Expect Estrada to start for Jays on opening day

Although the Toronto Blue Jays have not publicly announced their Opening Day starter, sources have told me that, unless something dramatic happens, Marco Estrada will get the ball on April 3 in the opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

Estrada will be followed by JA Happ, Marcus Stroman, Francisco Liriano and then Aaron Sanchez. This configuration separates the two left-handers (Happ and Liriano) and the two sinkerballers (Stroman and Sanchez). It also honours the leadership role Estrada has on the staff and may save some innings for Sanchez in the long run.

I’m sure this will shock the people who expected Sanchez to start the opener, or possibly the home opener, based on the fact that he led the entire American League in ERA last season. You have to remember that these decisions take the entire rotation into account, not just individuals, especially when a team has a rotation as deep and balanced as the Jays.

There are a lot of factors that go in to the order of the rotation: experience, pedigree, quality of last season, health, balancing right-handers and left-handers, etc. To be clear, very few teams line up their starters in order of quality. Other factors usually determine how they are aligned.

The logic used by manager John Gibbons and general manager Ross Atkins is clear. They wanted to separate the two left-handers and the two sinker ball pitchers. This keeps the opposing hitters from getting in a groove in back-to-back games against any one type of pitcher. Then it was matter of where Estrada fits best. His pedigree and experience pushed him to the front of the rotation.

The order of the Jays’ rotation doesn’t mean they consider Sanchez the fifth-best starter. One way to look at it is to say Sanchez is the number-one starter who is followed by Estrada, Happ, Stroman and Liriano. That’s the order in which they are pitching, just not to start the season. The Jays are effectively skipping Sanchez’s first start.

You may think that makes no sense at all since everyone around the Blue Jays has said there are no major restrictions on Sanchez’s usage this season. That is GM-speak, which really means he won’t get sent to Triple-A for a rest. It doesn’t mean that the team won’t find creative ways to buy him extra days of rest during the season. This is one of those ways.

I’m sure Sanchez had hopes of starting Opening Day and will feel some disappointment. The Jays do a great job of communicating with their players and will explain to their young ace the logic for the decision. Sanchez’s agent, Scott Boras, has been vocal on behalf of some of his other pitching clients when he felt they were overworked. Boras will likely appreciate the management of Sanchez and can help ease any suffering the young ace feels.

The Jays feel like they have a rotation of five aces. I will take my chances every single time Sanchez is taking on another team’s fifth starter.  Wouldn’t you? Don’t feel too badly for him. 

Stroman’s star on the rise

Marcus Stroman was named the MVP of the World Baseball Classic after his dominating performance in the title game on Wednesday night, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Baseball fans around the world who tuned in to see the U.S. blank Puerto Rico at Dodger Stadium had to be impressed by his performance.

The Blue Jays’ young righty is becoming an international star. He is from New York State, is half Puerto Rican and plays for Canada’s lone MLB franchise. He is currently “persona non grata” in Puerto Rico because he changed his mind about pitching for the country his mother was born in at the WBC to instead represent the U.S.

Stroman seems to evoke emotional responses no matter which team he is representing. While he has displayed the ability to elevate his performance in big moments with the Blue Jays, his showing in the WBC championship was inspirational to say the least. He looks fit, determined and confident. He appears primed to live up to the expectations that were unfulfilled last season.

Stroman’s gem is great news for a Blue Jays team hoping for a full, consistent season from their young starter. The best news is that Toronto’s entire starting staff has stayed healthy this spring. In fact, they have mostly thrived, led by Stroman and Liriano ­- two guys who were slotted for the back of the rotation.

Liriano has 18 strikeouts in 9.2 innings, and his command is as good as I have ever seen. He is pounding the strike zone with his fastball, which makes his slider and change-up that much more effective. He has worked extremely hard to recapture his status in the game. I love that he is motivated by the walk year of his contract as well. He has one last big payday coming if all goes well.

Stroman and Liriano have completely reinforced my belief that the Blue Jays have the best rotation in the American League. Stroman and Liriano are by far the best fourth and fifth starters in the league.  

Jays approaching full strength

Timing is everything. Opening Day is about a week and a half away, and things are looking up for the Blue Jays on the health front as well. Third baseman Josh Donaldson has passed all of the tests of his calf injury and has returned to the field of play; Second baseman Devon Travis (knee) is playing in his first major-league game of the spring on Friday; Jose Bautista is back in the lineup after dealing with a stiff back; Steve Pearce (elbow) will play left field for the first time on Saturday.

The extra-long spring training has helped the Jays get back to nearly full strength before the season begins. Despite all the progress, Melvin Upton is still dealing with a sore shoulder, Ezequiel Carrera is nursing a sore leg from his collision with Darwin Barney and Dalton Pompey is recovering from a concussion.

I fully expect the Jays to be conservative in their decision making. Opening Day is magical for the fans, but the organization has to be less emotional about it. There is no rush for any of their recovering players. It’s far better to return a day or two later than even one day too soon. It is all about risk and reward. There is no reason to risk anything now. It remains to be seen if any players will start the season on the new 10-day DL, but it’s highly likely the Jays will be at full-strength sometime in the first two weeks of April.

Devon Travis is vital

With the conclusion of the WBC and their players getting healthy, the Jays can see what their lineup might look like.

They are desperate for Travis to be the leadoff hitter. He is critical to their offensive success. Having Travis at the top of the order allows the Jays to put Bautista in his more appropriate spot in the lineup, operating as a run producer instead of a table setter.

The young second baseman has had a hard time staying on the field, but he has produced when healthy. He has a .301/.342/.469 slash line with 19 homers and 46 doubles in 163 major-league games. He’s also driven in 85 runs and scored 92. Travis is the real deal, plus there is room for growth as he gets more comfortable as an everyday player.

Kendrys Morales has made a great first impression in camp. His teammates like and respect him. He might not be Edwin Encarnacion, but he will be a very worthy contributor. He has swung the bat well in camp (.367/.424/.667) and is a winner.

Kevin Pillar said earlier this spring that he wants to be known as a good all-around player and not just a great defender. His is hitting .349, but more impressive are his five walks and only four strikeouts. His approach at the plate has been excellent and he has been a doubles machine. He could really extend the length and depth of the lineup with the progress he has made. 

The biggest concern about the club heading into the season has to be first base. Atkins said his ideal scenario would be for Justin Smoak to emerge as the everyday player there, but his offence remains a huge question mark. Now 30 years old, Smoak should be in his prime. His career .223 batting average and .700 OPS are going to have to spike significantly if the plans of the front office are to play out.

The Jays do have options if Smoak can’t get it done, as Pearce, Morales and Bautista can all play the position. It would take some reconfiguring, but Upton and Carrera can cover the outfield holes if they need to move things around.

The last two weeks of spring training are the most important for preparation. The Jays’ 8-14 record so far doesn’t really matter, but now is the time to start playing winning baseball.

Starters are getting stretched out and look for Gibbons to use his bullpen as he will during the season. He will also use his anticipated lineup in order to develop the flow of his offence. It’s go time.

Steve Phillips, TSN Baseball Insider

Dusty Fields

I like baseball, camping and being out on the lake in my boat. My dog Sparky loves it too! Make sure you follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest by clicking on the tabs.

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