Playing Pepper 2016: Toronto Blue Jays

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Toronto Blue Jays
93-69, first in the AL East, lost in ALCS
Last year’s Pepper

It was a long time coming, but finally last year the Blue Jays bashed their way into the playoffs, putting together a wonderful run before eventually succumbing to the Royals.  The power was legendary, the pitching underrated, and there was much reason for rejoicing.  While there’s some questions to deal with for 2016, the excitement level is well above what it has been since the mid-90s.

To answer those questions, we’ve got six different Blue Jay bloggers for today’s episode.  Toronto usually has one of the largest representations and this year is no exception. With six of them, the table seems to be the best way to go about it.  Remember, T/C means total Peppers played and consecutive Peppers played, respectively. (Also, Ian’s total doesn’t include his turn in the Postseason version last October.)

Blogger Blog Twitter T/C
Shaun Doyle Jays From The Couch @JaysFromCouch 1/1
Keegan Matheson Jays Journal @KeeganMatheson 1/1
Ian Hunter The Blue Jay Hunter @BlueJayHunter 7/7
Gideon Turk BP Toronto @GideonTurk 4/4
Jeremy Gibson 500 Level Fan @500LevelFan 6/6
Scott Bluebird Banter none 1/1

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

JFC: The Blue Jays did not have to go into the offseason and do much to be in a position to compete in 2016. Many fans were upset that David Price left via free agency, but if they’re honest with themselves, they really didn’t expect him to stay. Rather than splurge on big free agent signings, the new front office went about its business and collected enough pieces to add depth. Josh Donaldson has said that the pitchers just need to be average. That’s exactly what the Blue Jays have. They’ve collected an average to above average rotation and a quality bullpen to go along with their All World offense. Whether the offseason was a success or not depends on how the season goes. But, it certainly was enough for the team to be contenders in 2016.

JJ: The Blue Jays offseason has been a quiet build. Additions like J.A. Happ, Jesse Chavez, Drew Storen, and a grab bag of minor league free agents on the cusp will give the club the depth they need. Marcus Stroman can almost be seen as an “addition”, himself, after missing nearly all of 2015 with a knee injury.

Toronto’s budget and thinned pool of top-level prospects did not leave much by way of currency to make impact additions, but the Blue Jays may not have needed one.

With arguably the top offence in Major League Baseball returning in a near-complete form, getting the rotation to an acceptable level was the priority. Whether or not “acceptable” will translate into “enough”, however, remains to be seen.

BJH: It wasn’t necessarily a “sexy” offseason for the Blue Jays by any means, but they filled the gaps on the roster. They filled out the starting rotation by bringing back Marco Estrada and re-signing J.A. Happ, and they fortified the back end of the bullpen by getting Drew Storen. The offense can pretty much stay status quo and still score a tonne of runs, so aside from starting pitching and late relief, the Blue Jays didn’t need to do much else.

BPT: It wasn’t great by any measure, but the new regime accomplished enough to keep this team competitive for at least another year. The rotation needed to be patched up after the departures of David Price and Mark Buehrle, and they did just that by re-signing Marco Estrada and bringing in J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez. Those aren’t the sexiest additions, but with this offense, pitchers who will keep the team in the game for 6+ innings is all that is really needed.

500: If I had to describe the offseason in one word it would be “tumultuous”. After winning the division and advancing to the ALCS for the first time in 22 years, the offseason turned into a circus with the departure of beloved GM Alex Anthopoulos, the arrival of Mark Shapiro (who was treated like a villain by much of the fanbase), and of new GM Ross Atkins. Then, almost immediately after the dust settled from that fiasco, David Price bolted to the Red Sox – a division rival no less. Despite all of that, I think the Jays did a pretty good job in the offseason. With the best offense in the game returning in full, Toronto really had three things to do in the winter: improve the rotation, bolster the bullpen, and attempt to deal with the impending free agency of Bautista and Encarnacion. The third item is still in limbo, but by re-signing Marco Estrada, and acquiring Drew Storen, J.A. Happ, and Jesse Chavez, they did a good job on the first two.

