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The Season Is Dark and Full of Terrors

Gibbons2016_01After a pre-season that has seemingly lasted as long as a Game of Thrones winter, we’re finally less than a week ahead of Opening Day for the 2017 campaign.

And while there is much optimism for the Toronto Blue Jays once again, the season, like a Game of Thrones night, is dark and full of terrors. Not everything always goes according to plan. And sometimes the good guys die. 

At this time last year, the Jays felt great about their offence, decent about their bullpen, and cautiously optimistic about their starting pitching. Then things started for real, and everything flipped on its ear. The rotation was outstanding, the offence sputtered through the first two months, and the bullpen–once again–couldn’t get anybody out in the seventh inning.

There was hope for players like Chris Colabello, Jesse Chavez and Drew Storen. None were with the team by the end of July, their seasons gone awry.

I don’t want to be a Negative Nancy, but there are bound to be a handful of similar cases this season. So who are they? Your guess is as good as mine. But that’s what I’m here for.

Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ

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Photo c/o John Lott

Insert shocked face emoji! How could you! Okay, hear me out. I’m not saying these guys are going to be terrible. Certainly not as bad as the guys I mentioned above. I’m just saying there’s a real chance they aren’t as good as last season. Will Sanchez be able to build off a great first full season as a starter, where he led the American League in ERA? Or will the league catch up to him a bit, especially if he can’t establish his change-up as a third quality pitch? Throughout this piece, I’m going to try and avoid using injuries as a factor, but we’re all holding our breath a bit after Sanchez increased his workload so dramatically last year.

As for Happ, another 20-win season might be wishful thinking. He’s certainly turned the corner  in his career, and has established himself as a mid-rotation piece. It seems like every year, there’s a pitcher on the staff who benefits from much higher support than anybody else. Last year, that was Happ. His 6.06 average runs of support per game was second in the entire league, per ESPN. Now, most of this is purely luck. But if Happ gets a bit more unlucky this year, and the run support dries up, how does that affect him? It’s easy to deal when you’re consistently working with a four run lead. Again, I’m not suggesting he’ll be awful, but I think there should be some tempered expectations.

Bullpen Shows Its Age

I’m looking at four guys in particular here. Jason Grilli (40 years old), J.P. Howell (33), Joe Smith (33) and Joe Biagini (26) are all being counted on to bridge the gap from the starters to Roberto Osuna. Grilli, Howell and Smith are among the active leaders in relief appearances. We know the light can go out at any time–often without warning–for older pitchers. If that happens to all three of them simultaneously, this season will likely be a disaster. If it’s one of them? You’re probably able to work through it (but with some blown leads along the way). Everyone in baseball seemed to be amazed at what Grilli was able to accomplish at his age last season. I don’t think anybody would be surprised if he ran out of bullets this year. Smith was injured last year, and was left off the Cubs’ postseason roster. Howell (excluded from the Dodgers’ playoff run) doesn’t throw particularly hard, and that’s a recipe that could yield unappetizing results in this division.

On the other hand, Biagini is entering just his second MLB season. He was a revelation last year, but like Sanchez, is subject to an adjustment period as advanced scouting reports zero in on ways to attack him.

The good news is Jays’ management, in their one season at the helm, seemed pretty adept at re-making the bullpen on the fly. Fingers crossed, but there’s a chance they may have to again this year.

Left Field Leftovers

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Photo c/o John Lott

Okay, this one isn’t much of a stretch. In fact, it’s being widely predicted. At the moment, it seems there’s just a bit of hoping and praying that ONE of Zeke Carrera, Melv Upton and Steve Pearce emerge in left field. However, that also assumes Justin Smoak is hitting well enough to stay in the line-up at first base. Realistically, the club needs two of those four guys to be working to field a competent lineup. There seems to be an assumption that, when healthy, Pearce will hit just fine. If Smoak doesn’t (as many assume will be the case), Pearce will likely need to play first more often. Then one of Carrera and Upton need to be able to pick up the slack. Upton has the most obvious potential, as someone capable of hitting 20 home runs, and adding 20 stolen bases.  He’s in a contract year and there’s a narrative angle you could take that he’ll pop this year. But if you look at the numbers he put up in Toronto last year, and in Dunedin this spring, it’s an enormous leap of faith.

Is this lineup strong enough to overcome a black hole (or two) at the bottom of the order? You’d think so. I’m expecting huge things from Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales this year, and more brilliance from Josh Donaldson. Those three, put together with solid campaigns from Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki, and that’s more production than most clubs can boast.

The top of the club is stacked with talent, but unfortunately there isn’t a ton of depth. Or at least not depth that you’d expect to be effectively productive. I know I said I’d avoid talking about injury potential, but that’s realistically the number one key for this club in 2017. Stay healthy. If they can, they’ve absolutely got the talent to compete for the AL East crown again.

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