Jays fac­ing lots of ques­tions

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - SPORTS - STEVE BUF­FERY

The Blue Jays head into the 2018 sea­son like a dude head­ing into a gun fight with a knife. Sure, they got a chance. But it’s a long shot.

The Jays are go­ing to need a lot of things to go their way AND for their AL East ri­vals New York and Bos­ton to mis­fire.

But hey, as Lloyd Christ­mas once said in Dumb and Dum­ber, “You’re telling me there’s a chance?!” Yes, there is a chance for the Jays.

Here are some burn­ing ques­tions as the club starts its spring train­ing Wed­nes­day in Dunedin.

Can the Blue Jays con­tend for a play­off spot?

Ac­cord­ing to most in­sid­ers, they can (likely only for a wild card spot).

First and fore­most, they need for their start­ing ro­ta­tion to stay healthy. Last sea­son, the Jays could not put to­gether any mean­ing­ful win streaks as their starters kept drop­ping.

Aaron Sanchez was able to start only eight games af­ter be­ing put on the dis­abled list four times due to blis­ter is­sues (he claims to be com­pletely healthy at this point). Lefthander J.A. Happ landed on the DL with left el­bow in­flam­ma­tion early in the sea­son. Marco Estrada went into a mid-sea­son funk be­cause of sleep­ing is­sues.

Those prob­lems, com­bined with the fact that lefty Fran­cisco Liri­ano was traded to Hous­ton dur­ing the sea­son, re­sulted in Joe Bi­agini be­ing sum­moned from the bullpen as a starter, with mixed re­sults. The same ro­ta­tion is still in­tact, with Bi­agini be­ing touted as the prob­a­ble fifth starter un­less the Jays make a move to bring in an­other ro­ta­tion piece via free agency or trade. Or, one of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s young mi­nor lea­guers (Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Fo­ley or Thomas Pan­none) might be ready to step up.

The key is Sanchez. If the 2016 AL ERA leader can re­turn to form, Toronto can com­pete for a wild card spot. Mar­cus Stro­man will also be counted on to have an­other good year. The New York Yan­kees added MLB home run king Gian­carlo Stan­ton in the off-sea­son to an al­ready solid lineup, while last year’s AL East champs, the Red Sox, are ex­pected to be in the fight to de­fend their ti­tle.

Can the Blue Jays’ start­ing mid­dle in­field­ers stay on the field?

A cou­ple of years ago, Toronto man­ager John Gibbons sug­gested that one day, if he can stay healthy, sec­ond base­man Devon Travis may win a bat­ting ti­tle. Un­for­tu­nately, the per­son able Travis has been dogged by shoul­der and knee in­juries through­out his Ma­jor League ca­reer.

Last sea­son, he was only able to get in 50 games be­fore shut­ting down in June. Travis un­der­went surgery in his knee and missed the much of the 2017 sea­son. As well, short­stop Troy Tu­low­itzki, who at 33 is show­ing signs of slow­ing down, suf­fered lig­a­ment dam­age in his right an­kle run­ning to first.

To their credit, the Jays made some key moves to add depth in the in­field by trad­ing for vet­eran in­field­ers Yangervis So­larte and Aled­mys Diaz, a 2016 all-star. Gibbons’ tough­est job may be keep­ing ev­ery­one happy if the in­field­ers all stay healthy.

Will talk about Josh Don­ald­son’s fu­ture be­come a dis­trac­tion?

Don­ald­son has been a big story in the off-sea­son. The all-star third base­man keeps say­ing that he has not ac­tu­ally seen a long-term of­fer from the Jays, even though club pres­i­dent Mark Shapiro has ex­pressed his hope that Don­ald­son sticks around.

If the Jays get off to a slow start, and a play­off spot does not ap­pear pos­si­ble, look for Toronto to trade Don­ald­son for young, con­trol­lable play­ers as they look to con­tend down the road on the backs of young stars Vladimir Guer­rero Jr. (18), An­thony Al­ford (23) and Bo Bichette (19). Guer­rero and Bichette were both named top-10 MLB prospects by Base­ball Amer­ica.

Will the Blue Jays be able to score more runs this sea­son?

In 2017, the Jays ranked dead-last in the AL in runs scored (693) and 14th in OPS (.724). In all like­li­hood, yes, they will score more runs.

The ad­di­tion of Ran­dal Grichuk as the club’s prob­a­ble every day right fielder (re­plac­ing the ag­ing Jose Bautista) should be a shot in the arm, as will Cur­tis Gran­der­son and Steve Pearce pla­toon­ing in left. Hav­ing Travis back would be huge and Rus­sell Martin, if he can re­main healthy, would cer­tainly con­tribute more with the bat.

Of course, Don­ald­son and Justin Smoak need to have good sea­sons for the Jays to con­tend.

How is the Blue Jays’ bullpen go­ing to shake out this sea­son?

There are a cou­ple of cer­tain­ties. Roberto Osuna will be the closer and Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes will be jogged out in key sit­u­a­tions. Af­ter that, it’s any­one’s guess.

The Jays have been stock­pil­ing bullpen op­tions, adding Cana­dian John Ax­ford, Jake Pet­ricka, Al Al­bur­querque, and Craig Bres­low, join­ing Toronto vet­er­ans Aaron Loup, Matt Der­mody and Tim Mayza. Com­pe­ti­tion for spots will be fierce in spring train­ing, and that’s al­ways good. sbuffery@post­media.com

FRANK GUNN/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Toronto Blue Jays’ start­ing pitcher J.A. Happ throws at Blue Jays’ spring train­ing in Dunedin, Fla., on Tues­day.

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