Toronto Blue Jays 2018 season preview: All eyes on an AL Wild Card spot

Toronto Blue Jays 2018 season preview: All eyes on an AL Wild Card spot

Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays saw their streak of back-to-back playoff appearances and three straight winning seasons come to an end. In 2018, they’ll be looking to rebound despite the fact that they share a division with the souped-up Yankees and Red Sox (they’ll play those two teams a combined 38 times), the latter of whom has won the last two AL East titles. 

Now let’s have a closer look at the 2018 Blue Jays … 

The vitals

  • 2017 record: 76-86, 4th place in AL East (minus-91 run differential)
  • 2018 Depth Chart: Click here
  • 2018 Schedule: Click here
  • 2018 Fantasy outlook: Click here

Probable lineup

  1. Curtis Granderson, LF
  2. Devon Travis, 2B
  3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
  4. Justin Smoak, 1B
  5. Russell Martin, C
  6. Kendrys Morales, DH
  7. Randal Grichuk, RF
  8. Kevin Pillar, CF
  9. Aledmys Diaz, SS

Probable bench: Teoscar Hernandez, OF; Luke Maile, C; Steve Pearce, INF/OF; Yangervis Solarte, INF

Troy Tulowitzki will of course be the Jays’ starting shortstop when healthy, but he won’t be ready for Opening Day because of bone spurs in his right heel. Once Tulowitzki returns, he’ll likely force Diaz to the bench and take Hernandez’s spot on the active roster (even with Tulowitzki out, Hernandez is not a lock to make the Opening Day 25-man). 

Probable rotation

  1. Marcus Stroman, RHP
  2. J.A. Happ, LHP
  3. Marco Estrada, RHP
  4. Aaron Sanchez, RHP
  5. Jaime Garcia, LHP

Stroman is the staff ace, but he’s sidelined with shoulder inflammation and won’t be on the Opening Day active roster. Right now, though, it appears Stroman will still be able to take his first turn, just not in the season opener. 

Probable bullpen

Closer: Roberto Osuna, RHP
Setup: Ryan Tepera, RHP; Seung hwan Oh, RHP
Middle relief: Danny Barnes, RHP; Aaron Loup, LHP; John Axford, RHP; Tyler Clippard, RHP
Long relief: Luis Santos, RHP

And a rotation shall lead them

Just by eyeballing the names above, you can probably tell the Blue Jays potentially have a strong rotation in place for 2018. Last season, Toronto ranked a respectable seventh in the 15-team AL in rotation ERA and rotation WAR, and that was despite getting just eight starts from Aaron Sanchez, who was limited by serious blister problems. (Thus far, Sanchez has been blister-free in camp.) The addition of Jaime Garcia, provided he’s healthy, should stabilize the fifth spot in the rotation. 

Speaking of all that, let’s have a look at what the CBS Sports fantasy projections say about the Jays’ rotation in 2018 … 


Projected 2018 innings

Projected 2018 ERA

Marcus Stroman



J.A. Happ

183 2/3


Marco Estrada

169 2/3


Aaron Sanchez

160 1/3


Jaime Garcia

142 2/3


If you’re a Jays fan, then this is encouraging stuff. For context, the average ERA for an AL starting pitcher last season was 4.54, and every Jays starter is projected to best that mark by a wide margin. Once you consider that Rogers Centre plays as a hitter’s park, those projected numbers become even better. In all, they’re pretty much in line with those pitchers’ established levels of ability. 

The key, of course, will be health. There’s a big drop-off from those five names to the other in-house options for the rotation. Last season, the Jays gave 53 starts to guys outside their top four. Garcia will eat up some of those in 2018, which is of course by design. Overall, though, Toronto’s fortunes in 2018 will in large part hinge on how healthy these five starters are. If they’re generally able to answer the bell, then you’re probably looking at one of the best rotations in the AL. 

Improved infield depth

Injuries in 2017 hit the Toronto infield pretty hard. Troy Tulowitzki was limited to just 66 games because of hamstring, groin, and ankle problems. Devon Travis continued to be beset by injuries, as he played in just 50 games thanks to a bone bruise in his right knee. On top of all that, MVP candidate Josh Donaldson was laid up for roughly a month and a half with a calf injury. 

