DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays may need much to go right if they are going to contend this year. The health and performance of Aaron Sanchez and Devon Travis are at the top of that list.Toronto enters the season as a pretty big underdog in the American League East.
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays may need much to go right if they are going to contend this year. The health and performance of Aaron Sanchez and Devon Travis are at the top of that list.
Toronto enters the season as a pretty big underdog in the American League East. The Red Sox and Yankees are the division's clear favorites, but the Blue Jays are frequently mentioned alongside the Twins, Angels and a small handful of other teams as postseason contenders.
That's highly unlikely to become a reality without a healthy Sanchez and Travis. MLB.com is taking a look at Players to Watch for all 30 teams in the Major Leagues, and for the Blue Jays, the picks are pretty obvious: an expected ace and a top-of-the-order bat, both absolutely critical to this team's chances in 2018.
"We all think he has a chance to be one of the better ones in baseball for … who knows how long?" Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of Sanchez. "He has that ability. He's still a young kid. ... The sky is the limit."
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The Blue Jays have a lot of reasons to be excited about their star righty. First and foremost, there have been no recent signs of the blister issue that limited the 25-year-old to 10 appearances (eight starts) last season. Sanchez's stuff looks as good as ever, featuring a mid- to upper-90s sinker and a sharp curveball that have improved as the spring has progressed.
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There were signs of rust for Sanchez early in camp, including erratic command in bullpen sessions and his first start. That hasn't been an issue lately, and Sanchez appears to be rounding into form just in time. He won't start the season opener on Thursday, but the expectation is that the 2016 AL ERA leader (3.00) should be in a position to reclaim his spot as one of the top pitchers in the game.
The Blue Jays need Sanchez to be that good if they are going to pull off a run to the postseason. The biggest strength this team has is its starting rotation: Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Jaime Garcia. If the starting five ranks among the AL's best, Toronto should be in a good spot, but that won't happen without Sanchez, who has posted a 3.06 ERA and impressive 16-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 2/3 Grapefruit League innings.
"It's huge for the team and for him personally," Gibbons said of how well Sanchez has pitched this spring. "It answers a lot of questions. He had to be coming into Spring Training, 'OK, I'm going back at it. I had that year.' His finger has been fine. I think personally that answered a lot of questions, because he's a key guy for this organization, and is going to be for a lot of years."
Most of the attention in this Blue Jays lineup will go to Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak, but in order to maximize their value, someone has to get on base in front of them. Travis doesn't walk a whole lot, but he has the ability to hit for a high enough average to offset the drawbacks of his free-swinging approach.
One only has to look back at Travis' performance last May to realize he has the ability to almost single-handedly carry a team. In 26 games that month, Travis came through with 20 extra-base hits and slashed .364/.373/.646 to help lead a brief turnaround for his ballclub.
Toronto scored the fewest runs in the AL last season, and that can't happen again if the club intends to reach the postseason. Donaldson is expected to perform at his typically high level, and the Blue Jays need Smoak to continue last year's success, but the club will require much more production than that. Travis is one guy who might help get it done.
"I just want to play a full season," Travis said. "I want to be there for the guys when it counts. That's my goal. That's the only thing I think of. I don't set goals for myself when it comes to what I do on the field. I believe in all the work you put in. You just have to go out there and give it your all, and the numbers will be what the numbers are. I just want to be there in September and however long after that."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.