By Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press
The Toronto Blue Jays begin their 2018 season Thursday with a home game against the New York Yankees. Here are five storylines to watch as the year gets underway:
STARTING WITHOUT TULO
With Troy Tulowitzki not ready to return from his ankle injury, newcomer Aledmys Diaz will take the reigns as the starting shortstop in his absence.
Tulowitzki suffered the injury last July and there’s no timetable for his return, meaning Diaz could get plenty of playing time. Toronto acquired Diaz in an off-season trade with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 27-year-old Cuban burst onto the MLB scene in 2016, batting .300 with 17 homers and 65 runs batted in over 111 games with St. Louis. But his stats and playing time took a tumble last season when Paul DeJong emerged as the Cardinals’ top shortstop.
Toronto will be hoping an increase in Diaz’s playing time, at least until Tulowitzki makes it back, will help him return to his 2016 form.
SANCHEZ LOOKS SHARP
The Blue Jays’ 2017 playoff hopes took a hit early when starter Aaron Sanchez developed a blister in spring training that eventually took him out for most of the season.
The 25-year-old right-hander seems to have completely healed from the issue — he wasn’t limited at all at this spring training — and his continued health will be key for Toronto’s success this year. Sanchez led the American League in earned-run average (3.00) and win percentage (.882) in a stellar 2016 campaign that saw the Blue Jays make it to the AL Championship Series for a second straight year.
Sanchez was 1-3 with a 4.25 ERA through just 36 innings in 2017, when Toronto missed the post-season.
NO MORE JOSE
Toronto will have a new face in right field for the first time in nearly a decade when Randal Grichuk makes his Blue Jays regular-season debut on Thursday.
Needing a replacement for departing free agent slugger Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays acquired Grichuk in an off-season trade with the Cardinals.
The 26-year-old Grichuk played just two games at Rogers Centre before Thursday, but he made them count, hitting his first career home run against Mark Buehrle on June 7, 2014. Grichuk hit 22 homers and drove in 59 runs last season and he figures to benefit from moving to a hitter-friendly ballpark and hitter-friendly division.
NEW BULLPEN FACES
The Blue Jays sought relief help outside the organization in the off-season, bringing three new faces to the seven-man opening day bullpen.
Canadian John Axford, Tyler Clippard and Seung-hwan Oh will likely round out the relief corps alongside returnees Roberto Osuna, Danny Barnes, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera. Axford, a 34-year-old right-hander from Port Dover, Ont., is hoping for a renaissance year after being released last June by the Oakland Athletics.
Axford had a stellar spring training, allowing just one run and striking out 11 over eight innings. The Canadian led the league with 46 saves with Milwaukee back in 2011.
DONALDSON IN CONTRACT YEAR
All-star third baseman Josh Donaldson is likely to hit free agency at the end of the 2018 season, making this year potentially his last as a Blue Jay.
General manager Ross Atkins said at the beginning of spring training that he was hopeful the team could retain Donaldson long-term, but the 2015 AL MVP said he and Toronto weren’t seeing “eye to eye” through negotiations.
Donaldson was limited to 113 games because of injuries last year and his absence in the lineup was surely felt — Toronto scored an AL-low 693 runs. Donaldson didn’t travel to Montreal for the Blue Jays’ last two pre-season games, saying the turf at Olympic Stadium was too difficult on his body.
Toronto will need a healthy Donaldson if it wishes to compete in the AL East, and Donaldson needs to stay healthy if he hopes to command a large free-agent deal.