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Scouting the AL East: Toronto Blue Jays ZiPS projections

The Blue Jays were one of 2017’s most disappointing teams, but could they be in line for a rebound?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Last week, we took a look at the ZiPS projections for the Yankees’ primary rivals, the Red Sox. The long prophecized return of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has seemingly come, and the two heavyweight teams look likely to spar at the top of the AL East for years to come.

Yet there are three other teams in the division. One of them, in fact, is the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays are coming off a highly disappointing year, one that saw them fall to 76-86 after a pair of appearances in the ALCS. With the departures of Edwin Encarnacion and now Jose Bautista, as well as Josh Donaldson’s impending free agency, it feels like an era might be ending in Toronto.

Toronto will still field a team in 2018, though, and that team just might still be pretty good. Let’s take a look at what ZiPS has to say (courtesy of Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs):

One name sticks out like a sore thumb on that depth chart, and that name is Donaldson. Donaldson’s injury troubles were a big part of why the Jays failed to meet expectations in 2017, but ZiPS sees Donaldson bouncing back in his age-32 season. His forecast calls for a 142 wRC+ and nearly 6 WAR, which is the fifth-best projection among position players. A healthy Donaldson is a bona-fide superstar, and his return to peak form is probably Toronto’s best shot at a return to contention.

Outside of Donaldson, the Blue Jays’ position player core is solid, if a bit unspectacular. First baseman Justin Smoak was one of the primary beneficiaries of last year’s power spike, as he put together a career year with 38 homers in 2017. ZiPS likes his chances of sustaining at least a chunk of his production, projecting 27 homers and a 119 wRC+.

Russell Martin (101 wRC+), Devon Travis (106), Kendrys Morales (105), round out the Toronto hitters that project as better than average. The saddest projection likely belongs to Troy Tulowitzki. After posting an above average batting line every year since 2008, Tulowitzki plummeted to a 78 wRC+ in 2017. ZiPS calls for only a partial rebound to a 92 wRC+. Seeing injuries and ineffectiveness take down a player like Tulowitzki is tough to watch, and a blight on Toronto’s chances.

Kevin Pillar receives the best projection among hitters in the non-Donaldson division. Forecast for only an 89 wRC+, Pillar still profiles as a quality starter thanks to his All-World defense in center. Pillar will remain among Toronto’s best players in spite of his offensive limitations for as long as he can make superhero-like plays in the outfield.

In the rotation, the Blue Jays do possess some upside, but it’s accompanied by plenty of uncertainty. Aaron Sanchez, for one, looked like an ace in 2016, but injuries torpedoed his 2017. ZiPS forecasts him to fall somewhere in between his peak and valley, putting him at 3 WAR in 142 innings.

Marcus Stroman is the headliner after turning in an excellent 2017. He’s projected for about 4 WAR in 190 innings with a 3.54 ERA. A mid-3’s ERA in under 200 innings may not feel like ace material, and it isn’t, but in an era with homers flying all over the place and hardly any pitchers exceeding the 200-inning threshold, it’s pretty darn close.

The Blue Jays will again rely on some late career renaissances in the form of JA Happ and Marco Estrada. Both have found new levels of performance as veterans in Toronto, and though Estrada in particular regressed last year, ZiPS stills sees both as about average starters.

Toronto will need Estrada and Happ to hold their value as they progress through their 30’s, as the Jays’ rotation depth peters off from there. Joe Biagini is penciled in as the fifth starter, after vacillating between starter and reliever roles in 2017. In truth, Toronto looks like a team that would benefit hugely from the import of one more impact starter, but with the team staring down Donaldson’s free agency and the potential closing of their current window, it remains to be seen if they will have the gumption to push more chips onto the table right now.

The bullpen looks solid, fronted by the excellent Roberto Osuna. Three years ago, a then 20-year-old Osuna punctuated his MLB debut by striking out Alex Rodriguez, and he now profiles as one of the game’s premier young closers, projecting for 2 WAR and a 2.70 ERA. Ryan Tepera, Aaron Loup, and Danny Barnes all project for better than average ERAs as the team’s primary setup men.

The Blue Jays essentially have one superstar, and a bunch of talented players who need to hit positive outcomes for the team to return to glory. The Blue Jays of 2015 and 2016 were exciting, talented ball clubs, but Toronto’s window of contention already looks like it is closing. The 2018 team projects fairly well, but not on the level of the Yankees and Red Sox, and with Donaldson’s potential exit in sight, the pressure is on Toronto to succeed now.