Familiar rotation a key as Blue Jays try to rebound
By NOAH TRISTER
DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) It will be tough for anyone to outslug the Yankees in the AL East - so Toronto's starting rotation is under pressure to return to form.
After reaching the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Blue Jays stumbled to a 76-win season in 2017. An injury-plagued offense finished last in the American League in runs, and now Toronto has to contend with an even more potent New York lineup that includes NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton.
The Yankees pose quite a challenge for the Blue Jays as they attempt to rebound, but Toronto has a group of experienced pitchers who may be up to the task.
"Good pitching trumps good hitting, right? So we're hoping we're on every day and we trump lineups like that," right-hander Marco Estrada said. "We've done it before. We've shown that we can."
It wasn't long ago that the Blue Jays were the team overwhelming opponents with their bats. Toronto led the major leagues in runs on the way to a division title in 2015.
The following season, the Blue Jays topped the AL in ERA behind Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman. They've kept that quartet together, but the results were much more mixed in 2017. Sanchez, who won the league's ERA title in 2016, was limited to eight starts by blister problems last year. Stroman flourished and Happ remained solid, but Estrada's ERA ballooned to 4.98.
The Blue Jays signed left-hander Jaime Garcia this week to round out the rotation, but it's the performance of the holdovers that could make or break Toronto's season.
"You look at our rotation now, it's basically what 2016 was, and we were one of the best rotations," Estrada said. "If we all stay healthy and I guess do what we're supposed to do, I like our chances."
Sanchez threw a bullpen session Saturday, and the Blue Jays are hopeful they can get a full season from the right-hander who went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 2016.
"He looks good. Second day he's thrown - looks really good, feels good," manager John Gibbons said. "No signs at all of the blister, which is our No. 1 concern right now. For a guy who really basically missed a whole year - actually, he looks pretty sharp to me."
Happ had an elbow injury last year but still made 25 starts, going 10-11 with a 3.53 ERA. He went 20-4 the previous season.
Although Sanchez's absence hurt the rotation, the offense was where injuries really derailed Toronto last year. Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki played only 179 games between them. Russell Martin was limited to 91, and Devon Travis played only 50.
Jose Bautista played almost every game but hit just .203. He's no longer with the team. The Blue Jays clearly have an offense with some upside still - but it's anyone's guess how well they'll hit in 2018.
A rotation with plenty of familiar faces could be the stabilizing force Toronto needs to compete in this challenging division.
"New York's certainly getting a lot of buzz and they should. They got a great squad. Of course Boston has everything plus more, and they won the division last year," Happ said. "This division's always been tough, but that's OK with us. We've been on both sides of it where, not expecting a lot and expecting a lot. We're going to approach it the same way."
NOTES: The 34-year-old Estrada signed a one-year, $13 million deal last September to stay with the Blue Jays. That may have been a good move, considering how slow the free agent market has been this offseason. "Seeing what has happened, it's unfortunate," Estrada said. "I'm blessed and happy that I was able to take care of that stuff early so I had none of those headaches and none of the stress about wondering where I was going to end up."
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Updated February 17, 2018