Who Should Start Opening Day?

We are officially three weeks away from Opening Day–at the time of this writing. By the time you read this, it will probably be closer than that. Spring Training has dragged on, mainly because of the lack of storylines in Blue Jays camp. The biggest news items are the injuries to Josh Donaldson and Devon Travis. While it seems Donaldson is all but a lock to be ready to start the season, the news on Travis isn’t so optimistic. It was announced late in the afternoon on Monday he’ll DH in a minor league game Tuesday, without running the bases. The biggest hitch in his recovery seems to be lateral movements. So while this advancement doesn’t give us any more insight into whether he’ll be good to go on April 3, it’s impossible to see it as anything but positive.

Aside from those relatively minor injuries, the only real positional battle is for the last spot in the bullpen. This is assuming we believe John Gibbons when he says Ezequiel Carrera & Melvin Upton Jr, will split the duties in left field, with Steve Pearce sprinkled in, and Justin Smoak at first. So with all that seemingly settled, what else do we have to talk about? Something trivial and meaningless, of course. Like who should get the ball at Camden Yards for the first game of the season!

You can make a pretty good case for all five guys, and I wouldn’t call you crazy if you said they’re the best rotation in the American League. Here’s my take on each starter.

Marco Estrada

Photo c/o John Lott

Facing questions throughout all of last spring he needed to prove his 2015 campaign wasn’t a fluke, Estrada picked up right where he left off, despite battling a nagging back injury for a good chunk of the season. And when push came to shove in the playoffs, he was the guy they trusted, earning the Game 1 start in both the ALDS & ALCS–for the second season in a row. And his playoff numbers with the Jays are absolute dynamite (2.16 ERA in 41.2 IP over five starts). In the final season of his contract, with this possibly being the last chance for him to start a regular season opener for Toronto, I say the make the gesture and give him the ball.

J.A. Happ

Photo c/o John Lott

Another vet who has put in his dues, and silenced ALL the critics with a 20-win season. There used to be a time when winning 20 games automatically got you the Opening Day start the next season. With two years left on his deal, and this likely being the last season you could make an argument for him over Aaron Sanchez, this would be the perfect time to reward Happ for making good on their faith in him.

Aaron Sanchez

With questions around him all season (are you sending a theme here), Sanchez dominated the American League from start to finish, even with his scheduled breaks in the middle. He led the A.L. with a 3.00 ERA and lost just two of his 30 starts. Read that sentence again. This might be the year he starts his own streak that could challenge Roy Halliday for most consecutive Opening Day starts in franchise history (7). He’s been touted as a future ace his entire professional career, and perhaps that future starts in 2017.

Marcus Stroman

He is the incumbent, after all. Beyond that, there’s not much going in his favour to earn this nod. The three guys above him on this list all had much better ’16 seasons than he did. But once again, he has the most to prove (or at least he will approach the year that way). And given his pseudo-feud with Sanchez that developed last year, he probably won’t like seeing his former BFF get the call ahead of him.

Francisco Liriano 

Photo c/o John Lott

Other than Stroman, Liriano is the only guy on this list who has been given the ball on the first day of the season before. He’s started each of the last three openers for the Pirates, as well as in ’09 with the Twins, so he’s got plenty of expertise in this area. You’ll be surprised to know he’s actually the 3rd oldest member of this staff (behind Estrada & Happ), but his 256 career starts are tops on the roster, and perhaps he gets the “elder statesmen” treatment.

So these are my “power rankings”, so to speak, for likelihood of Opening Day starter. In fact, if I was in the manager’s chair, this is the order I’d trot ’em out to start the season. You’ll notice it’s the same order as the playoff rotation last year, and for good reason. I thought that was the right order then, also. It’s also a good mix and variation as you go through it. You’ve got a soft-tosser, followed by a lefty, then the flamethrower, then the guy with the kitchen sink, then another lefty. Even in a four-game series, you’re getting a different look each time out. The only switch might be to flip Stroman and Liriano, since Stroman following Sanchez’s heat is as similar as you get.

Bottom line is, if this rotation can stay healthy in 2017 (and expecting it to be as healthy as it was in ’16 might be supremely optimistic), it has the potential to dominate a lot of lineups throughout the league.

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