Donaldson raked upon his late-May return to the lineup, but the Jays struggled to get adequate production from the middle infield all season. Consider … 

  • Toronto shortstops in 2017 — Ryan Goins had the most PAs at the position — combined to hit just .240/.287/.368.
  • Toronto second basemen in 2017 — Darwin Barney had the most PAs at the position — combined to hit just .241/.291/.367.

Those bestowals are both very similar and very terrible. By trading for Aledmys Diaz and signing Yangervis Solarte this offseason, the Jays are hoping their fallback options are much better should injuries strike Tulowitzki and Travis yet again (history suggests that’s a strong possibility). Diaz and Solarte aren’t stars, but they should help the Jays avoid such awful production from their respective positions should they be pressed into regular duty. As well, the Rule 5 addition of Ivan Castillo and the trade for Gift Ngoepe give the Jays another layer of options should it come to that. Solarte in particular (career OPS+ of 105) figures to be an excellent depth piece. 

That depth plus the hope for a full season from Donaldson should move the needle for the Toronto infield. 

A questionable lineup

Toronto last season ranked last in the AL in runs scored and 14th in OPS even though they played their home games in, as noted, a good park for hitters. Donaldson still figures to have an MVP performance ceiling, and Justin Smoak’s breakout looks mostly repeatable, at least in the near-term. Elsewhere, though, concerns abound. Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin, and Kendrys Morales are all in their mid-thirties. Randal Grichuk brings with him to Toronto a career OBP of .297. For reasons noted above, better production from the infield is a reasonable expectation, but even with that this figures to be a bottom-tier offense in the AL. So, to repeat, that rotation really needs to be healthy.  

Donaldson’s uncertain future

Donaldson, as he proved after his return from injury last season, is still one of the best players in baseball when healthy. He’s also going into his walk year. Trade rumors swirled about him this offseason, but the Jays rightly want to see if they can contend in 2018. If things go poorly from the start, then you might see Donaldson shopped leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline. Otherwise, the Jays will hang onto him in the hopes that they can snare a playoff berth. If recent reports are any guide, then a contract extension seems less and less likely. In other words, the 2018 season looks like it’s going to be Donaldson’s last in Toronto. Soon enough, the Jays will begin building around top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Anthony Alford, and those plans may not include their franchise third baseman. 

The good news? Our friends at SportsLine right now project the Blue Jays for 84 wins and a spot in the AL Wild Card Game. Given that they share a division with the mighty Red Sox and Yankees, that’s an impressive potential outcome. As repeated possibly to the point of annoyance, a mostly healthy rotation will be key to getting to the mid- to high-80s in wins and being in the playoff mix. Right now, the Jays look like the best third-place team in baseball, and in the era of expanded playoffs that means you’re at least a fringe contender. 

Anthony Alford out 3-6 weeks

Anthony Alford out 3-6 weeks

Anthony Alford was having a very good start to his spring. Unfortunately that has come to an end, the team announced that he has a grade 2 hamstring strain and will be out 4-6 weeks. From what I read on the internet, there are 3 grades, 1 is mild and 3 is very severe and could mean surgery.

Alford was hitting .323/.313/.645 with 1 homer, 2 triples and 3 doubles (and yes 4 singles) this spring and was getting praise from his manager.

It was very unlikely that he was going to make the team, Teoscar Hernandez is also having a great spring and was the more likely choice if the team needs someone to fill in if Pearce, Granderson, Pillar or Grichuk were to miss the start of the season.

Heal up quick Anthony. I really would like to see you in Toronto this season.

Also on the injury front, Justin Smoak has a minor wrist spring. He is day-to-day but is expected to play tomorrow.

Others out at the moment:

Pillar feels urgency for Blue Jays to produce early after slow start to 2017

Pillar feels urgency for Blue Jays to produce early after slow start to 2017

FORT MYERS, Fla. —  With a long winter to digest the nightmare of 2017, Kevin Pillar now feels there is a need to atone.

He is talking about it while looking at the baby green monster out in left field at Jetblue Park, a vivid enough reminder that the Boston Red Sox are a 19-time opponent once again.

And as he speaks, it’s not lost on the Blue Jays centre fielder that opening day 2018 is precisely two weeks away.

Dismissed by so many thanks to the off-season additions by both the Red Sox and Yankees, Pillar believes the Jays have something to prove. He is also convinced that another playoff push is not out of the question.

“I would say there’s a little more sense of urgency, especially knowing the type of start we got off to last year,” Pillar said on Thursday prior to the Jays 7-5 loss to starter David Price and the Sox. “We’re not going to go into opening day thinking it’s make it or break it, its not the World Series, but we also understand how difficult it was to get out of a pretty significant hole we put ourselves in at the beginning of the year.”

