Toronto Blue Jays
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The Toronto Blue Jays ended a long absence from the postseason fray in the past two seasons but suffered disappointing exits in each, falling in the American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians.
The October runs marked the first postseason appearances for the Blue Jays since 1993, when they won the second of two consecutive World Series championships.
Now, merely making the postseason and reaching the ALCS is not good enough. The club talks about taking it one step farther to the World Series.
"We feel good," manager John Gibbons said. "It's a little bit different look and a few new faces, but we feel confident. Our goal is to get one step further, to get to that World Series."
They will have to do it without Edwin Encarnacion and the 42 homers and the 127 RBIs he provided last season before being allowed to escape as a free agent to the Cleveland Indians.
The only thing that can save management from this mishandled negotiation is if designated hitter Kendrys Morales, a rather quick signing by Toronto when Encarnacion was still available, has a monster season.
The Blue Jays were an offensive juggernaut in 2015. Last season, the hitting faltered at times, particularly early, and the starting pitching became the strength. J.A. Happ finished with a 20-4 record while Aaron Sanchez led the American League with a 3.00 ERA to go along with a 15-2 record.
"It's been exciting around here the last couple of years," Gibbons said. "It's changed everything in the organization and the outlook on us. We've always had expectations, but they weren't always realistic, probably. In this game, you figure that out the longer you are in it. But we think we're one of the better squads out there."
Right-hander Marco Estrada will get the start on Opening Day in Baltimore against the Orioles, followed by Happ and Marcus Stroman, who was the World Baseball Classic MVP. Francisco Liriano, who has had a brilliant spring will slot fourth, while Sanchez occupies the No. 5 slot.
Closing will be Roberto Osuna, who has 56 career saves despite just having turned 22.
There is reason for optimism.
If the hitting can overcome the loss of Encarnacion and the pitching carries on from last season, then the Blue Jays have a chance in the American League East against the Boston Red Sox, who appear improved over the team that won the division in 2016.
After winning the division with a late-season surge in 2015, the Blue Jays needed extra innings to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the wild-card game in 2016.
Encarnacion may be gone, but Jose Bautista returned after a season in which he was hampered by injuries. A stiff back forced him to miss the final game of the WBC, but Bautista has been able to return to action since coming back to camp and is impressing his manager.
"I've never seen him look better," Gibbons said. "He shows up ready to go. He's capable of a monster year like he's really had in his time in Toronto. I expect him to have a big year; but, more importantly, he expects to have a big year."
Another good sign is that second baseman Devon Travis has overcome offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and expects to be ready to lead off on Opening Day.
He could be on the verge of a breakout season after batting .301/.342/.469 with 19 homers and 85 RBIs in 163 games over two injury-interrupted seasons since being acquired in a trade with the Detroit Tigers.
There is a big question in left field, where the team would like Steve Pearce to play much of the time. Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera are among the other possibilities for playing time in that spot. Justin Smoak has not had a strong spring training hitting, and his struggles could mean Pearce getting more playing time at first base.
If the Blue Jays are in contention as the season progresses, do not be surprised if they are buyers before the trade deadline. Just reaching the postseason is not good enough anymore.