Toronto has tools to repeat in AL East, but it will be tough
By Hal Bodley
When the Blue Jays open their season on April 3 against Tampa Bay, they'll have huge X's on their backs. No longer will they be trying to get back to the postseason for the first time since 1993. They're American League East defending champs!
And they'll quickly learn repeating might be a greater challenge than winning the division for the first time.
But as veteran catcher Russell Martin says, the Blue Jays can build on the momentum they established in 2015 and use that experience to their advantage.
With the additions of starter David Price and reliever Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox are already preseason favorites to win the division. And by acquiring flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman for their bullpen, the Yankees are improved.
Losing Price, who as a free agent landed a $217 million contract from Boston, is Toronto's biggest minus.
Price, second in the AL Cy Young Award voting, was 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA with the Blue Jays after being acquired from Detroit.
On the plus side, Toronto retained Marco Estrada (13-8, 3.13 ERA), signing the free agent to a two-year, $26 million deal.
And their offseason deals obtaining pitcher J.A. Happ and last week getting closer Drew Storen from Washington for outfielder Ben Revere are significant. The 28-year-old Storen is a huge plus. He had 29 saves in 34 opportunities for the Nationals over 55 innings.
And aside from the loss of Revere, very instrumental in Toronto's great second-half rampage, MLB's best offense is still intact. All position players return, and pitcher Marcus Stroman, injured during 2015's Spring Training and who missed most of the year, will be a plus.
At the center of the offensive juggernaut is the 2015 AL MVP Award winner, third baseman Josh Donaldson. His 123 RBIs and 122 runs scored led the AL. Donaldson blasted 41 homers and batted .297.
Donaldson, who earned $4.3 million last season, is eligible for salary arbitration this year and can expect a big jump.
The last time the Blue Jays repeated as division champions was during their three-year run of 1991, '92 and '93; they were World Series winners the latter two. Since then, only the Yankees have won back-to-back AL East titles, most recently 2011-12.
In a sense, baseball went quiet in Toronto after Joe Carter's dramatic walk-off homer against the Phillies in Game 6 won the 1993 Series.
That all changed in 2015, and it's important for the enthusiasm and excitement that vibrated throughout Toronto and Rogers Centre to continue.
After former general manager Alex Anthopoulos made Trade Deadline acquisitions last July of Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Revere, the Blue Jays won 14 of 15 games en route to a 21-6 August, during which they outscored their opponents by 87 runs.
"It was really a complete turnaround for us at the Deadline," says manager John Gibbons. "We just caught fire. We took off. No question, but before Alex made those moves, we were basically a .500 team. That really set us off."
Anthopoulos and former team president Paul Beeston are both gone.
Anthopoulos, who resigned after the World Series, this week became the Dodgers' vice president of baseball operations.
The long-respected Beeston retired and has been replaced by former Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro, who spent nine seasons as the team's general manager.
So there will be important changes for the Blue Jays in 2016 not only on the field, but also in the front office.
Martin is optimistic about 2016.
"To me, it was a learning process -- from Spring Training all the way through the end of the season," Martin told reporters last weekend during a visit to Rogers Centre. "Just how we progressed and how we grew as a team from the beginning to the end. That's what impressed me most. We just gelled and we built something pretty nice last year.
"Obviously, we're not going to have all the pieces [this season], but for the most part we have the same core group. A lot of the young guys have more experience now. I'm just looking forward to getting back to Spring Training."
Martin added: "Yes, it's a new season. You start over, but we definitely did build something nice last year. We enjoyed the process, and the guys getting along. That comes with winning."
The Blue Jays lost to eventual World Series winner Kansas City in six games of last October's AL Championship Series. The way they lost Game 6 was distasteful. After rallying, they had a chance to take the lead in the ninth inning, but came up empty.
The Blue Jays, after a storybook victory over the Rangers in the best-of-five AL Division Series, kept coming back in the ALCS, but they fell short in the end, and the way they did it hurt most.
That the Blue Jays were unable to get the tying run in from third base with nobody out in the ninth has obviously haunted them this offseason.
As Toronto roared to the AL East title, its offense outscored opponents 891-670. Yet as Gibbons points out: "Our offense was the key all year, but we struggled a lot in close games, one-run games."
The Blue Jays were 15-28 in one-run games.
The second time around, or repeating, is always more difficult. That will be the test for these Blue Jays.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.