Damned near impossible, as it turned out after an 8-17 April start turned into a season that never even reached the .500 mark, let alone had the Jays in playoff contention.

“I think it was humbling a little for us,” Pillar said. “We were the team to beat in the division after having back-to-back ALCS appearances but with that every team in our division’s gotten better,too.  So, yeah, we understand the importance of getting off to a good start.”

There’s another matter at hand as well. Players are not blind to the machinations of a front office that is clearly headed towards a younger look.

Jose Bautista is gone a year after Edwin Encarnacion and even though a bulk of the core remains in place, it won’t be for long. The current Jays are not immune to the talk about Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette and the rest of the young guns, and they believe there is enough talent for another run while the gang’s all here.

“We’re understanding where certain guys on our roster stand in terms of reaching free agency next year and understanding that our window of opportunity is right now to win some games and get where we want to,” Pillar said. “I definitely feel that we have a little more sense of urgency and a bit better understanding of how important it is to get off to a good start.”

Like many of his teammates suffering through last season’s abomination, Pillar kept a brave face until late summer, gamely believing that the Jays were one extended run from getting in contention.

Unfortunately, the injuries came more regularly than the rallies and it never materialized.

“We couldn’t help that the injury bug got us last year,” Pillar said. “It was a lot for us to overcome. I think we used 14 different starting pitchers and it seemed like we had a rotating door at some positions.

“We know we’re better than that. Hopefully, some of the things that we went through last year from a team standpoint, having so many guys come up and play in the big leagues, will help us this year.”

Pillar did his part in the off-season, shedding 15 pounds (to get to a fighting weight of 200), a leaner look that he hopes will result in a more athletic approach at the plate.

“He looks like he used to look,” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “Last year he was a little bulked up. That works for some guys but it can slow you down a bit. I think he looks great.

“That’s something he felt he needed to do in the off-season and he did it. He’s swinging the bat well.”

He is indeed. Prior to an 0-for-4 outing on Thursday, Pillar was hitting a heady .520, with 13 hits in 25 at bats.

“I think losing some of the weight has allowed my body to get in some positions that some of the more elite hitters have been able to get to a little bit easier,” Pillar said.  “And in return it’s allowing me to be a little more consistent thus far in spring training.

“I was a little naive in the sense that I thought if I got bigger and stronger I would hit the ball further. I feel a little lighter on my feet and I feel like over the course of being around so many elite hitters, I’ve started to understand a little more about the mechanics of the swing.”


Kevin Pillar believes he can be an elite hitter in the Major Leagues and he certainly showed flashes of it last season.

The key, however, is sticking to that belief with a consistent approach at the plate.

“For me, it’s about going out there and being consistent and put together consistency through the six months and 600 at-bats during the season,” Pillar said on Thursday. “I’m really going to try to avoid a couple of bad months.”

To do that, Pillar says the challenge is mostly mental. When things went off the rails for him last season, he not only pressed but tried to make changes.

“When I got off to a good start then I started to struggle and obviously with struggles you feel like you need to make changes,” Pillar said. “And sometimes you don’t need to, it’s just baseball happening. In this game you can do a lot of things right at the dish and mentally feel like you are in a slump because you’re not getting the results.

“I’m older and smarter and have solidified myself more in my position with this team that I need to do a better job of riding the waves and the tough times.”

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Blue Jays' Aaron Sanchez: Enjoying healthy spring

Blue Jays' Aaron Sanchez: Enjoying healthy spring

Sanchez has given up five earned runs on 13 hits and two walks while striking out 12 batters over 11.1 innings in Grapefruit League play.

More important than Sanchez’s results this spring is the fact that the right-hander has escaped his four outings without a recurrence of the blisters on his right middle finger that derailed his 2017 campaign. According to Jon Paul Morosi of MLB Network, Sanchez said that he has been able to put more focus this spring on developing his changeup, a pitch he has largely neglected since joining the Blue Jays because the organization had ushered him into the big leagues as a reliever. With Sanchez believing the blister issues are behind him and excited about incorporating more off-speed stuff into his repertoire during the upcoming season, he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to return to the form he displayed in 2016, when his 3.00 ERA led all qualified American League starters.

