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Scouting the AL East: Taking a look at the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays ZiPS projections

Toronto ran away with the AL East in 2015, but will they have the firepower to do it again in 2016?

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Thus far this offseason, we've already sized up the 2016 projections for the division rival Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. Now let's turn our attention to the defending AL East champions, the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto wrestled the division lead from the Yankees in August of 2015 and never looked back, going 93-69 and posting a startling +221 run differential, the top in MLB. Much of Toronto's dominance was based on a fantastic group of position players, and the ZiPS projections for 2016 forecast a similar dynamic:

The Blue Jays again project to have an excellent collection of hitters, and if anything, the above graphic might undersell their offensive proficiency. Ryan Goins is projected to provide replacement level play at second base in the place of Devon Travis, whose shoulder injury will keep him out through at least some of April, if not longer. Yet ZiPS still projects Travis, who posted a 135 OPS+ in 62 games as a rookie last season, to provide 2.5 WAR in 2016 despite the missed time, filling the most glaring hole on Toronto's projected opening day roster.

It also must be noted that since Toronto's projections were published, they sent starting left fielder Ben Revere to the Nationals in exchange for reliever Drew Storen. That move was inspired by Toronto's considerable depth of options in the outfield, given that Michael Saunders, Dalton Pompey, and Chris Colabello all exhibit some ability to play left field. Saunders receives that group's most optimistic projection of a 104 OPS+ and 1.1 WAR in 277 plate appearances, though ZiPS has some clear (and reasonable) misgivings regarding Saunders' ability to stay healthy, given he appeared in just 87 games across 2014 and 2015.

Elsewhere, Toronto's core of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, and Edwin Encarnacion stands out as truly remarkable. All five of them, plus defensive standout center fielder Kevin Pillar, project for at least 3.2 WAR. For comparison, the Yankee with the highest projected WAR by ZiPS was Brian McCann, at 3.1. The Blue Jays have six players that project to be more valuable than New York's most valuable player! The only team in baseball that can seemingly match the Blue Jays' base of position players looks to be the Cubs, who thankfully play in the faraway NL Central. There are some hints of decline here, as ZiPS projects Toronto's core of five hitters all to post offensive lines slightly less impressive than their 2015 outputs. This is hardly surprising, given the conservative nature of projection systems when it comes to veterans on the wrong side of 30. However, it does indicate that Toronto's window of contention might be right now, before its stars start to fully feel the effects of age.

The Blue Jays' pitching staff, on the other hand, looks fairly shaky for a team that just dominated the American League for wide swaths of the season. While the offense is littered with stars, the rotation appears weak, as Toronto has spent much of the offseason adding middling arms to the roster. J.A. Happ, for instance, used the 1.85 ERA he posted in 63 innings for the Pirates last season to convince Toronto to hand him a 3 year, $36 million guarantee. That investment looks questionable, given Happ's career 96 ERA+, and ZiPS agrees, projecting him for a 92 ERA+ in 135 innings. Toronto also committed $26 million to Marco Estrada, coming off a career year in 2015. He is forecast to be Toronto's most valuable pitcher, but that he is bestowed that prestigious honor despite a modest projection of 2.0 WAR speaks volumes about Toronto's potential starting pitching troubles.

In search of hope regarding the pitching staff, the Blue Jays can point to the upside contained in the young arms of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. Stroman in particular is quite the exciting prospect, as he owns a 3.31 ERA and 2.96 FIP in his short career, and is coming off a season in which he remarkably came back from an ACL tear in a matter of months. His wide array of quality pitches suggests that he is on his way to stardom, though ZiPS is more conservative with him, pegging him for 1.8 WAR in 104 innings. It is safe to say that Stroman possesses considerable potential beyond that projection, should he stay healthy. Sanchez is also intriguing, as the acquisition of Storen may allow for Sanchez to fill a role as a starter, a role he held coming up through the minors. Sanchez has been great in the bullpen, as he has yielded an opposing slash line of just .149/.221/.191 as a reliever, but if he can make a smooth transition back to starting (that's a big if!), he would certainly be a more exciting option than the likes of R.A. Dickey and Jesse Chavez.

After the 2016 season, key players such as Bautista and Encarnacion will be free agents, and Toronto will have questions to answer regarding what lengths they are willing to go to keep their core together.  Given the advancing ages of some of their stars, it appears the time is now for Toronto to strike before age or free agency erodes their lineup. While the Blue Jays still look strong this year, emerging youth in the New York and Boston systems may soon help teams like the Yankees and Red Sox leave Toronto in the dust.