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Stuck in the middle? Blue Jays plan to battle Yankees and Red Sox at the top

While Josh Donaldson's name continues to come up in trade rumors this offseason, Toronto's front office has other plans for the star third baseman. Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees' stunning acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton was bound to have ripple effects beyond Miami, where fans are in an uproar, and the Bronx, where batting practice will be must-see viewing in 2018.

In Boston, the Stanton acquisition has increased the pressure on general manager Dave Dombrowski to do something significant to keep pace. The Red Sox ranked last in the American League with 168 homers in 2017, and the Mitch Moreland signing didn't quite cut it as a pulse-quickening countermove. As long as J.D. Martinez is available, he will be prominent on the Red Sox front office's radar.

In Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the specter of a New York-Boston smackdown in 2018 has prompted the Rays and Orioles to take stock. The Rays made a statement when they traded Evan Longoria, the franchise leader in home runs, RBIs, WAR, games played, total bases and numerous other categories, to San Francisco in the name of long-term sustainability. The Orioles, who have always been hesitant to retrench under Peter Angelos' ownership regime, gave indications they're at least contemplating the idea when they entertained trade offers for free-agent-in-waiting Manny Machado.

Toronto has an impact third-base trade chip of its own in Josh Donaldson, who is held in particularly high esteem by the Cardinals. But the Jays have made it clear they have no plans to trade Donaldson, a three-time All-Star with an MVP award and two Silver Sluggers on his resume since arriving from Oakland in 2015. If the Jays decide to move him, it will be a radical departure from what they've been telling the media and potential suitors for months.

"It seems like it was one rumor that came out at the trade deadline, and people have continued to build off that rumor,'' general manager Ross Atkins told ESPN.com. "We're trying to win, and I can't imagine our team being better without Josh Donaldson.''

Amid the daily updates and speculation, the Blue Jays exist in that netherworld between good enough to dream and perpetually outgunned. They're a big-market club with ample resources under the auspices of Rogers Communications, and they feel an obligation to put a competitive product on the field in recognition of the 3.2 million fans who came out to see the team in 2017. Only the Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants and Yankees drew more.

The on-field storyline wasn't quite as upbeat. The Blue Jays won 76 games while dealing with some devastating injuries in 2017, and it's hard to envision them as anything more than a wild-card contender next season. They're the middle child in an AL East family with two bullies at the top, trying to carve out an identity and assert themselves.

"We're trying to win, and I can't imagine our team being better without Josh Donaldson."

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins

At least, that's the general perception. "It doesn't feel like the middle to me,'' Atkins said. "The Yankees and Red Sox are going to be very good, and I would agree there's probably more to come potentially for both teams. But we're excited about trying to overcome the challenges. That's why we sign up for these jobs. There are a lot of good stories in baseball, and we're hoping to be one of those better stories.''

Rogers' chief financial officer, Tony Staffieri recently caused a stir when he said the company is considering selling the Blue Jays to free up capital for other investments. When the Marlins can fetch a price of $1.2 billion, with all their issues, the people running other MLB franchises are bound to take notice. But the sale rumors are in their infancy, and Atkins says they're having zero impact on the team's offseason plans.

To this point, the Jays have had an uneventful offseason. They re-signed starter Marco Estrada to a one-year extension in September, traded for St. Louis infielder Aledmys Diaz three weeks ago and continue to search for outfield upgrades. The Jays' list of potential targets ranges from Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez in free agency to Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton and Adam Duvall in a trade.

As the offseason continues to unfold, Toronto is looking at a roster with some attractive pieces and a bunch of "buts'' and "what-ifs.''

Aaron Sanchez has the stuff to team with Marcus Stroman and give Toronto a dynamic top-of-the-rotation tandem. But Sanchez was limited to eight starts and 36 innings last season because of injuries. Now, it's prove-it time.

• First baseman Justin Smoak busted out with a career-high 38 home runs, a .529 slugging percentage and his first All-Star appearance at age 30. Was it a sign of things to come or a juiced-ball-aided aberration?

Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are the type of high-character veteran players who make a team and a clubhouse better. But Tulowitzki hit .249 with a .678 OPS in 66 games last season, and Martin is 35 years old with 1,448 games behind the plate -- 38th on MLB's career list. He has reached the stage where the beating takes a toll on even the most athletic and well-conditioned catchers.

• While Toronto's farm system has improved and is on the cusp of top-10 status, the organization's two best prospects, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, both would benefit from at least another full season in the minors. Bichette turns 20 on March 5, and Guerrero will celebrate his 20th birthday 11 days later.

Although it's admirable for the Jays to refrain from tanking, as some other clubs are wont to do, franchise history shows that the line between staying the course and muddling along can easily blur. During a 21-year postseason-free stretch leading up to their 2015 AL East title, the Jays won 1,634 games and lost 1,702 for a .490 winning percentage. That's a long walk in the wilderness of mediocrity, interspersed with endless video reminders of Joe Carter's Game 6 World Series home run on the outfield scoreboard at Rogers Centre.

If Sanchez can log 180-200 innings, Donaldson has a monster free-agent walk year, Tulowitzki and Martin stay on the field, Smoak pounds out 30-plus homers again, the bullpen holds up and the Jays can add an outfield bat and more infield depth between now and the start of spring training, they have a chance to craft an AL feel-good story of 2018.

And if those best-case scenarios don't come to pass? The Jays might look back a year from now and realize their quest to hang with the AL East juggernauts -- rather than take a step back and reload -- was simply a case of delaying the inevitable.