BB: The Blue Jays’ (new) front office had a pretty small to-do list after coming so close in the playoffs last year. Replacing Mark Buehrle and David Price in the starting rotation were really all that was necessary for Mark Shaprio and company. Unfortunately they chose to take a pretty safe route by re-signing Marco Estrada, acquiring Jesse Chavez and Drew Storen, and signing free agent J.A. Happ. It’s definitely disappointing that a team that was two wins from the World Series made these types of moves, but on the other hand, maybe this is all the team needs to make another run in 2016. The rotation remains a big question mark, but at least they have an abundance of depth to run through if things become dire during the season. If I were to give the team’s offseason a grade, it would probably be somewhere in the B- range.

C70: While it no doubt was a wonderful ride while it lasted, how frustrating was the ALCS for Jays fans?

JFC: The fantastic ride of the 2015 postseason is something that Toronto has been waiting 22 years for. The disappointment of losing in Game 6 of the ALCS is something that any fanbase would feel. The Blue Jays were certainly good enough to go further. But, at the end of the day, the trade deadline push, the climbing the standings, and the playoff birth allow us to look back on 2015 fondly. Fans got over the frustration of losing to KC, but got over it quickly when looking back on the season as a whole.

JJ: Especially on the heels of the Texas Rangers series, the ALCS was the most emotionally draining week I’ve witnessed among Blue Jays fans.

While the Kansas City Royals are not a division rival, some heated regular season games in 2015 created some real tension between the clubs. Perhaps that’s what made the series so great, that a very raw level of dislike existed between the two teams and their fan bases.

Kansas City and Toronto typically take two very different routes to winning ball games, but their parallel attitudes created an immediate clash. Both teams are loud, in-your-face, and will let you know when they’ve beat you.

In many ways, though, especially for the younger generation of Jays fans, that ALCS felt like losing your first love. Following two decades of rather consistent mediocrity, the Blue Jays had finally given a nation of baseball fans something to rally around. Unfortunately, we learned that in baseball, a month ends in a moment.

BJH: I would say that the joy and elation of Game 5 of the ALDS still outweighs the frustrations from Game 6 of the ALCS. But I’ll always remember the fact that the Jays had the tying run on third base with nobody out, and they still failed to bring Dalton Pompey home.

BPT: The way it ended was very frustrating. The blown call on Mike Moustakas’ “home run” and then the strike zone when the Jays were threatening in the ninth inning made the eventual defeat very depressing. Of course, after 21 years, 11 playoff games was very fun, and I don’t think anybody can complain about that.

500: Incredibly frustrating. I still don’t know we managed to lose that series. Other than the blowout that was Game 4, I felt the Jays had a chance to win every single game. The 7th inning collapse in Game 2 and having the tying run on third with nobody out in the 9th inning of Game 6 still haunt my dreams to this day.

BB: Funnily enough, I don’t think many Blue Jays fans were that disappointed by the ALCS result. Sure, the team came extremely close to making the World Series, but most fans were still riding the high of just being in the postseason and seemed to be content with the progress the team made. When your squad has a playoff drought as long as the Jays, it’s a lot easier to swallow a good showing in the playoffs that ends prematurely compared to what it would be like for a perennial World Series contender.

That being said, seeing your team get eliminated the way the Jays were was still pretty crushing as they were a few bounces away from winning the series against the Royals. The hype surrounding the team has grown about tenfold in Toronto (and furthermore all of Canada) so the pressure is now on the team to continue the momentum through the 2016 campaign. Toronto, like most championship-starved sports cities in North America, really can get behind a winner.

C70: Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are both free agents at the end of the year. Can the Jays keep them both, will either of them sign during the season and, if it comes down to a choice, who stays and who goes?

JFC: The club is certainly in a position to sign both. they can afford it. The question is whether they will want to afford it. Will they fork over the money to bring them both back is the question. It looks like they will work to come to an agreement with both players before the season starts in order to avoid any distraction, etc. If an agreement can’t be reached, look for the rumors to be flying all summer. The kink in any trade talk is that both guys are 10-5 guys and would need to approve any trade, which makes a mid-season move a bit more challenging. But that is not the goal, anyway. The club wants both of them back. We’ll see how much. If it comes down to choosing one, it might make more sense for them to focus on Jose Bautista since there is room for regression with him moving to first base or DH. Edwin doesn’t have much room to go anywhere else.

JJ: The upcoming contract situation with Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista could be the topic of a university undergraduate course.

