Play Ball! What you need to know about the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays

There have been a few new faces on the field to go with a difference in the air at Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training.

A fresh attitude, outlook and determination arrived with the club’s first playoff appearance in 22 years. But the Jays are hungry for more, coming off a 93-win season and a trip to the American League Championship Series, which ended with a six-game loss to eventual World Series winner Kansas City.

With Sunday’s 4:05 p.m. ET season opener at Tampa Bay approaching, we offer a look at a Blue Jays outfit that will try to build on last season’s playoff run.

Stroman leads rotation

Goodbye, David Price. Welcome back, Marcus Stroman. Now recognized as the Blue Jays’ ace, the hard-working 24-year-old will start opening day at Tampa Bay on Sunday and probably Toronto’s home opener April 8 against Boston.

Many hope Stroman will perform like the departed Price, who signed a seven-year, $217-million US deal with the rival Red Sox after going 9-1 with a 2.30 earned-run average in 11 regular-season starts with the Jays after a trade from Detroit.

Stroman made four late-season starts for Toronto in 2015 after a remarkable recovery after tearing the ACL in his left knee, posting a 4-0 mark and 1.98 ERA. Stroman was equally dominant in his first four spring starts (1.98 ERA) with 12 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

Sanchez a starter, again

The rest of the starting rotation is comprised of Marco Estrada, R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez.

The 22-year-old Sanchez broke camp with Toronto a year ago and made 11 starts (3.55 ERA) before being sidelined seven weeks with a lat muscle injury. He returned in a bullpen role and excelled the rest of the regular season, but struggled in the playoffs. Sanchez worked out for seven weeks in the off-season with Stroman to build stamina in hopes of lasting an entire season as a starter.

Happ, who pitched for the Jays from 2012 to 2014, returns on a 3-year, $36-million deal. The 33-year-old had a 4.39 ERA with Toronto before making 31 starts for Seattle and Pittsburgh last season (3.61 ERA) and posting career-highs in innings (172) and strikeouts (151).

Bautista, Encarnacion playing for contracts

Check back a year from now and the Blue Jays could be minus two sluggers from their potent offence that led the majors in 2015 in runs scored, home runs and many other statistical categories. Outfielder Jose Bautista and designated hitter/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion are headed for free agency next winter and don’t appear close to re-signing. This could become a distraction, but both players have said they won’t let the issue get in the way of team success.

Conversely, the lack of a deal could motivate Bautista and Encarnacion to build on their stellar 2015 performances at the plate. Bautista, who has played at least 149 games four times in the past six years, had 40 home runs and 114 runs batted in last season, marginally better than Encarnacion’s 39-homer, 111-RBI campaign. Encarnacion has had nagging injuries over the years and suffered a slight oblique (rib cage) strain early in spring training.

Osuna remains stopper

Roberto Osuna will resume closer duties to start the season, a role he took over early last season as a 20-year-old rookie, while newcomer Drew Storen will serve as a setup man.

Last season, Osuna converted 20 of 23 save chances with a 2.58 earned-run average, walking only 16 and striking out 75 over 69 2/3 innings. Storen, 28, had 29 saves and a miniscule 1.79 ERA when the Washington Nationals acquired fellow stopper Jonathan Papelbon from Philadelphia last July but struggled as a setup man, finishing the season with a 3.44 ERA.

In recent years, Toronto has started the season with a new-look bullpen, and 2016 is no different. Brett Cecil and Ryan Tepera return and join Joe Biagini, a Rule 5 draft pick from the San Francisco Giants, and fellow right-handers Arnold Leon, Jesse Chavez and long man Gavin Floyd. Left-hander Aaron Loup is sidelined with forearm tightness.

Full year with Tulowitzki

Now, before Blue Jays fans get excited about having shortstop Troy Tulowitzki around for a full season, remember he has only surpassed 140 regular-season games once (2011) since 2009. Last season, the 31-year-old played a combined 128 with Colorado and Toronto, missing three weeks after cracking a shoulder blade in a collision with Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar. Tulowitzki had another scare this spring when he was hit on the right hand by a pitch from New York Mets veteran Bartolo Colon but suffered only bruised knuckles.

Last year, Tulowitzki hit only .239 with Toronto and is coming off his least productive season (17 homers, 70 RBI) since 2008 (.263, 8, 46 in 101 games). Still, in a powerful Jays lineup, his offensive contributions are almost a bonus because of his spectacular work in the field.

‘New’ left-fielder

Michael Saunders has been through a lot in his short time with the Blue Jays. Left-knee surgery, the result of stepping on a sprinkler head during an informal workout at the team’s spring training site a year ago, led to inflammation in the knee and his being put on the disabled list on May 10 and eventually being shut down for the season. The 29-year-old Victoria native hit .194 in nine games with no extra-base hits and 10 strikeouts.

But a healthy Saunders arrived in Dunedin, Fla., this spring and batted .293 with three homers and a .356 on-base percentage in his first 41 at-bats. Sure, spring stats mean very little, but for Saunders, who reportedly was destined for the Los Angeles Angels as part of a three-team trade that fell apart in February, remaining on the field is a huge step for the once-promising Seattle Mariners outfielder.

Doug Harrison, CBC Sports

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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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