Picture it: Dunedin 2013, and the promise of a 20-year postseason drought ending is percolating as celebrated names are printed across the back of blue and white jerseys. Now, fast-forward to the same sunny location a year later, where a cloud of doubt hovers over a team that was only perfect on paper.
Over the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays only said goodbye to a struggling starting catcher, an outfielder and an All-Star pitcher we hardly saw, so we are pretty much looking at the same team that was touted for an October appearance last season. Yet “same” is far from an accurate description because the club has one thing it didn’t last year: health.
The projected lineup — one that had an entire country picking the boys in blue to take the AL East and then some — actually only played three, seriously three, games together. Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong for the Jays, “so this year, what happens if we just have a little bit of luck?” GM Alex Anthopoulos asks.
Melky Cabrera had a benign tumor removed from his spine and Brandon Morrow, whose freak injuries the past two seasons limited him to a total of 31 starts, has been deemed “workhorse healthy” after putting on muscle weight. Slugger Jose Bautista claims to be in the best shape of his career after overcoming issues which have kept him from playing a full season since 2011, and Jose Reyes has fully healed from the ankle injury that took him out in April last year.
During the winter meetings, we got Roy Halladay back … for 10 seconds … and acquired catchers Dioner Navarro and Erik Kratz as well as some arms to add to the minor league depth.
Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind will once again share first base and DH duties. Reyes will be our shortstop, smiling from ear to ear, while Brett Lawrie shows off his skills on third and Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Cabrera man the outfield.
Recently, it has been confirmed that second base is 26-year-old Ryan Goins’ job to lose, proving that the notable defensive ability he showed off at the end of last year holds more precedence over his plate performance.
Behind the plate, Navarro will try to forget his days as a part-time player in the past few years as he prepares himself for the No. 1 catching role. As for R.A. Dickey’s personal backstop, it is looking like Josh Thole might be losing the job to the favoured Kratz, who is seemingly getting comfortable with handling the knuckleball.
At the beginning of the offseason, Anthopoulos suggested that the club was hoping to pick up at least one new arm, but as the winter meetings ended quietly (and the price tags remained too high) he became confident in the internal crop. Therefore, in Toronto, the word now synonymous with the rotation is “redemption” as five familiar faces try to overcome 2013.
Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Morrow and J.A. Happ will take the first four spots. The fifth spot is still up for grabs, with a now healthy Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison battling it out this spring against Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, previous ace Ricky Romero and prospect Marcus Stroman.
Relief in the pen is perhaps one of the Blue Jays’ greatest assets. Casey Janssen will maintain his reputation as the club’s reliable closer alongside Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup, Neil Wagner and 2013 All-Stars Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar.
Dustin McGowan is a name that has also come up, throughout the offseason and spring training, as a candidate for the fifth spot. But with a long list of health problems keeping him from starting since 2011, and his success in the bullpen, he seems to have found his sure-thing in relief work.
Opening day lineup
1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Melky Cabrera, LF
3. Jose Bautista, RF
4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
5. Adam Lind, DH
6. Brett Lawrie, 3B
7. Colby Rasmus, CF
8. Erik Kratz, C
9. Ryan Goins, 2B
Expected to begin the 2014 season with double-A New Hampshire, Aaron Sanchez was recently named MLB’s ninth best right-handed pitching prospect by MLB.com and the top prospect in the Blue Jays minor league system. The 21-year-old has been dubbed the club’s future ace, with a solid fastball, curveball and developing change-up in his arsenal. A shoulder injury held back Sanchez’s progress for much of last season, but he left that all behind in the Arizona Fall League where he impressed with a 1.16 ERA in six starts. With the hype surrounding this future starter growing at a steady pace, fans and Sanchez must continue to remain patient as his journey across the border to the major league mound is projected for 2015.
Much-talked-about catching prospect A.J. Jimenez is hoping to forget his frustrations that came following Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow and remind us why he has been sought as an eventual everyday backstop in the majors. Jimenez, 23, was slated to make an appearance in the AFL, but continued elbow issues added up to a change of plans. Since Navarro, Kratz and Josh Thole seem to be short-term solutions for the Jays, a healthy Jimenez once again showcasing his defensive skills and ability as a dependable line-drive hitter producing doubles is something the club is banking on in the very near future.
Finally, considering 22-year-old Stroman is a contender for the vacant fifth spot in the starting rotation, he is obviously a prospect, if not the prospect, to watch this spring. The team’s 2012 first-round pick has impressed with his fastball, slider and change-up, and he has ben compared to the likes of Sonny Gray. When questioned about the right-hander’s big league debut, however, Anthopoulos and skipper John Gibbons seem to be swaying to the more likely scenario which would see Stroman develop further at triple-A Buffalo, joining the Blue Jays later in the season.
The good news: There is no way the Blue Jays can perform worse than they did last year, so it’s safe to say there will be an improvement on 74 W’s, the second-highest ERA in the majors and a playoff spot being swept from them by May. There is no World Baseball Classic this year to completely dismantle a newly established club for most of spring training, which claimed our much-needed talent at third, due to injury, for a big chunk of the start of the regular season. Not to mention the Blue Jays finally have a solid, reliable depth in case, knock on wood, our starters once again fall like dominos and we need to call upon minor arms to fill holes.
The bad news, though, is the Blue Jays are stuck in the AL East. Can our bats keep up with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Orioles? Absolutely. With health on our side in 2014, there’s a high possibility we will see Toronto lead the league in runs scored and dominate defensively, but the rotation must find a way to simply survive to ultimately make any impact in the AL Beast.