Beginning with the players themselves in a vacuum, both are extremely unique cases as they were late-bloomers in their careers. Bautista, especially, way simply another “guy” until his breakout season at age 29 with the Jays.

Now, both players are at the age where this will likely be their final prominent big league contract, so both will be looking to maximize their value one last time after playing on some very team-friendly deals. Much of this decision comes down to how well the Blue Jays think both will age. Will their late-blooming careers give them added life on the end?

With the Cleveland Indians, Mark Shapiro was notorious for moving on from his older players well before they entered their decline years. It rarely mattered if the player was a fan favourite, either. Now, with a far greater budget in Toronto, we wait to see if Shapiro will adapt to his new resources or hold firm to past strategy.

My gut tells me that Jose Bautista will be the likeliest to sign, and as one of the organization’s all-time greatest players, news of an extension would quickly re-ignite the fans. While slightly older than Encarnacion, his extremely advanced plate discipline and on-base tool should help him remain valuable for several more seasons.

With the club’s desire to extend Josh Donaldson, however, there are a lot of balls in the air with these negotiations, and no outcome should be considered a surprise.

BJH: Given the payroll commitments next season, it seems very difficult for the Blue Jays to retain both Bautista and Encarnacion long term. If a contract extension with them is to get done, it sounds like it needs to transpire during Spring Training; otherwise it won’t happen at all.

So if I had to choose one or the other, I’d lean slightly towards Edwin Encarnacion simply because he’s a little bit younger and he may come at a lower price tag because he’s very close to becoming strictly a DH.

BPT: They can definitely keep them both, the question is do they want to keep them both. They’ll be commanding a total of around $50 million a year, and that is basically a third of the Blue Jays expected payroll going forward. It might not be the wisest business decision to tie up all that money in two aging sluggers. Theoretically the money shouldn’t be an issue with an owner as rich as Rogers, but with the weak Canadian dollar and some weird accounting rules, an increase in payroll to keep them both around seems unlikely. Encarnacion has already said that he won’t negotiate once the season starts, so he won’t be signing mid-season. However, with regard to Bautista, he seems pretty clear that if the Blue Jays meet his number (reportedly 5/$150M), he’ll sign, whenever that may be. If the team can only retain one of them, I’d lean towards Bautista. Not only does he have the sentimental advantage after the bat flip, but he is in peak physical condition and projects to age well. Encarnacion, although a few years younger, has been hampered by minor injuries recently, and those are the types of things that can get progressively worse as he gets farther away from the 30 years old mark.

500: I have no idea what will happen – absolutely no idea. Obviously the Blue Jays would love to keep both players, but I think the chances of that are slim-to-none. Yes, the Jays can keep them both. They are owned by Rogers Communications, a corporate behemoth and one of the largest companies in Canada, but being owned by a corporation means that even though money is available, it is not easy to get. For that reason, I can’t see them both staying. Encarnacion has already said he will not discuss an extension after Opening Day, and Bautista has stated that he will not negotiate from his initial demands, period, so I can’t see either signing during the season. If it comes down to a choice I would prefer to see Jose stay, because he has become the face of the franchise. But Edwin is younger, and has actually hit for more power and a higher OPS over the past three seasons, so I can see ownership siding with him.

BB: First off, no, unfortunately the team cannot keep them both. The Blue Jays are owned by Rogers, a massive communications company up here in Canada, who are a lot more interested in just the pure profit of the team when compared to an organization headed by a rich sports fan like Mike Ilitch who will do whatever it takes to win. This means that the Jays front office will not be allowed to throw money around at aging sluggers like Bautista and Encarnacion no matter what they ask for.

In fact, Bautista made waves on the first day of camp a few weeks ago stating that he’s given the Jays his price and is not willing to negotiate. Many people think that this stance has him heading out of town at the end of the season, going to a team willing to overpay for his services. If, as reported, he’s demanding $30 million/year into his age 40 and 41 seasons then I don’t think many Toronto fans will be too upset that the team let him walk. Encarnacion on the other hand has set some demands of his own. He wants an extension by Opening Day or he’s also going to walk. Of course, if the team offers him a good deal during the year his stance would probably change a bit. Money talks after all…