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Drop-off between Tulowitzki and Diaz negligible for Blue Jays

Drop-off between Tulowitzki and Diaz negligible for Blue Jays

View photos

Troy Tulowitzki has reached the point where he’s not a significant upgrade over his backup. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

When the news broke Tuesday that Troy Tulowitzki wouldn’t be ready to open the season it invited a great degree of eye rolling and “here we go again” sentiment in Blue Jays land.

There is definitely a “same old, same old” aspect to this as Tulowitzki has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and especially in 2017. However, there’s also a new element that makes the Blue Jays’ current predicament completely different: Aledmys Diaz.

In previous years, when the club lost Tulowitzki that meant enduring an extended period of Ryan Goins or Darwin Barney. Now they can turn to Diaz, who is well-equipped to handle the shortstop position for as long as required and might not be a downgrade from Tulowitzki at this point.

Diaz had a very poor 2017, but taking the average between his two big-league seasons, he’s been almost precisely as valuable as Tulowitzki over the same time period:

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Source: FanGraphs

While Tulowitzki has hit more home runs, Diaz’s total power output has been better thanks to 14 more doubles and three triples. Across the board, he’s been significantly better offensively, hitting in a more difficult park in St. Louis. Even last season, when Diaz’s bat went cold enough that he was sent to the minors, his wRC+ of 78 matched Tulowitzki’s.

On the defensive side of the ball, Diaz is no one’s idea of a Gold Glove candidate, and while Tulowitzki isn’t either at 33, the veteran is still the steadier presence. It’s easy to imagine Diaz drawing the ire of Blue Jays fans with one too many defensive miscues, but he has so much more to offer offensively than a Goins or Barney that his value is incomparable to theirs.

The early-season absence of Tulowitzki will be noticeable because Diaz plays a very different style to the former all-star — and lacks his name recognition value — but there’s a very good chance he has just as much to contribute at this point. Projection systems like ZiPS and Steamer tend to prefer Tulowitzki’s bat on account of his extended track record of success, but it’s worth asking how relevant that is today given how many injuries he’s suffered since he was a middle-of-the-lineup hitter.

No one is expecting Diaz to be a star, but the reality is that right now he might be as good as the man he’s replacing. That is a bit of an indictment of where Tulowitzki is at in his career, but it also speaks to the offensive potential of his understudy.

When Opening Day rolls around the fact the Blue Jays will be missing their starting shortstop certainly qualifies as disappointment, but it doesn’t figure to significantly hamper their chances in 2018. A 33-year-old Troy Tulowitzki is unlikely to be a huge difference-maker this season even if healthy, and his club has a more-than-competent replacement on hand.

Tulowitzki’s health in the year to come will have a bigger impact on his career path and what the Blue Jays do about his contract from here on out. Those are certainly important issues, but when it comes to 2018 wins and losses, the Blue Jays’ position hasn’t meaningfully shifted.

More MLB coverage from Yahoo Sports:

Lugnuts, Blue Jays Extend PDC

Lugnuts, Blue Jays Extend PDC

Lansing LugnutsThe Lansing Lugnuts (Low A; Midwest League) and the Toronto Blue Jays extended their player-development contract (PDC) through the 2020 season.

“We feel strongly about continuing our partnership with the Lansing Lugnuts,” said Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim. “The renovated Cooley Law School Stadium presents one of the top facilities and playing surfaces in Minor League Baseball. When our players arrive in Lansing, they are welcomed by the Lugnuts organization and the city of Lansing, and begin playing in front of a passionate fan base. These are all valuable development experiences as they continue to get better every day and progress to Toronto.”

“Our relationship with the Blue Jays has brought us over 900 wins, over 60 future Major Leaguers, three Midwest League Most Valuable Players and countless inspiring memories for our fans,” said Lugnuts President Nick Grueser. “We’re excited to continue our affiliation with Toronto and look forward to many more successful seasons ahead.”

The Blue Jays sent some pretty high-profile prospects through Lansing in recent years, including Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette.

You can read more about the current state of affiliations on our Affiliate Dance page. We expect a number of affiliations to be renewed in coming weeks, but there are always intriguing openings at every level of baseball. As you can see on the Affiliate Dance page, MLB and MiLB teams can renew their existing affiliations at any point. At the end of the 2018 season, teams can file to search new affiliation options, so there’s always a shuffle of sorts at the end of the year.

About Kevin Reichard

Kevin Reichard is founder and publisher of Ballpark Digest.