TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' infield will have a different look in 2017, following the departure of Edwin Encarnacion, but this area won't become a weakness for the team because it still has enough strong pieces in place.The loss of Encarnacion will hurt, there's no doubt about that, but there
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' infield will have a different look in 2017, following the departure of Edwin Encarnacion, but this area won't become a weakness for the team because it still has enough strong pieces in place.
The loss of Encarnacion will hurt, there's no doubt about that, but there are a couple of potential All-Stars and a promising -- yet risky -- option at second base ready to step in. Toronto's lineup still features quite a bit of power, and most of it can be found around the bases.
As part of its Around the Horn series, MLB.com is taking a closer look at each aspect of the Blue Jays' roster. Here is how Toronto's infield is shaping up for the 2017 season:
Third baseman Josh Donaldson: Donaldson has been Toronto's top offensive player during each of the past two seasons, and while he'll no longer have the support of Encarnacion, his numbers shouldn't be affected too much. He'll likely drop to No. 3 in the batting order, and the pressure will be on for the former American League Most Valuable Player to carry much of the offensive burden. He's one of the most durable players in the game, after appearing in at least 155 games during each of the past four seasons, and his ability to answer the call every day will be key, because there isn't a lot of depth behind him.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki: Tulowitzki has flown under the radar during his first year and a half with the Blue Jays. That's a byproduct of the big-name bats that have surrounded him in the lineup, as well as the team's overall success, but more will be expected in 2017. The stellar defense at short is a given, but he's earning $20 million next season in large part because of his bat. Tulowitzki posted a .196/.287/.392 slash line during the first six weeks of '16, and if that version shows up again, the Blue Jays could be in trouble. Instead, Toronto desperately needs the type of production Tulowitzki had the rest of the year, when he hit .278/.332/.464.
Second baseman Devon Travis: Tulowitzki might be holding all the cards when it comes to the success of Toronto's infield, but Travis isn't far behind. By now, Travis has proven to be an above-average hitter with the ability to get on base for the heart of the batting order. He's not a typical leadoff man, but since Toronto doesn't have one of those, it's likely he'll have the role again in 2017. The problem is that Travis hasn't found a way to stay healthy. In '15, it was a shoulder injury that ended his season early. This past year, the shoulder forced a delayed start, and his run in the postseason was eventually cut short by a knee issue. He's supposed to be at full strength for Spring Training, but whether he can stay in that condition remains to be seen.
First basemen Justin Smoak/Steve Pearce: First base is where the Blue Jays will experience the biggest dropoff in 2017. Encarnacion became the regular first baseman midway through '16, which opened up the DH spot for Jose Bautista and others, but this year, the plan is to go with a platoon of Smoak and Pearce. This approach has been heavily criticized, due in large part to Smoak's inability to make consistent contact throughout his seven-year career. Pearce will do just fine against righties when healthy, but he's also had a lot of trouble staying on the field, as evidenced by frequent trips to the DL, including three last season alone. Toronto is taking a big risk here.
Catcher Russell Martin: Toronto has a pretty good idea what to expect from Martin in 2017, because he has been doing it for the past 11 years. He's a streaky hitter -- for stretches, he's one of the best sluggers in the game; for lengthy dry periods, he strikes out a lot. In the grand scheme of things, Martin's offensive contributions will be just fine, and he'll provide even more value in his daily work with the pitching staff. The issue here is that the Blue Jays need to find a way to ease his workload. In '16, Martin appeared in 137 games, his highest total since '09, and that trend simply cannot continue. A.J. Jimenez projects to be the backup catcher, but despite being 26 years old, he has yet to make an appearance at the big league level. Jarrod Saltalamacchia could also be a candidate after signing a Minor League deal.
Utility men Darwin Barney/Ryan Goins: Barney recently avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal, and he figures to become Toronto's primary utility infielder. He can play above-average defense at shortstop and second base with some occasional appearances at third base as well. He appeared in 104 games in 2016; that number should be lower in '17, but much will depend on his health.
This is shaping up to be a long year for Goins, who is out of options and cannot be sent to the Minors without clearing waivers. Goins is on the outside looking in, with no clear path to the Major Leagues until somebody gets hurt. If, for some reason, Travis is not ready to begin the year, then Goins would step in to form a platoon with Barney at second. If everyone is healthy at the end of camp, though, Toronto likely would have no choice but to put Goins through waivers and hope he clears to preserve some of its Minor League depth. The good news is that the wire is flooded with players at the end of camp, so there's a decent chance that Goins would clear.
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.