It’s tough to predict how this is going to play out, but I’d predict the team locks up Encarnacion for four years and $70-$80 million. I think most fans would be happy with this outcome, as Encarnacion is younger than Bautista and won’t have to shift to a different position like Jose will have to as he approaches 40. In a perfect world both would re-sign and turn the Jays into perennial contenders, but the team already has Troy Tulowitzki on their books along with Josh Donaldson who is going to cost a ton over the course of his four arbitration years as a Super-Two player.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

JFC: One guy people should watch for is Marcus Stroman. He came back from his knee injury and helped the Blue Jays surge toward the World Series. With no proven ace in the fold, he’ll want to step up and take that role. He loves the spotlight and he wants to be the guy to carry his team. He certainly has the arsenal to do it. He’ll look to pitch for a full season (and approach 180 innings at least) for the first time.

JJ: As odd as this may sound, my eyes will be on shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

Fully capable of being a top-three shortstop in Major League Baseball, Tulowitzki hit just .239 after joining Toronto ahead of the trade deadline, giving him an abnormally low .777 OPS for the 2015 season. I don’t see that happening again.

Tulowitzki was battling injuries throughout the latter half of the season and playoffs, but on top of that, there’s an undeniable human element at play.

After playing for nearly a decade in Colorado, where he’d just signed another lengthy contract, the jolt of he and his family being uprooted without much warning has to be mentally wearing. Given a full offseason and spring training with his new organization, I expect Tulowitzki’s improvement from 2015 to 2016 to be a significant boost to an already lethal offense.

Health will continue to be the worry with the 31-year-old, but look for Toronto to spell him off in the field when possible. The Jays have elite defenders in Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, not to mention stud second baseman Devon Travis returning mid-season, so some days at designated hitter could keep Tulowitzki fresh longterm.

BJH: A full and healthy season of Marcus Stroman will be very fun to watch. His ceiling was incredibly high last season prior to his injury, and his performances in September and October should be indicative of his potential in 2016. Aaron Sanchez is another pitcher which the Blue Jays are also hoping will blossom into a dependable, young starter.

BPT: If Aaron Sanchez is able to make the rotation out of spring training, I think he’ll have a huge season in 2016. He was really hitting his stride as a member of the starting staff before he went down with an injury, and has been working extremely hard to get stronger over the off-season. With more innings he will be able to work on his secondary pitches along with his command, and he has a chance to reach that front of the rotation ceiling that he has been pegged for since he was drafted.

500: Marcus Stroman. He made an unbelievable comeback from a torn ACL last year, returning to the mound in September to go 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA down the stretch, then 1-0 in 3 postseason starts. This year he is healthy, stronger, and better from both the experience gained in crunch time and from playing with David Price. He also has the attitude and confidence required to be a staff ace. I expect a big season from Stroman in 2016.

BB: Most Jays fans are well aware of the ceiling that Devon Travis possesses, but it seems like the rest of the league never really took notice. In his rookie season last year after coming to the Jays in a trade with the Tigers, Travis hit .304/.361/.498 (135 wRC+) in 62 games. That was coupled with some fantastic defense at second base, which has been a black hole with the Jays for a while now. Shoulder problems really derailed his debut season, which could have ended with ROY consideration, but the upside is still there one year later. The righty hitter underwent surgery on the problematic left shoulder in late November which has him on the shelf for 16-20 months, resulting in a likely return date of somewhere in May or June. After rehab, Jays fans will be hoping he can pick up where he left off in 2015.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

JFC: In 2015, the Blue Jays spun their tires for the first half and hung around .500 and with their July moves, they finished with 93 wins and won the division. This year, they will start the season with a much better bullpen, a lineup that won’t quit and a rotation that looks solid. Look for them to be much better than .500. It would not be out of the realm of possibility for them to repeat 92-94 wins.

JJ: I’ll walk out on a limb and project a 94-68 record for the Blue Jays in 2016, improving by one win from their record last season. Barring any surprises in the division, this should be good for a second straight American League East championship.

Toronto’s 2015 Pythagorean Record of 102-60 does show that their output could have brought on better results, so with that in hand and a very strong roster returning, a repeat performance is very much within reach.

BJH: First in the division and 93 wins is a tough performance to beat, so I’ll put them slightly below at 89-73. That’s probably good enough for second in the AL East and a Wild Card spot.

