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The Blue Jays are stuck in the middle, with only 1 way out

The Toronto Blue Jays spent the off-season making minor changes to improve the team's depth in case injury strikes like it did last season. But if they want to return to the post-season, the stars need to stay on the field.

Toronto's playoff chances rely on their two real stars remaining healthy

The Toronto Blue Jays will need star third baseman Josh Donaldson to stay healthy if they want to contend in the American League East. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

On most betting sites, the Toronto Blue Jays' over/under for wins this season is set at 81 — exactly .500 baseball.

Last season, the team won 76 games amidst a cavalcade of injuries to key players that included top starter Aaron Sanchez and all-star third baseman Josh Donaldson.

The thinking goes, then, that with slightly better luck, Toronto should improve this season, if only slightly. After all, Sanchez made just eight starts last year while Donaldson missed almost a third of the season.

Fangraphs, an analytics website, is even more optimistic than Vegas, projecting Toronto to finish the season 86-76.

Following an off-season spent hitting transactional singles instead of homers, it's safe to assume the Toronto brass is betting that its ace and superstar can once again combine to bring "meaningful" baseball to Canada.

Improved depth

Depth was atop Toronto's wish list this winter. Outfielders Curtis Granderson (via free agency) and Randal Grichuk (via trade with St. Louis) were brought in to provide upgrades on Ezequiel Carrera and Jose Bautista, respectively.

Trades for infielders Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz were meant to add reliable depth behind the oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis. (And no, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney do not count as reliable depth.)

Those names don't exactly pop off the page. Nor do bullpen additions Tyler Clippard, John Axford and Seung-Hwan Oh.

The Jays also added No. 5 starter Jaime Garcia, who struggled with the Yankees in 2017 with a 4.82 ERA across eight starts. He made just one appearance — as a reliever — in the post-season.

But all of those additions are better than the host of players used in those spots last season, from Barney to Joe Biagini to Mat Latos.

Should injuries strike once again, the Blue Jays are far better equipped to handle them.

Ace in the hole

Still, what the Jays really need is for Donaldson and Sanchez to be healthy. They won't make the playoffs if that doesn't happen.

Two seasons ago, Sanchez led the American League with a shiny 3.00 ERA.  Amid endless conversation about an arbitrary innings limit, the starter continued to perform above expectations by limiting walks and inducing ground balls.

Aaron Sanchez is healthy and ready to go for the 2018 season after making just eight starts in 2017 because of a lingering blister problem. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Had Sanchez not been dealing with a blister in 2017, Toronto might have received 150 more innings of quality pitching. Instead, their presumed ace threw just 36 innings across eight hapless starts in which he was just 1-3.

A healthy season from Sanchez might have prevented Toronto from spending all but one day — the final day — in the basement of the AL East.

The 25-year-old was an ace. Now, he's the Blue Jays' ace in the hole.

The Donaldson question

Then there's Donaldson, who has already endured minor injuries in spring training. The 32-year-old didn't make the trip to Montreal because of concerns about the artificial turf in the Big Owe.

On Sunday, Donaldson hardly put any lingering concerns to rest: "I wouldn't say I feel amazing right now, because I don't."

The Jays could amass all the depth they want; if Donaldson misses a significant chunk of the season, they will be starved for offence. He played in 113 games last season, hitting .270 in 415 at-bats with 33 home runs and 78 runs batted in.

But, with a potentially massive payday looming, the pending free agent should be hungry to stay healthy and perform this season.

Donaldson's success on the field will likely determine the team's success in the standings — perhaps even beyond 2018. If the 2015 MVP starts strong and has the Blue Jays thinking playoffs into July, team president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins might look to add at the deadline.

At the very least, contract-year players such as Donaldson and starters Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ will remain with the organization through the season.

Bo and Vlad loom

However, if the Blue Jays have a repeat of last year's 2-11 start, things could get ugly fast. The front office would have to consider dealing Donaldson to a contender and returning some value on the slugger before he hits free agency.

Toronto, in this case, would do best to tank the 2018 season — and likely 2019, too.

From there, eyes would shift from Sanchez and Donaldson to top prospects Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. The message from management would be a focus on the future.

Speaking of Bo and Vlad, don't expect to see them this season. If the Jays are playing well, that would likely mean no room. And if the Jays struggle, then there's no point starting the prospects' service clocks. Both will start this season in Double-A.

Alas, the highly-touted infielders are a couple years away.

For now, the Blue Jays are mired in the middle, lodged in a familiar spot with most projections placing them third in the division behind the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

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