It has been a fun two seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays. They ended a 22-year playoff drought in 2015, winning the AL East thanks to a memorable 24-5 stretch in late July and August. They returned to the playoffs in 2016, won a dramatic wild-card game and made the ALCS for the second straight season. Attendance increased by more than one million in just two years. Baseball fans in Toronto haven't been this impassioned since Joe Carter touched 'em all.
It's all ripe to come to a crashing halt in 2017.
The Jays have the potential vulnerabilities characteristic of a team staring at a steep decline. Let's take a look.
1. An aging core of position players
Josh Donaldson will be entering his age-31 season, but at least he's still likely to play at an MVP level. With the loss of Edwin Encarnacion and the probable departure of Jose Bautista, who is Toronto's second-best hitter? Troy Tulowitzki? He's a 32-year-old, injury-prone shortstop who was a league-average hitter with a .318 OBP in 2016. Russell Martin? He's a 34-year-old catcher with a lot of wear and tear coming off a season in which he hit .231 and saw his strikeout rate spike to a career-worst 27.7 percent. Kendrys Morales? He's 34, and though he hit 30 home runs for the Kansas City Royals, he comes with a mediocre OBP and isn't going to replace Encarnacion's production.
Michael Saunders is also a free agent, which means the Blue Jays could run Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera in the outfield corners. That's going to work out about as well as it sounds. Maybe they're holding a space for Bautista, who has been rejected in the free-agent market, but it appears as if the Jays have no interest in continuing that relationship. Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin wrote Tuesday:
With time and the lack of reported interest from other teams in its favour, Rogers has demonstrated no desire to bring Bautista back on board, despite the club's obvious needs at the outfield corners. They found out by accident, after the trade deadline in 2015, that it's very possible to spend money to make money in pro sports. Now Rogers has Bautista right where they want him, but they don't want him.
"I have the same question, Jose has the same question," Jay Alou, Bautista's agent, said from the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. "He, more than anybody, is a little confused on how things have gone. It's clear that he loves the place. He absolutely wants to be there, as opposed to a lot of players that there's hurdles being over there, going to Toronto, going through immigration, the [stadium] turf, all that. Jose really likes it. He likes everything about the city. He loves the fans."
Without Encarnacion, Bautista and Saunders, the Blue Jays will be missing three of their top four on-base guys from 2016. Remember, the offense already dropped 132 runs from 2015, even as more runs were scored across the league. This looks to be one of the worst offenses in the league.
2. Lack of depth on the pitching staff
The obvious strength is the team's starting rotation -- the best in the AL in 2016, thanks to Aaron Sanchez's breakout season and J.A. Happ's 20-win campaign. The Blue Jays lost R.A. Dickey but will have Francisco Liriano to replace him. There are two concerns, however:
(A) This group enjoyed extraordinary health last year, with the top five guys all making at least 29 starts. Manager John Gibbons needed just seven starters, with Drew Hutchison making two spot starts and Liriano coming in a trade. Because it's unlikely the team can go through another season with just five starters, the Jays will need more depth, and that's where there's a problem. The team's website lists reliever Joe Biagini as the sixth starter. Mike Bolsinger, who allowed seven home runs in 27 2/3 innings with the Los Angeles Dodgers, appears to be the next option, at least of those on the 40-man roster. The Jays haven't traded a starter for positional help in part because they don't have any good options to plug in.
(B) The regression beast. Happ, in particular, is likely to see his numbers decline. I love Sanchez's power sinker, but he has to prove he's durable enough to pitch that well again after a career high in innings. Yes, maybe Marcus Stroman makes up some of the difference and Marco Estrada has turned into a legitimate BABIP-beater. Still, FanGraphs projects the Toronto rotation to be worth 13.0 WAR after compiling 15.3 WAR in 2016. And that's assuming relatively good health.
Then there's the bullpen, down Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit, the top-two setup guys down the stretch last year. Jason Grilli projects as one of the primary setup guys, and he just turned 40. Also, don't forget that closer Roberto Osuna, who had injuries throughout his minor league career, battled shoulder fatigue in the postseason.
3. Ownership that doesn't appear fully committed to winning
The Blue Jays essentially play in a market of 35 million -- the population of Canada. They're coming off a season in which they led the AL in attendance. Yet Rogers Communications seems disinclined to match 2016's $182 million payroll. Toronto's current estimated payroll of $141 million sits more than $50 million below that of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. When Encarnacion turned down a four-year, $80 million offer, it seemed the Jays would spread that money around. Instead, it has been used on Morales and Steve Pearce.
Team president Mark Shapiro ran a low-budget operation in Cleveland, and while he has more payroll to spend here, his directives might be bigger profits over more wins. When hired near the end of the 2015 regular season, he reportedly scolded then-GM Alex Anthopoulos for trading away prospects in the David Price and Tulowitzki deals (Shapiro denied the reports), a philosophy that Cleveland had to follow, but the Jays should have more flexibility. They do need to rebuild their system; Dalton Pompey's bat has stalled in the upper minors, and other top prospects are a couple years away. The lack of major league-ready talent is another reason to bet against the Jays in 2017.
No, the offseason isn't over, but this looks like a .500 club. The Encarnacion/Bautista era had its moments, but it appears that the window closed when Ryan Merritt and the Tribe shut the Blue Jays down in Game 5 of the 2016 ALCS.