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Blue Jays face questions entering 2018

Toronto up against tough competition in stacked AL East
MLB.com @gregorMLB

TORONTO -- There has been a shift of power in the American League East, and for the first time in three years, the Blue Jays will enter the upcoming season as clear underdogs in the division.

New York has become the early favorite after acquiring 2017 National League Most Valuable Player Award winner Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins. The pairing of Stanton with Aaron Judge will give opposing pitchers nightmares, and there seems to be little doubt that Boston -- the reigning division winner -- will respond in the weeks ahead.

TORONTO -- There has been a shift of power in the American League East, and for the first time in three years, the Blue Jays will enter the upcoming season as clear underdogs in the division.

New York has become the early favorite after acquiring 2017 National League Most Valuable Player Award winner Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins. The pairing of Stanton with Aaron Judge will give opposing pitchers nightmares, and there seems to be little doubt that Boston -- the reigning division winner -- will respond in the weeks ahead.

The question for Blue Jays fans is this: How will their team keep up with the heavyweights of the division after an eventful offseason? It's a question that was frequently asked throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, and it's being asked again now. Toronto's margin for error is razor-thin, but for the optimists, there are still reasons to believe.

Here's a closer look at the top five pressing questions facing the Blue Jays as they enter 2018:

Will Aaron Sanchez overcome his blister problems and re-establish himself as a bona fide front-of-the-rotation starter?
Simply put, the Blue Jays need a full season from Sanchez to have any chance of contending. Sanchez has Cy Young Award talent, and if he finds a way to approach 200 innings, then the Blue Jays realistically can pin their hopes on a starting rotation that also includes Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada. If he doesn't, then Toronto could be in trouble. Blister issues limited Sanchez throughout 2017, and while rest has cured the problem for now, it's impossible to know whether it will resurface. Sanchez is the ace that every contending team craves, but it's his ability to manage the blisters in '18 that very well could make or break this team.

Video: Atkins discusses Sanchez's blister issues

What should Toronto expect from Devon Travis, and where will he play?
If Travis gets through Spring Training healthy, he's going to receive everyday at-bats -- but at what position remains to seen. Travis could return to second base, but he also might transition to left field. It all depends on what moves the Blue Jays make before the start of the year. Regardless of where he plays, Travis is crucial to this lineup's success, and with a .292/.331/.462 career slash line, he's the favorite to bat leadoff. One doesn't have to look any farther back than May -- when Travis hit 16 doubles with a 1.019 OPS -- for evidence of how this guy can single-handedly carry a team. The problem is Travis has never played more than 101 games in a season, and until he does, there will be plenty of skeptics.

Video: TEX@TOR: Travis ties franchise record for May doubles

Will this be Josh Donaldson's final season in Toronto?
Edwin Encarnacion left last offseason, Jose Bautista is a free agent -- is Donaldson next? That's the question fans will be asking on a daily basis until Donaldson's situation is resolved one way or the other. The three-time All-Star has expressed a willingness to discuss a contract extension, but it won't be cheap, and there have yet to be any indications that serious negotiations are underway. The Blue Jays have resisted any trade inquiries, but that likely will change if the club gets off to a disappointing start in 2018. Donaldson will have a lot of motivation in his walk year, and another MVP-caliber season should result in a massive payday next offseason.

Do the Blue Jays have enough depth to combat an aging roster?
Toronto faced a similar question entering 2017, and the answer was "no." When Sanchez, Happ, Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Travis hit the disabled list, there were no viable candidates to fill the void. Some additional depth needs to be added, but the Blue Jays are in a much better position than they were at this time last year. Aledmys Diaz and Gift Ngoepe provide protection up the middle, and a Minor League system that is one year older adds another layer of insurance. Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, Ryan Borucki, Thomas Pannone, Conner Greene, Danny Jansen, Richard Urena and Rowdy Tellez are among the prospects who could become factors at some point in 2018. Toronto didn't have that luxury a year ago.

Which version of Justin Smoak will show up?
Smoak is coming off a breakout season that saw him post career highs in home runs (38), RBIs (90), games played (158), average (.270) and OPS (.883). But the problem is that almost all of that production came during the first four months. From Aug. 1 until the end of the year, Smoak hit just .213 with eight home runs, 19 RBIs and a .717 OPS, and he could not rediscover his first-half form. The Blue Jays attributed the late-season issues to fatigue and Smoak playing through injuries. If that's true, then he should once again be considered a middle-of-the-order threat. But if it's not, Toronto will be down another big bat, one it can't afford to lose.

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

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