Baseball America reported, Major League Baseball requested that Triple-A baseball switch to using MLB balls. The reason: uniformity and, one presumes, more accurate analysis of performance at the top level of the minor leagues.

The result, as Baseball America reports today, is a massive uptick in homers in the early going to the Triple-A season:

Last April, Triple-A hitters homered once every 47 plate appearances. As the weather warmed up, so did the home run rate. Over the course of the entire 2018 season, Triple-A hitters homered every 43 plate appearances. So far this year, they are homering every 32 plate appearances. Triple-A hitters are hitting home runs at a rate of 135 percent of last year’s rate.

Again, that’s in the coldest, least-homer friendly month of the season. It’s gonna just get worse. Or better, I guess, if you’re all about the long ball.

Which you had better be, because if they did something to deaden the balls and reduce homers, we’d have the same historically-high strikeout and walk rates but with no homers to provide offense to compensate. At least unless or until hitters changed their approach to become slap hitters or something, but that could take a good while. And may still not be effective given the advances in defense since the last time slap hitting was an important part of the game.

In the meantime, enjoy the dingers, Triple-A fans.