The first big free agent move of this winter was Russell Martin returning to his native Ontario, Canada on a 5 year, $82 million deal. Martin was a key part in a Pirates' team who made the playoffs two consecutive years. At 32, a five year contract is a very risky proposition for the Blue Jays. They are hoping that his leadership and offensive repertoire don't fail them until at the worst the tail end of the deal. Edwin Encarnacion is looking to "recover" after his first season in three in which he didn't drive in 100 runs. He only got to 98 RBIs in 128 games in 2014 but still cleared the 30 home run mark for the third straight campaign. He'll be able to focus more on hitting as he'll serve as the primary designated hitter in Toronto. He'll have that defensive burden taken off him most days because of the arrival of Justin Smoak. Smoak will never hit for average, but when healthy he can hit some home runs. A move to a more hitter friendly Rogers Centre after half a decade at Seattle's Safeco Field can't hurt. After a eye opening Spring Training, Devon Travis will be the starting second baseman on Opening Day. Acquired from Detroit in November, Travis has shown a hint of power as well as above average speed in each Minor League stop. Jose Reyes remains at shortstop and at the top of the Jays' batting order. Various leg maladies threatened to derail Reyes' running game in 2013. He made sure to qualm supporter's fears with 30 swiped bags last year. The return of the speed is nice, but the Blue Jays will be asking for a little more for the $66 million guaranteed he's owed over the next three years. Third base features the biggest addition that Toronto made over the offseason, Josh Donaldson. Donaldson was the engine that made the Athletics' lineup go the past two years. He racked up 53 HR, 189 RBI, and finished in the top 10 in AL MVP voting the past two seasons. Expect even more offense in this improved lineup.
While the infield is quite well rounded, the outfield is Jose Bautista and a gaggle of question marks. Joey Bats won his third Silver Slugger award in 2014 after a return to form of 35 HR, 103 RBI, 104 BB/96 K, and a .924 OPS. Even when he's not 100%, you can still count on Bautista to put the ball over the fence. The two other members of the Toronto outfield aren't sure things by any means. Center fielder Dalton Pompey had a meteoric rise in 2014, starting in Class A Advanced Dunedin and ending on the big club. He stole 44 bases along the way and showed great plate discipline. He'll be a great table setter in a few years. For now, he strengthens the bottom of the Blue Jays batting order. Left field is the biggest question mark. I don't think Kevin Pillar or uber-utility man Steve Tolleson will provide anything more than an instant out while Toronto waits for Michael Saunders to recover from an MCL injury. Even Saunders himself is no sure thing as he has a past littered with different injuries. GM Alex Anthopolous may use want away catcher Dioner Navarro as a trade chip to solidify this position.
The starting staff is significantly less imposing than the lineup. Outside of the aging R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the 2015 Blue Jays rotation is also going to be very young and volatile. Marcus Stroman's injury thrusts a much heavier workload into the lap of Opening Day starter Drew Hutchison. In my opinion, Hutchison does not have an ace mentality. He is a high volume strikeout guy, one per inning in 2014, but struggles with his command. Hutchison also gave up 23 home runs in 2014, a number that needs to come down when he's getting the opposition's best starter. Hutchison wasn't even the worst offender on his team in terms of giving up taters. That distinction belongs to R.A. Dickey. Dickey gave up 26 bombs in 2014 although that was an improvement from the hideous 35 he served up in his first year in Toronto. Dickey is basically a lock to pitch 200 innings a year as a knuckleballer but don't expect the 2012 NL Cy Young Dickey to ever return. It'll be more likely that he once again finishes the season at 14-13, his record in each of the past two years. Mark Buehrle defied time with his 2014 campaign. He made his first All-Star team since 2009 and finished 13-10 with a 3.39 ERA, his best mark since 2005. He is making $20 million in the final year of his contract so he will want to impress to get a final multi-year deal, whether it be in Toronto or elsewhere. The final two rotation spots will be held by Toronto's top two pitching prospects, Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez. Norris is more known as the pitcher who lives in a van but he'll soon be known as a front line MLB starter. He whiffed 163 batters in 124 2/3 minor league innings last year making the same eventual leap as Dalton Pompey from Dunedin to Toronto. Aaron Sanchez got a longer look from the big club in 2014 and did not disappoint. He was used exclusively out of the bullpen and was utterly dominant. He finished with a 1.09 ERA, 0.697 WHIP, and 3 saves. He may struggle at first but I see Sanchez as a key cog in this rotation for a good long time.
The bullpen differs from your standard idea of a bullpen because the two most important pitchers are left handed. The closer, Brett Cecil, and primary set-up man, Aaron Loup, both attack hitters from the left side. Cecil actually works better against right handers (.213 BAA) than lefties (.247 BAA). He'll get to face more right handed hitters in his first full season as Toronto closer. Loup on the other hand, owned lefties to the tune of a .159 BAA. He'll get his share of save opportunities as well. The Jays are very young from the right side in the late innings with the demotion of 2013 All-Star Steve Delabar. This was to make room for 21 year old Miguel Castro and 20 year old Roberto Osuna. Manager John Gibbons is taking a big risk with these two young fireballers. With that being said, Gibbons has plenty of experienced reinforcements in former starters Todd Redmond, Liam Hendricks, and Marco Estrada if his two young arms can't hang.
The Stroman injury takes a big bite out of the excitement I had for the 2015 Blue Jays. They improved enough to not drop in the American League East standings but until their youngsters show me something, I can't bump them up. The Jays will finish third again and miss the final AL Wild Card by the slimmest of margins. Like a lot of these teams just outside the playoffs, the future looks bright. It is just whether or not impatient Blue Jays fans can wait for said future that remains to be seen.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #23 (UP 12)
PREDICTED RECORD: 87-75
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Jose Bautista (outfielder), Edwin Encarnacion (designated hitter), Josh Donaldson (third baseman), Russell Martin (catcher), Aaron Loup (relief pitcher)
Trevor Utley wants to go to Canada but nowhere near the Frennnnnnnch.
Image Credit: Blue Jays logo (sportslogos.net)