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Scouting the AL East: Toronto Blue Jays ZiPS projections

The Blue Jays secured the first AL Wild Card spot in 2016. Can they return to the playoffs in 2017?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

We’ve run through the ZiPS projections of the AL East’s best team and worst team from last season. Now, let’s turn our attention to one of the division’s two Wild Card teams, the Toronto Blue Jays.

After nearly a decade of finishing no higher than third in the division, the Blue Jays have enjoyed a brief period of success, winning the AL East in 2015 and finishing second in 2016 with an 89-73 record and 91-71 Pythagorean record. However, Toronto finished with the second highest batting age and fourth highest pitching in MLB last year. They are a veteran team whose opportunity to win is essentially right now.

Are the Blue Jays in position to keep this window of contention open? Let’s have a look (ZiPS projections courtesy of FanGraphs and Dan Szymborksi):

Noticeably missing from the above depth chart are the Blue Jays’ former star sluggers, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. The loss of both would severely hamper Toronto’s offense, as ZiPS projects Encarnacion and Bautista for OPS+ figures of 137 and 134 respectively, which would rank as the second and third best projections on the team. Encarnacion is now in Cleveland, while Bautista remains unsigned, though there have been rumors of a reunion between Toronto and Bautista.

Without Encarnacion and Bautista, the Blue Jays’ lineup is buoyed by one man, Josh Donaldson. Projections systems are conservative by nature, preferring to regress performances to the mean. Despite that tendency, ZiPS still projects the 31-year-old Donaldson for a 141 OPS+ and a superb 7.0 WAR. Having a star whose median expectation is that of an MVP-caliber player is a massive advantage for Toronto.

Outside of Donaldson, the Blue Jays’ lineup is dotted with lesser offensive players with still useful skill-sets. Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki project only for OPS+ marks of 102 and 106, respectively, but both still project as over 3-win players due to their defensive contributions at premium positions. Similarly, Kevin Pillar is slated for 3.2 WAR in spite of his 92 OPS+ projection, on the strength of his elite center field defense.

Interestingly, the recently signed Lourdes Gurriel projects well by ZiPS. Gurriel, the younger brother of the Astros’ Yulieski Gurriel, agreed to a seven-year, $22 million contract with Toronto. Just 22, Gurriel projects for a 102 OPS+ and solid infield defense. It’s not hard to wonder where the Yankees were on the bidding for a top international prospect who cost so little and already projects as an essentially league average player.

The Blue Jays pitched surprisingly well in 2016, finishing sixth by fWAR and third by RA-9 WAR. ZiPS seems optimistic about their chances of a repeat performance. The top projection belongs to Aaron Sanchez, who was excellent last year during his first full campaign as a starter, logging a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings. ZiPS pegs him to continue to progress, to the tune of 195 innings and 4.6 WAR.

Prior to 2016, there was some speculation that Toronto had overpaid to keep a pair of middling veteran starters, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada. Both proved to be worth every penny invested in them last year, and ZiPS projects them each to continue their late-career success. Estrada projects for a 3.84 ERA in in 180 innings, while Happ is pegged for a 3.96 ERA in 155 innings, which would equate to close to 3 WAR for each.

Things are a little shakier at the back end, but the Blue Jays’ fourth and fifth starters, Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano both come with considerable upside. Stroman ran a 4.37 ERA last year but is still well-acquitted by ZiPS, which forecasts him for over 2 WAR. Liriano also projects for 2 WAR, even after a running a 4.69 ERA in 2016. All of the Blue Jays’ starters beyond Sanchez come with their warts, but as a whole, they look likely to produce as an above average rotation.

In the bullpen, the Blue Jays project as middle-of-the-pack. Closer Roberto Osuna has been fantastic during his first two years in the majors, and projects for a 2.76 ERA in 71 innings. Beyond Osuna, Toronto possesses a pretty standard-issue set of middle relievers. Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini, and Ryan Tepera all project for ERA figures somewhat better than average to form an average bullpen unit.

Even if they lose two of their top hitters from recent years, the Blue Jays still appear on the whole to be close to as talented as they were last season. However, with replacement level projections still remaining at first base and left field, Toronto seems like a team that could stand to benefit greatly from another offseason move or two. If the Blue Jays act to fix their glaring weaknesses, they would look strong heading into 2017. Without such maneuvers, the Blue Jays still project fairly well, and stand as another solid team with which the Yankees must contend.