Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Blue Jays' pitching staff will be a strength again in 2017

Around the Horn: Starting rotation

TORONTO -- The starting rotation was supposed to be the Blue Jays' weakness last season, but it became their biggest strength. This year, the lofty expectations will be there from Day 1.

Toronto still views itself as a contender following a pair of back-to-back runs to the American League Championship Series. If the club wants to get there again, it will have to be as a result of its starting five.

As part of MLB.com's Around the Horn series, we take a closer look at the Blue Jays' rotation:

Aaron Sanchez
It's almost hard to believe how far Sanchez has come over the past 12 months. He entered Spring Training competing for the final spot in the rotation, and there was a serious risk that if Sanchez went to the bullpen he would be stuck there for the rest of his career. The Blue Jays ended up giving Sanchez the opportunity to start, and he never looked back. The 24-year-old became an AL Cy Young Award contender after leading the league with a 3.00 ERA over 30 starts. The only thing that really hurt Sanchez's cause was an innings limit, but the reins should be off in his second season as a starter as long as he remains healthy. 

J.A. Happ
Happ is another pitcher who defied all expectations last season, going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA over 32 starts. Toronto initially received a lot of criticism for handing out a three-year deal worth $36 million, but it turned out to be a major bargain. Some regression is likely, but that's totally fine. The Blue Jays will happily take anything remotely close to last season's performance, and the lefty will once again have a prominent role in the starting staff.

Marco Estrada
The big question here is whether Estrada is fully recovered from the back issues that plagued him throughout 2016. When healthy, the right-hander has proven to be one of the top finesse pitchers in the game, but back pain was a problem early in his career with Milwaukee, and it resurfaced in a big way last season. Estrada deserves credit for pitching through the discomfort and his willingness to make 29 starts should be commended. Even so, there's no denying the injury played a role in his 4.27 ERA during the second half, and at times he appeared to be battling fatigue. An offseason of recovery can do wonders, but the Blue Jays won't know until Estrada starts throwing off the mound in camp.

Marcus Stroman
The 2016 season did not go as expected for Stroman, but the reality is it could have been a lot worse. There were a lot of people who wanted to see Stroman optioned to the Minors last June, but he managed to completely turn his season around. Stroman had a 5.33 ERA on June 26 but made a series of adjustments to his delivery and finished the year with a 3.42 ERA over his final 16 starts. Stroman was very aware of the criticism he received, and there's no doubt he will be highly motivated to bounce back. Stroman tends to pitch better when he has a chip on his shoulder, and he could be in line for a big year.

Francisco Liriano
The final spot in the rotation is where the Blue Jays should see the most improvement in 2017. Toronto can afford to see some regression from someone like Happ if Liriano steps in and helps fill the void. Liriano essentially replaces a full season from R.A. Dickey, who struggled with a 4.46 ERA in his final year with the Blue Jays. From 2013-15, Liriano posted ERAs of 3.38 or lower. He was awful in Pittsburgh last season, but once he joined Toronto at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the 11-year veteran posted a 2.92 ERA over 49 1/3 innings. The stuff is still there; Liriano throws in the mid-90s and he has struck out more than nine batters per nine innings during each of the past five years. The question is whether he will throw enough strikes for that to really matter. The Blue Jays believe he will.

The depth
This is where the Blue Jays could run into some issues. Gavin Floyd represents the first line of defense, but if he begins the year in the bullpen as expected, then a transition to the rotation later in the year likely would not be possible because of his injury history. Joe Biagini, another option, also figures to begin the year in the bullpen, and he'll likely stick in that role for another season. Toronto's top pitching prospects also are at least a year away from being able to make an impact, so if someone in the starting five gets hurt for a significant period of time, it would be a major blow.

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.