BPT: I think 88-74 is a reasonable projection for the team as it stands. That should be good enough for 2nd place and a Wild Card spot, though if all the teams in the division beat up on each other, they may be able to grab the division title once again.

500: Call me a homer, but I think the Jays will win the division again. The rest of the division looks tough, but the team that improved the most (Boston) finished 15 games back last year, and the team that was closest to the Jays (New York) improved the back-end of their bullpen by adding Aroldis Chapman – but the back-end of their bullpen was already amazing. With the kind of offensive firepower the Jays have, they don’t need dominant pitching – just passable pitching – and I think they get it. I can see another 93 win season and an AL East title.

BB: Last year the Blue Jays won 93 games, which was well over what many fans thought they’d win. The team started pretty pedestrian though, and only really piled it on after the acquisitions of David Price and company at the deadline. This year the team faces expectations to repeat as division champions, which is a situation the Jays haven’t found themselves in for two decades. I personally seem to be more bearish on the squad than many fans as I think the pitching moves were generally unconvincing and opened up holes in a team that should be truly going for it in 2016 and 2017. The prospect cupboards were emptied out to assemble this major league roster, and if the front office decides to start playing it safe now then it would be a missed opportunity.

All that being said, I predict the team to win 87 games this year due to the offence simply powering them through a large portion of their games. Small scorelines like 2-1 will be rare at the Rogers Centre this season as the Jays sluggers will smash opposing team’s pitching for the second year in a row. The success of the 2016 campaign will come down to the starting pitching keeping the team in games long enough to outhit the opposition. The bullpen and defense should be strong enough to pull their weight as well, putting a lot of pressure on guys like Happ, Chavez, Estrada, and R.A. Dickey to simply be league average.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

JFC: For Blue jays fans, the division is always a good battle. We seem to pay extra attention to division rivals. We always enjoy beating the Yankees and Red Sox. Last season, when the Blue Jays were pushing for first place, the Yankee matchups were intense. The Orioles have become a big rival thanks to some drama between Jose Bautista and Darren O’Day. Beating any of those teams is special. In 2016, the Red Sox may present the biggest challenge and any game that Price starts will be that much more interesting.

JJ: David Price and the Boston Red Sox are a close second, but now that the Blue Jays have tasted real success, I still feel that the New York Yankees are the team with a target on their back.

Toronto managed to go 13-6 against New York in 19 games last season, and while such a lopsided record isn’t likely to happen again, I still like how the Jays roster matches up against New York’s.

With the Yankees adding even more late-inning talent to the back of their bullpen around Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, however, Toronto will need to bring their bats in the first inning of every game.

BJH: It used to be the Yankees, but with their flurry of offseason activity, I’d now say it’s the Red Sox. Boston matched up well with the Jays in the second half, so it will probably be a dog fight between these two teams at the top of the division this year.

BPT: Definitely the Orioles. Their team had some luck earlier in this decade and were able to make the playoffs for a couple of seasons, but they are pretty much over that hump now and are going to be starting a decline phase this season. Their lack of pitching will allow the Blue Jays to feast upon them in 2016, and a record of 13-6 against them seems reasonable to expect. Plus, the Jose Bautista-Darren O’Day rivalry will live on for another season, and that’s always fun.

500: Boston, without a doubt. It used to be the Yankees, but I have a brother-in-law and an uncle who are huge Red Sox fans, so beating Boston has become the best part of the summer. Despite the Red Sox stealing Price away, I still think the Jays win the season series.

BB: This is a toss up for me, as it is for most Jays fans. The Yankees and Red Sox are both deplorable and beating either of them makes for a good day at the ballpark. I think I’d give the edge to the Yankees just due to their obnoxious fans and general arrogance around the team despite not doing much of note since 2009.

While the Red Sox look to have a good team this year and will likely challenge the Jays for the division, the Yankees are much more of a question mark. They have their regular roster of old overpaid guys at every position who could put up MVP-type numbers or on the flip-side could get hurt tying their shoes on Opening Day. Only time will tell. It’s extremely hard to predict the AL East at the best of times and this year is shaping up to be a five-horse race for the ages. Whoever stays healthy and beats up on the bad teams in the league will probably come out ahead.

My appreciation to all of these guys for giving their insight on the lone Canadian squad.  There should be plenty of fireworks in Toronto this year!

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