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The Globe and Mail

Blue Jays GM Atkins sees team succeeding if season works to perfection

Ross Atkins, General Manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, begins his second season in his role.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In a perfect world, the Toronto Blue Jays would still be showcasing Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Major League Baseball's most prolific power hitting duo the past seven years, in their lineup.

Dexter Fowler, who helped the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years in November, would be playing left field instead of Ezequiel Carrera or Melvin Upton Jr.

Brett Cecil and his valuable left arm would still be a key component of the Blue Jays relief core.

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But during an off-season where the Blue Jays absorbed more of their fair share of curveballs, Encarnacion flew the coop to the Cleveland Indians as a free agent in a rather sloppy divorce from his old team.

And Fowler, a free agent whom the Blue Jays coveted as their leadoff hitter for the coming season, opted to sign instead with the St. Louis Cardinals, as did Cecil.

Spring training in preparation for the 2017 MLB season begins here this week, with the first official workout for pitchers and catchers slated for Wednesday. The first full team workout is on Saturday.

Ross Atkins, beginning his second season as the Blue Jays general manager, had to move quickly to Plan B to try and plug some of the holes.

And while the GM expresses confidence in the team he has patch-worked together, he candidly admits that unless everything works to near perfection, the Blue Jays will be in tough to get to the postseason for a third consecutive season.

That means no catastrophic injuries, no regression in player performance, and a continued leading role from a starting rotation that was among baseball's best this past season.

"We have a team that we expect to be contending," said Atkins, ever the optimist, during a recent interview. "We also have some volatility in our players that things could go very, very well and we could be an exceptional team. There's also some exposure, hence the word volatility. And that comes down to things like health and depth. So that's our exposure.

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"But if we get a complete year out of Devon Travis, a complete year out of Jose Bautista, a complete year out of Steve Pearce, a healthy Kendrys Morales. If we get a similar performance out of our starting pitching and feel great about the additions we've made to our bullpen, then we'll be a very, very good team."

That's the optimist's view.

On the other hand, competing in an always-rugged American League East, where the division champion Boston Red Sox only got tougher with the addition of left-handed ace Chris Sale, Toronto will have its hands full to match last season's 89-73 mark.

That was good enough to earn an A.L. wildcard berth. Toronto then won the wildcard in dramatic fashion in a one-game shootout over the Baltimore Orioles.

After beating the Texas Rangers in a divisional playoff, Toronto returned to the A.L. Championship Series for a second consecutive season, only to lose to the Cleveland Indians in five games.

"Boston's going to be a very good team," Atkins said. "And like I said, we've built a roster I feel strongly will contend with them for the division. But we're going to have to have some things go right for us, and that's clear. We're going to have to have some of things that occurred last year occur again.

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"At the same time, we're not expecting to be perfect and we know we're going to have setbacks. We're optimistic that we'll be able to manage the setbacks that we do have."

Encarnacion's loss will be tough to overcome.

Leading Toronto in 2016 with 42 home runs and 127 runs batted in, the club's designated hitter and first baseman remains one of the best power hitters in the game.

Since 2010, Encarnacion (231) and Bautista (249) formed the most fearsome power tandem in the game, combining for 480 home runs. That accounts for 31 per cent of Toronto's home run total over that span.

Atkins is hoping the signing of Morales, a free agent who agreed to a three-year deal worth $33-millon (U.S.), will help ease some of the sting caused by Encarnacion's departure.

Morales is a switch hitter, which will help alleviate the dependency on right-handed hitters that manager John Gibbons had to contend with last season.

Last season, playing for the Kansas City Royals, Morales stroked 30 home runs, and he will primarily be utilized in a DH role with the Blue Jays, with a little bit of first base sprinkled in.

If Bautista can return to form following an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, the addition of Morales, along with hitting stalwarts Josh Donaldson at third base and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, should make generating offence little concern for the Blue Jays.

"Every year they're just a little bit more motivated by one thing, and that's winning," Atkins said. "Tulo [Tulowitzki] spent a lot of time in Dunedin during the off-season, and so did Josh Donaldson.

"We've stayed in touch with them during the off-season, talked about team building, talked about some things we could do to improve our environment and push things to another level. They're driven by one thing, they're driven by championships right now, and that's a hard thing to find for organizations, so it's a great starting point. Add Russell Martin to that, and we feel like we're at a good starting point for 2017."

And it would only be a bonus if the oft-injured second baseman Devon Travis, who is coming off knee surgery, can remain healthy and provide the Blue Jays with the viable lead-off hitter they have lacked since Jose Reyes.

"He's strong as an ox right now," Atkins remarked.

The Blue Jays strengthened themselves behind the plate with the addition of Jarrod Saltalamacchia to backup Martin.

The Blue Jays also signed free-agent utility infielder Pearce out of free agency, and he will likely log a lot of his playing time at first base in a platoon role with Justin Smoak.

Pearce will also be an option in left field, another sore spot for the Blue Jays, where Upton and Carrera are viewed as interchangeable parts.

The Blue Jays will audition Canadian Dalton Pompey in left field, with Darrell Ceciliani, Harold Ramirez and Anthony Alford also getting a close look.

As with most baseball teams, Toronto's ultimate success will hinge largely on the continued prosperity of its starting pitching, which morphed into one of the best – if not the best – units in MLB in 2016.

It returns basically intact, anchored by lefty J.A. Happ, who compiled a surprising 20-4 record last season.

The Blue Jays's starting five in 2016 were remarkably healthy, amassing 995.1 innings pitched to lead the majors. The staff earned run average of 3.64 was tops in the A.L., and fourth overall.

And Toronto is especially hyped about Aaron Sanchez, who appears poised for a monster year after posting a 15-2 mark last season with an A.L.-low (for qualified pitchers) 3.00 earned-run average.

And that was with the team carefully monitoring his workload, which held his innings-pitched total to 192.

Sanchez, along with Happ, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano provides the Blue Jays with a formidable starting five, provided it can stay healthy.

After that, Toronto's starting pitching depth is a bit sketchy.

One option the club will look at during the spring is stretching out Joe Biagini to see if he might be able to provide some starting pitching ballast.

Although he excelled as Toronto's setup man to closer Roberto Osuna last season, along with Jason Grilli, Biagini still yearns to be a starter – even if it means learning his trade with Toronto's Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo in order to get that opportunity.

Atkins said it will all come down to where Biagini can provide the team the most value.

"Based on how spring training is going, we'll see where the need is," Atkins said. "And we'll need to consider whether or not it would be wise for him to go to Triple-A or to just keep him in our pen.

"The beautiful thing about him having an option and the mindset of wanting to start potentially is he's open to that – he's open to going to Triple-A for us."

As for the bullpen, there is still Osuna, their 22-year-old wunderkind who has the closer's spot all locked down.

With the departure of Cecil, Atkins went out and added veteran free agent J.P Howell to the mix, a lefty who is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

After that, the makeup is anybody's guess, with Grilli and Biagini, provided he is not being utilized as a starter somewhere, shouldering the bulk of the work, along with perhaps Joe Smith, another newcomer added by Atkins.

Lefty Aaron Loup, Daniel Barnes, Ryan Tepera, Mike Bolsinger, Bo Schultz, Glenn Sparkman and Matt Dermody are just some of the other bullpen candidates.

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