The 2015 and 2016 editions of the Toronto Blue Jays were great teams that fell just short of their goal. The 2017 team will look different but should still contend for the club’s first title since ’93.
Going into last season expectations were high for the Jays. Coming off their first playoff appearance in 22 years and reaching the American League Championship Series in the process put lofty goals in the minds of fans across the country. The team was almost identical to the one that had gone 48-23 in the second half of 2015 and boasted some of the biggest bats in the game.
The most significant change in 2016 came from how the Jays were winning games. The team relied much more on consistent pitching from their starters rather than a behemoth offence. The 759 runs scored was a far cry from the 891 that crossed the plate in 2015. And even though they scored 132 fewer runs they only lost four more games than in 2015. This demonstrates the value of a strong rotation and gives us a good starting point (see what I did there?) for the 2017 preview.
With the best ERA(3.78) and second-most innings pitched(1459.1) in the American League, the Blue Jays starters showed how important a strong rotation is. This is especially true when the bullpen was as bad as it was. The strength the 2017 Blue Jays comes from the men on the mound.
Marco Estrada has shown that he is an elite starting pitcher over the course of the last two seasons. After breaking out in 2015 with a 3.13 ERA and 13-8 record, he battled back problems for much of the 2016 season and still posted the 11th best ERA in the AL at 3.48. If he can give the Jays another year like 2015 or 2016, he will be earning the contract he signed before the start of last season.
J.A. Happ has been on quite a run since being traded to Pittsburgh in the middle of the 2015 season. He only has six losses since that trade, and though wins and losses aren’t the best indicators of pitching performance, he has to be doing something right. His 3.18ERA was good for sixth in the AL and his 20 wins put him tied for second in the Majors with Washington’s Max Scherzer.
The Aaron Sanchez affair was the best kind of controversy the team could have hoped for. Fans watched with bated breath as rumours of shutting the youngster down swirled from the moment he showed he could pitch at an elite level. He led the AL with an ERA of 3.00 posting 15 wins against two losses. He also pitched 192.0 innings in the regular season brushing aside thoughts that he couldn’t handle a Major League workload.
Another former Pirate, Francisco Liriano came over in the lopsided deal that got Pittsburgh out from under his $13 million contract this season. And while he was struggling when he was traded, he posted a 2-2 record with a 2.52 ERA in 49.1 innings pitched. While that is a small sample size as many of you already know, Liriano’s numbers with Russell Martin behind the plate are nothing to scoff at. When Martin was with the Pirates in 2013 and 2014, Liriano posted ERA’s of 3.02 and 3.38 respectively, the best since his breakout 2006 season in Minnesota.
Marcus Stroman was the only Jay in this rotation who had an off year. Although it was technically his third season in the Majors, I count it as a sophomore slump after missing all but four starts in 2015 due to an ACL tear. Stroman has a lot of pride and I could see him having a Sanchez type of breakout year in 2017. In 2014, his rookie season, the Stro-show pitched 130.2 innings and posted a 3.65ERA. His September starts in 2015 (Four wins, no losses, 1.67ERA) showed the ability he has to shut down the opposition, and his team-leading 204.0IP last season shows he is capable of handling the rigours of a full season.
My Best Bet
Barring any lengthy injury absences the Jays rotation figures to be the strength of the team yet again. Happ and Estrada should continue to post the numbers expected of top-of-the-rotation guys, keeping us in games most of their starts. Liriano will probably be the best number five in the American League, a guy who should give the Jays six innings of good ball with relative consistency.
Here is where some may disagree with me. I don’t think Sanchez repeats his ace-like 2016 this year, as teams focus much more on him from the start of the season this year, and he deals with the usual regressions of a second-year player. That isn’t to say he won’t be effective, but I could see a Stroman-like slide to more average numbers in his sophomore season.
What fans have to hope for is that Stroman has a Sanchez-like season establishing himself as the Jays defacto ace. He has shown he has elite pitching ability and Major League endurance over the course of his young career. Coupled with the aforementioned pride and willingness to work, I could see Stroman breaking out in 2017 as one of the best pitchers in the American League, and quite possibly the Majors.
I’ll be back this weekend with a look at the starters in the field, the batting lineup and the bullpen.