February 17, 2016 11:57 am

5 things to watch as Toronto Blue Jays begin spring training

In this Oct. 19, 2015, file photo, Toronto Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson celebrates his two run home run against the Kansas City Royals during the third inning in Game 3 of baseball's American League Championship Series in Toronto.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Paul Sancya
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Toronto Blue Jays pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Dunedin, Fla., this weekend.

Here are five storylines to watch as the season approaches:

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

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The Blue Jays snapped a 22-year-long playoff drought last year by winning the AL East title for the first time since 1993. And while few expected that kind of performance out of spring training – especially after Marcus Stroman tore his ACL – expectations mounted once then-GM Alex Anthopoulos bolstered his offence and defence with Troy Tulowitzki and his rotation with David Price at the trade deadline.

Price is gone now, having signed a whopping free-agent deal with rival Boston, but the expectations remain high for Toronto to at least repeat last year’s success. Manager John Gibbons knows that.

“We still want to take one more step, that’s for sure,” Gibbons said. “We want to be able to come out and say ‘hey we won this thing.”‘

Along with Price, back-up catcher Dioner Navarro, outfielder Ben Revere, starter Mark Buehrle and bullpen arms Mark Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins and Liam Hendriks have left the team either via trades, retirement or free agency but the bulk of last year’s monstrous offence remains. And now they have post-season experience.

“We had a number of players on the team who hadn’t been through it and they stepped up,” Gibbons said. “What’s great about it is (Jose) Bautista and Eddie (Edwin Encarnacion), some of the best players in baseball, finally got their true recognition in the spotlight. A lot of good things happened last year but we want to take one more step.”

THE FIFTH STARTER

Right-hander Aaron Sanchez has made it clear where he wants to be when the season starts this April: the starting rotation. Sanchez, who opened last year as a starter but moved to the bullpen after an injury, gained 25 pounds of muscle working out with teammate Marcus Stroman this off-season.

Toronto made moves to bolster the rotation over the last few months – signing right-hander Marco Estrada, lefty J.A. Happ and trading for righty Jesse Chavez – but they also added veteran reliever Drew Storen, which offers flexibility in dealing with Sanchez.

“I think everybody would love to see (Sanchez start),” Gibbons said. “We’ll take him down to spring training, stretch him out and as spring goes on we’ll decide what’s best or the team. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

New GM Ross Atkins says Sanchez’s chances in a rotation fronted by Stroman and including Estrada, Happ, and R.A. Dickey (with Chavez and Drew Hutchison also in the mix), will depend on a number of factors.

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it and we really need to include him in the process,” Atkins said.

THE FREE AGENTS

Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are set to become free agents at the end of the 2016 season. A decision to sign one, or both, to long-term deals will determine how the team is set up for years to come.

Both sluggers were instrumental in the Jays’ post-season push last year – Bautista’s infamous bat flip in Game 5 of the ALDS instantly became an iconic image for the franchise – and neither show signs of slowing down despite their ages (Bautista is 35 and Encarnacion is 33).

“It’s a no-brainer we want to keep them,” new team president Mark Shapiro said. “The sentiment is there. We’ve expresses that to both guys. We’re not going to get into the specific negotiations until we get to spring training.”

Bautista recently told The Canadian Press he’d like to be a Blue Jay for life. At the Winter Meetings, Encarnacion’s agent set an Opening Day expiration date on contract talks.

THE CLOSER

Young Roberto Osuna emerged as Toronto’s closer halfway through the 2015 season, saving 20 of 23 chances with a 2.58 ERA. But the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen got a little crowded when the team acquired Storen in a January trade.

Storen had 43 saves for Washington in 2011, started 2012 on the disabled list and had to share the closer’s role for parts of the last three seasons.

Gibbons says the’ll have to battle for the high-leverage job over the course of training camp.

“Storen’s done that and has been very good at it, but Osuna did a great job for us. So we’ll see,” Gibbons said. “We’ll let that one play out in spring training.”

THE LEAD-OFF MAN

Toronto lost speedy outfielder Ben Revere in the trade for Drew Storen, but centre-fielder Kevin Pillar is confident he could fill that void.

Pillar, who was successful on 25 of his 29 stolen-base attempts last year, batted .278 with a .314 on-base percentage through 159 games in his first full major-league season.

While his on-base numbers aren’t striking – he walked just 28 times all season – Pillar isn’t too concerned, especially if reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson is batting second.

“I promise you with Josh hitting behind me I’ll get some better pitches to hit,” Pillar said.

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