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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.

MLBPA: MLB’s ‘demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected’

Rob Manfred and Tony Clark
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On Thursday evening, the Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement regarding ongoing negotiations between the owners and the union. The two sides continue to hash out details concerning a 2020 season. The owners want a shorter season, around 50 games. The union recently proposed a 114-game season that also offered the possibility of salary deferrals.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said that the union held a conference call that included the Executive Board and MLBPA player leaders. They “resoundingly rejected” the league’s “demand for additional concessions.”

The full statement:

In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone.

Earlier this week, Major League Baseball communicated its intention to schedule a dramatically shortened 2020 season unless Players negotiate salary concessions. The concessions being sought are in addition to billions in Player salary reductions that have already been agreed upon.

This threat came in response to an Association proposal aimed at charting a path forward. Among other things, Players proposed more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals in the event of a 2020 playoff cancellation, and the exploration of additional jewel events and broadcast enhancements aimed at creatively bringing our Players to the fans while simultaneously increasing the value of our product. Rather than engage, the league replied it will shorten the season unless Players agree to further salary reductions.

Earlier today we held a conference call of the Association’s Executive Board and several other MLBPA Player leaders. The overwhelming consensus of the Board is that Players are ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions that could affect the health and safety of not just themselves, but their families as well. The league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.

Important work remains to be done in order to safely resume the season. We stand ready to complete that work and look forward to getting back on the field.

As per the current agreement signed in March, if there is a 2020 season, players will be paid on a prorated basis. Thus, fewer games means the players get paid less and the owners save more. MLB has threatened to unilaterally set a 2020 season in motion if the two sides cannot come to terms. It should come as no surprise that the union has responded strongly on both fronts.

There have been varying reports in recent days over the confidence in a 2020 season happening. The MLBPA’s statement tonight doesn’t move the needle any; it simply affirms that the union remains steadfast in its goal to avoid a second significant cut in salaries.

As I see it, the ball is in the owners’ court. The owners can strongarm the players into a short season, saving money but significantly increasing the odds of a big fight in upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Or the owners can eat more of a financial loss, agreeing to a longer season than they feel is comfortable. The latter would have the double benefit of not damaging overall perception of the sport and would not disrupt labor peace going forward.

The MLBPA statement included a declaration that the players are “ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions.” If there is no 2020 season, we will have only the owners to blame, not the players.

Update: Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who has been quite vocal on social media about these negotiations, chimed in: