MLB season preview: The Blue Jays have the talent needed to challenge for the throne

An offseason that looked like it might drain some of the power of the mighty Toronto Blue Jays lineup ended being … not as bad as it could have been. So, as we enter 2017, the Blue Jays appear to be in a good place to challenge for the American League throne again.

Some familiar questions linger, of course: Will their starting pitching hold up? Will Jose Bautista, at 36, prove wrong all the teams that didn’t want to pry him away in free agency? Will Kendrys Morales do enough to replace Edwin Encarnacion, who went to the Cleveland Indians in free agency?

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As we’ve learned from the Blue Jays the last two seasons, they have the capability to be great on both sides of the game. Two years ago, they had the most potent offense in baseball. Last season, surprisingly, they had the sixth-best ERA in baseball. The mix of talent is great, from perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson to young starters Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.

The AL East, as always, is no cakewalk. So challenging the Boston Red Sox is going to take the Jays’ best. But if the Blue Jays find the right combination of high-powered offense and sneaky-good pitching, they could be a very dangerous team.

ADDITIONS & SUBTRACTIONS
Additions: Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce
Subtractions: Michael Saunders, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil

The Blue Jays experienced quite the overhaul this offseason. Michael Saunders and Edwin Encarnacion left for better deals, and Jose Bautista nearly joined them before eventually coming back to the club. The team was quick to pick up an Encarnacion replacement, signing Kendrys Morales early. He won’t be able to replace EE’s production, but he’s still an effective hitter. Steve Pearce has been effective as a part-time player in the past, and there’s a chance he can supplant Justin Smoak at first depending on his performance. While Toronto won’t turn in the same murderer’s row at the plate, there’s still a chance for them to post some gaudy offensive numbers despite losing some key parts.

Jose Bautista, back with the Blue Jays, will be key in them contending again. (AP)

KEY PLAYER
There are other players on the Blue Jays besides Jose Bautista, but none of them may be as important. With Edwin Encarnacion gone to Cleveland, Bautista’s ability to hit dingers is even more vital. In 2016, Bautista hit .234/.366/.452, his worst triple slash since his injury-shortened 2012. He also hit 22 home runs in 116 games, a significant drop in power. Not the best stats for a free agent slugger to show off to potential new employers. Unable to find a non-Toronto home during the offseason, he signed a one-year contract that brought him back to the Jays. So the team has one more year of Bautista, and Bautista has one more year to get back some of what he’s lost: his health and his power. A healthy, powerful Bautista is a force to be reckoned with, and a huge boon to the Toronto lineup. (Liz Roscher)

PROJECTED LINEUP & ROTATION
Lineup
1. Devon Travis, 2B (.300/.332/.454, 11 HR, 50 RBI)
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B (.284/.404/.549, 37 HR, 99 RBI, 122 R)
3. Jose Bautista, RF (.234/.366/.452, 22 HR, 69 RBI)
4. Kendrys Morales, DH (263/.327/.468, 30 HR, 93 RBI)
5. Troy Tulowitzki, SS (.254/.318/.443, 24 HR, 79 RBI)
6. Russell Martin, C (.231/.335/.398, 20 HR, 74 RBI)
7. Justin Smoak, 1B (.217/.314/.391, 14 HR, 34 RBI)
8. Kevin Pillar, CF (.266/.303/.376, 7 HR, 53 RBI, 14 SB)
9. Ezequiel Carrera, LF (.248/.323/.356, 6 HR, 23 RBI)

Rotation
1. Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA, 204 IP, 166 K)
2. JA Happ (20-4, 3.18 ERA, 195 IP, 163 K)
3. Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48 ERA, 176 IP, 165 K)
4. Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00 ERA, 192 IP, 161 K)
5. Francisco Liriano (8-13, 4.69 ERA, 163 IP, 168 K)

Marcus Stroman will lead the Jays rotation, but he'll need to be better than last year. (AP)

BEST-CASE SCENARIO
The Blue Jays continue getting the starting pitching that helped separate them from the pack in 2016. It would be fair to expect some regression from the starting five, but there should be enough quality depth here to keep things from plummeting completely. As long as this group stays solid, it will take some pressure off of the offense and bullpen and perhaps clear the way for a division championship. (Mark Townsend)

WORST-CASE SCENARIO
Injuries. It sounds obvious, but the Blue Jays can’t afford to lose more than one key player in the lineup or rotation. With good health, this team should be a playoff contender throughout the season. Without it, they’re at risk of being surpassed by the Red Sox and Yankees, and perhaps settling in just above .500. (Townsend)

PRESSING FANTASY QUESTION
Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada finished as top-35 fantasy pitchers last season. Can they all repeat? Can any of ’em repeat?

Let’s begin with the messy data on this trio from last season:
Sanchez – 3.00 ERA, 3.75 xFIP, .267 BABIP
Happ – 3.18 ERA, 4.18 xFIP, .268 BABIP
Estrada – 3.48 ERA, 4.64 xFIP, .234 BABIP

[Elsewhere: Read more pressing fantasy questions about the Blue Jays]

All were good-to-great last year, but it’s not as if they didn’t have luck on their side. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if any/all took a backward step. At the moment, only one of these guys (Sanchez) ranks inside the Yahoo consensus top-35 starters for 2017. Sanchez is a hard-thrower with a sinker from hell itself, and, like teammate Marcus Stroman, he coaxes endless grounders. I’m not betting against him.

Estrada has plenty of strikeout upside (8.4 K/9) and he’s been winning the BABIP lottery for years, so it’s possible he’s discovered some cheat code. Happ is clearly draft-worthy as well, but I’m confident someone in the room (probably Pianowski) will always like him more than I do. And nearly all of Happ’s value in mixed leagues last season was tied to that 20-4 record, which ain’t happenin’ again. I won’t fight you for him. Sanchez and Stroman are the Jays starters I’m eyeing. (Andy Behrens)

BEST FOLLOW
Jose Bautista isn’t afraid to show you himself, even at his weirdest.


He’s been at the World Baseball Classic until just recently, and he’s been having a tremendous amount of fun. Bautista is one of the most popular players in the MLB, and he knows it, so watching him interact on social media can be tremendously entertaining. (Roscher)

BEST REASON TO ATTEND A GAME
If you’re non-local heading to Toronto, then there are a lot of other great things to do that you can combine with a trip to the ballpark. If you’re a hockey fan, you won’t want to miss the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s just an eight-minute bus ride from Rogers Centre, so it’s easy to get between both locations.

If you don’t want the day to be consumed with sports, you can head to the Toronto Zoo. That’s going to require more planning, though, as it will take you roughly an hour to get to the ballpark.

If you want something closer, you can always check out CN Tower. It’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and is just four minutes from the park.

ALSO IN THIS SERIES: San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, New York Mets, Houston Astros, Washington NationalsSan Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs

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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!