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New faces, vets give Blue Jays shot at playoffs

Health, starting pitching key for club to contend for Wild Card
MLB.com @gregorMLB

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- For the first time since 2015, the Blue Jays enter the season as clear underdogs in the American League East and that seems to suit this group just fine.

Toronto's internal expectations are a little higher than most of the external ones. This is a group that contains a lot of the same pieces from the roster that went to the American League Championship Series in consecutive years, and the goal is to get back there again.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- For the first time since 2015, the Blue Jays enter the season as clear underdogs in the American League East and that seems to suit this group just fine.

Toronto's internal expectations are a little higher than most of the external ones. This is a group that contains a lot of the same pieces from the roster that went to the American League Championship Series in consecutive years, and the goal is to get back there again.

That's going to be easier said than done after the Yankees and Red Sox loaded up over the offseason, but with two Wild Card spots in play the Blue Jays could find a path to the postseason even with the two-headed monster ahead of them.

Here's a closer look at the upcoming Blue Jays season:

What's the goal?
The goal for any team that views itself as a contender is to win the division. That's the case here as well, but it will be a daunting challenge after an eventful offseason that saw sluggers such as Giancarlo Stanton and J.D. Martinez join the AL East. There's no guarantee everything will go according to plan for Boston and New York, but even so a more realistic goal for the Blue Jays might be the second Wild Card. The Twins, Angels, Mariners and possibly the Rangers will be in the mix, but there's a pretty significant dropoff in talent after that.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Smoak on last season's success

The Blue Jays intend to remain competitive throughout the year, but ultimately this season will come down to health and the performance of the starting rotation.

What's the plan?
The Blue Jays declined to pursue a marquee free agent this offseason and instead GM Ross Atkins spread his resources throughout the roster. Almost every aspect of this team went through some kind of change. Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson in the outfield. Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz and Gift Ngoepe in the infield. Seung Hwan Oh, John Axford and Tyler Clippard in the bullpen. Jaime Garcia in the rotation. There are a lot of new faces, but it's worth noting none of these players came with a long-term commitment. Atkins clearly is trying to put together a contending team while at the same time maintaining flexibility for the future. It won't be long before Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Anthony Alford and others are ready, and in the meantime the Blue Jays are giving this current core one more chance. If it doesn't work out, expect a busy non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Granderson on his new team

What could go wrong?
The Blue Jays' 2017 season was derailed by injuries, and there's a very real chance it could happen again. Troy Tulowitzki will miss the start of the season because of a bone spur in his right heel. Marcus Stroman was initially questionable for the start of the year because of right shoulder inflammation, but he's been cleared to start the fourth game of the season. Josh Donaldson had a minor shoulder issue this spring as well. Toronto has a lot more depth on the 40-man roster than it did last year, and that should help, but most of the Blue Jays' key players have to stay healthy if this team is going to contend. Donaldson needs to carry the offense. Aaron Sanchez has to avoid the blister issues that have dogged him. There are players who simply cannot be replaced, but by raising the talent floor of this team the Blue Jays have given themselves a chance.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Donaldson on his swing, rumors

Who might surprise?
On the heels of a disappointing 76-win season, there is no shortage of bounceback candidates. Marco Estrada posted a 4.98 ERA a year ago and later discovered he was tipping pitches. He believes that problem has been resolved, and if that's the case Estrada might be in line to post an ERA somewhere closer to the 3.13 and 3.48 marks he posted in 2015-16. Devon Travis remains a key piece of this lineup. There's no questioning the bat, but there is a lot of uncertainty with his health. If Travis can remain on the field, this might be the year he finally breaks out. The other candidate the Blue Jays are banking on is Grichuk. Toronto knows its outfield defense will improve following the departure of Jose Bautista, but this team needs to score more runs. Grichuk hit at least 22 home runs during each of the last two years, but the Blue Jays hope that increased playing time will push that total north of 30.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Travis talks about his health

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

Toronto Blue Jays