REGINA — Scoring runs has rarely been an issue for the Toronto Blue Jays the past several seasons, as Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista have slugged it out with the best power hitters in the game and blasted a couple of the most memorable home runs in franchise history.
But with at least one, perhaps both, of those marquee names playing elsewhere this season, the team’s recipe for success in 2017 may switch to preventing runs scored against them.
Four of the five starters who spent the entire 2016 campaign with the team are expected to return, led by a solid one-two punch of ace Aaron Sanchez and 20-game winner J.A. Happ.
Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano will likely round out the starting five.
“We have one of the best starting rotations in baseball,” said outfielder Kevin Pillar, who was in Regina with teammates Devon Travis, Sanchez and Estrada as part of the Blue Jays’ Winter Tour.
Perhaps overshadowed by the heavy hitters in the Jays’ lineup, the rotation was among the best in the major leagues in 2016 with the sixth-best combined earned-run average (3.92) and fourth-lowest opponents’ batting average (.242).
“There was so much speculation last year of that group being the question mark for the team. I think we surpassed that and then some,” said Sanchez, who helped lead the Jays to an 89-73 record and a second consecutive appearance in the American League Championship Series. “We lost R.A. (Dickey) but we have (Francisco) Liriano stepping in and he was filthy for us down the stretch last year. If we can keep our five starters healthy then I think there’s a good chance we get back to where we were last year.”
And Pillar felt the ultra-competitive American League East has shifted somewhat to a pitching-dominant division with Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello in Boston to square off against the Jays’ solid quintet.
“But you’re still going to have to score runs because Baltimore still has a good lineup, Boston still has a very good lineup, we still have a good lineup. I feel like we have the starting pitching to shut down some really good offensive teams,” Pillar said.
Travis suggested the team will have to score its runs in a variety of ways rather than through the long ball. The lineup still boasts some thump with Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and free-agent signee Kendrys Morales, but a power reduction is expected.
“I think we’re still capable of scoring runs, but it may not be with the long ball as much as it has been,” Travis said. “We still have three or four guys that can hit 20-plus homers, but we’re going to have to do the little things right, too. We’re going to have to get on base any way we can, maybe bunting guys over and manufacturing runs as best we can.”
With the departure of Encarnacion and his 42 home runs and league-leading 127 RBIs to Cleveland and Bautista still to decide where he’ll play this season, there’s some uncertainty as to whether the Jays can slug it out like they have in the past.
“I definitely think that we could contend again,” Donaldson said from Orlando, where he’s competing in the Diamond Resorts International celebrity golf tournament. “Our pitching is coming back and I think we’re probably going to add a piece in the bullpen. And I think some guys that are still going to be with us this year didn’t have a banner year for themselves or reach their peak by any means.
“I think the guys on the team as a whole are going to improve, and I think that offensively we’ll be better than what people are expecting.”
Bautista and Encarnacion were front and centre as the Jays became one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball since 2009. The additions of Donaldson and Tulowitzki in recent years have only added to that production as Toronto finished in the top 10 in the American League in runs and home runs the past seven seasons.
As it stands now, the Jays would be missing 88 homers and close to 260 RBIs from a season ago should Bautista and fellow free agent Michael Saunders follow Encarnacion and sign elsewhere for 2017.
“It’s always tough to see a guy with Edwin’s talents leave, even more so the type of guy and teammate he was not just to me but everyone,” Pillar said. “He’s going to be a tough guy to replace. There’s not one person you can ask to come in and have replace the type of impact Eddy had.
“We’re all going to have to step up and do our part in filling the void, and maybe that brings the best out of everyone.”
Blue Jays pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Feb. 14.