5 keys to the Blue Jays' 2017 season

5 keys to the Blue Jays' 2017 season

Manager John Gibbons and the Blue Jays are striving for more after reaching the American League Championship Series each of the past two years.

"Our goal is to get one step further, to get to the World Series," Gibbons, who finalized a two-year contract extension on Saturday, two days before Toronto's season opener at Baltimore, told reporters recently.

A few new players dot the roster, led by designated hitter Kendrys Morales and left fielder/first baseman Steve Pearce, while returnees Jose Bautista and Devon Travis are at or near full health for a Blue Jays outfit coming off an 89-win season that ended in a five-game defeat to Cleveland.

With Monday's 3:05 p.m. ET opener against the rival Orioles at Camden Yards approaching, we offer a look at a Blue Jays squad that will try to reach the World Series for the first time since 1993.

Joey Bats 'on a mission'

The man many fans believed would be playing elsewhere after testing free agency is back on a one-year, $18-million US contract and determined to put an injury marred 2016 season behind him, one that saw Bautista post a .234 batting average and 22 home runs, his fewest since 2009 (13).

"He's on a mission," Gibbons said of Bautista, 36, who batted .444 (12-for-27) with two homers and eight runs batted in over his first nine pre-season games.

The six-time all-star also pounded the ball at the recent World Baseball Classic, hitting .333 with a homer and five RBIs in five contests for the Dominican Republic.

Deep rotation, new-look bullpen

Toronto could boast one of the strongest rotations in baseball in 2017 and returns all five starting pitchers from last season: Opening-day starter Marco Estrada, 20-game winner J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Francisco Liriano and Aaron Sanchez, whose 3.00 earned-run average topped all AL starters in 2016.

Liriano, whom the Jays acquired from Pittsburgh last August for fellow pitcher Drew Hutchison, has been dominant this spring with a 1.88 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings in his first four starts. He went 2-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 10 appearances (eight starts) last season with Toronto.

Left-hander Brett Cecil (now with St. Louis) and Joaquin Benoit (Philadelphia) are the notable absentees in the bullpen, replaced by free agents J.P. Howell and sidearmer Joe Smith (5.19 ERA in nine spring games), respectively, with closer Roberto Osuna, setup man Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini (2.53 ERA) the other locks. Osuna will open the season on the 10-day disabled list with a cervical spasm, so Dominic Leone was recalled from triple-A Buffalo to cover his absence.

Aaron Loup (3.68 in nine spring appearances) is the other lefty in the 'pen, with Ryan Tepera rounding out the group.

Morales the new Edwin?

Once designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion rejected the Blue Jays' offer of about $80 million US over four years early in the off-season — the slugger settled for three years and $65 million with Cleveland — general manager Ross Atkins pounced on fellow free agent Kendrys Morales, who hit 30 homers last season playing home games at Kauffman Stadium, which yielded the second-fewest home runs in the AL.

Morales, 33, is a year younger than Encarnacion, who tied for the AL lead in RBIs (127) with retired Boston DH David Ortiz last season and matched a career high with 42 home runs. But the switch-hitting Morales will fill a void in the heavily right-handed-hitting Toronto lineup after batting .263 overall in 2016 — .231 from the right side and .330 from the left.

Who's on 1st? Smoak, mostly

Perhaps the Jays' off-season signing of left-fielder/first baseman Steve Pearce may have generated more buzz if he hit left handed, meaning he might be considered the primary first baseman entering this season and not Justin Smoak, whom Toronto signed to a two-year contract extension last July.

The 30-year-old switch-hitting Smoak has hit .226 and .217 in just under 300 at-bats in each of his two seasons with the Jays with on-base percentages of .299 and .314, respectively, and a combined 32 homers. Smoak hit .184 in 87 post-all-star break at-bats in 2016.

Pearce, 33, could start the season in left field after recovering from surgery on his right elbow. He appeared in 85 games last season with Tampa Bay and the Baltimore Orioles, hitting .288 in 264 at-bats with a .374 on-base percentage, 13 home runs and 35 RBIs.

Travis eyeing opening day

A big lineup question would be answered with the return of second baseman Devon Travis on opening day. The 26-year-old is the team's primary leadoff hitter, having batted .309 with five home runs over 194 at-bats in the role last season. Travis was slow to recover from right-knee surgery in November and didn't appear in a spring game until March 24.

Travis, who has missed time in each of the past two seasons with left shoulder and right knee injuries, hit .300 in 101 games last season with 11 homers, 50 homers and a .332 on-base percentage.