After an unfulfilling off-season, the Blue Jays entered spring training with questions about some of the same needs that they had when last season ended.
They still have questions about the starting rotation, they still are not sure who will play second base, and it remains to be seen how much of an upgrade they were able to make at catcher.
It is a huge contrast from last spring training, when the Blue Jays were considered one of the big winners of the offseason, adding the likes of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to the rotation as well as shortstop Jose Reyes and left fielder Melky Cabrera.
The Blue Jays were overhyped and, as it turned out, overrated as they struggled to a 74-win season.
Entering this spring training, the Blue Jays have attracted little attention, and that might be a positive.
"This year I feel like we're going to be able to fly under the radar a lot more than we did last year, which is a good thing for us, I think," Dickey said.
Injuries played a big part of the disappointing 2013. The Blue Jays led the majors with 1,380 man-games lost to injury as they used the disabled list 27 times.
The injuries affected the rotation as well as the offense. Although the Blue Jays have not yet added a high-profile pitcher pending the outcome of the free-agent market, they have Brandon Morrow returning from an entrapped radial nerve that limited him to 10 starts last season. A full season for Morrow, who has dominating stuff, would be a welcome addition to the veteran presence of the knuckleballer Dickey and the crafty left-hander Buehrle who each contributed more than 200 innings last year. Johnson was allowed to leave for San Diego as a free agent after his two-win season.
Young pitchers Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek both returned late last season from Tommy John surgery. They add to the depth of available starters, as does the development of prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin.
The quantity may be better but the quality remains unknown, and that leaves the rotation as a big question hanging over the Blue Jays. The bullpen figures to be solid, as it was last season.
Injuries also forced Ryan Goins, a shortstop by trade, to make his major-league debut late in the season at second base. Defensively, he was a revelation. But his hitting needs work. Utility man Maicer Izturis and former Kansas City Royal, Chris Getz, who was signed to a minor-league deal, provide the insurance. So second base is another question awaiting an answer.
Dioner Navarro will replace the departed J.P. Arencibia as the No. 1 catcher. It is difficult to imagine anyone playing as poorly as Arencibia did both behind the plate and at the plate. The question about Navarro is durability. The 89 games he played with the Chicago Cubs last season were his highest total in a major-league season since he appeared in 115 games in 2009 with the Tampa Bay Rays.
So many questions, so few answers.
--RHP Dustin McGowan said he would like to stretch out this spring training in an effort to return to the starting role. The Blue Jays are going to accommodate him. "It's kind of a touchy thing," manager John Gibbons said. "I mean, it was as a starter that he had all his problems. But, then again, maybe that's all behind him." McGowan spent most of five seasons regaining his health after assorted injuries and surgeries. He found a spot in the bullpen on his return to Toronto last June 8 and was 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 25 relief appearances. "He'll stretch out this spring and as long as he stays healthy it can't hurt anything," said Gibbons. "If he goes back to the bullpen, the transition is a lot easier than going from the bullpen to starting."
--RHP Brandon Morrow arrived early for spring training carrying more weight, all muscle. Morrow did not plan on it but noticed a weight gain during his off-season workout program and decided to work at it, increasing the weight in his weight training. He weighed in Sunday at 219 pounds. "In the past, I've always come into camp light and put on some pounds," he said." Last year I was even lighter than usual [189 pounds]." He was 203 at the start of last season. "We'll see what it means, if anything." Morrow said. "It's not a big deal and I don't know that it's going to make a lot of difference. ...I feel stronger and that can't hurt." Health will be the important thing for Morrow. He was limited to 10 starts last season because of an entrapped radial nerve in his right arm. "He's going to be big for us," manager John Gibbons said. "There is no limit to how good he can be."
--2B Ryan Goins visited new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer at his home in Kansas City during the winter. The rookie was impressive in the field in the 34 games he played at the end of last season, but after a hot start with the bat he showed that hitting was an area that needed improvement. "For me it's about improving my bat path and making everything as simple as possible," Goins said. "The pitchers in the big leagues are better than the pitchers in the minors. They throw it where they want to more often. They know how to change your timing as a hitter. I need to keep things simple, stay in the middle of the field and try to develop an approach that is the same every day." People in the organization have noticed an improvement already, and Seitzer said, "I think the adjustments he has made with his mechanics and the confidence that he has built because of those changes we made when he came to Kansas City, we're starting to see the results."
--C Dioner Navarro will take over as starting catcher from C J.P. Arencibia, who now is a Texas Ranger. Navarro feels that he can handle being No. 1 behind the plate although he has not played in more than 89 games in a major-league season since 2009 when he played 115 with the Tampa Bay Rays. "I know there's a lot of doubt, I don't really care, I know what I have to do," Navarro said, upon arriving at camp. The Blue Jays, who needed an upgrade behind the plate, signed Navarro as a free agent. "I just wanted to play," Navarro said. "I want to become a much, much better player than what I am right now. I felt like this was the opportunity, this was the organization. We have a great team and now we have to put it together."
--C Erik Kratz, who was obtained in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, caught knuckleballer RHP R.A. Dickey in a bullpen session on Monday. C Josh Thole, who caught Dickey with the New York Mets and during the second half of last season with Toronto, will be competing with Kratz for the backup job behind the plate. Catching the knuckleball will be a key. "It was good seeing Erik Kratz out there catching Dickey; they spent a week working together in the offseason," manager John Gibbons said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They all did [look impressive]. It was good to see [RHP Drew] Hutchison and [RHP Kyle] Drabek out there. [RHP Brandon] Morrow looked great. We feel good about our depth this year when it comes to our starting pitching." -- Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, after the first day of spring training for pitcher and catchers.
RHP R.A. Dickey
RHP Brandon Morrow
LHP Mark Buehrle
LHP J.A. Happ
RHP Todd Redmond or RHP Esmil Rogers.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos was still trying to add a significant starter, most likely through free agency, as spring training opened. One of the offseason goals was to improve a rotation that struggled last season. There is at least more depth within the organization this season with youngsters RHP Drew Hutchison and RHP Kyle Drabek returning late last season from Tommy John surgery and prospects like RHP Marcus Stroman and LHP Sean Nolin having had one more year of minor-league seasoning.
It would help if Morrow could stay healthy for a full season. He was limited to 10 starts last season (entrapped radial nerve) and 21 starts in 2012 (oblique). He has the potential to put together a season worthy of a staff ace. Depending on additions to the staff, Redmond, Rogers or Happ could wind up pitching as long men from the bullpen. RHP Dustin McGowan, whose career was interrupted by several seasons because of injury, also could be considered for starting role. RHP Chad Jenkins did not look out of place when given the chance to start last season.
RHP Casey Janssen (closer)
RHP Sergio Santos
LHP Brett Cecil
RHP Steve Delabar
RHP Dustin McGowan
LHP Aaron Loup
RHP Neil Wagner
RHP Esmil Rogers or RHP Todd Redmond or RHP Jeremy Jeffress.
The bullpen was the strength of the Blue Jays in 2013 and there remains depth in power arms that might be used for a possible trade. After two seasons of battling injuries, former White Sox closer Santos made an impressive return for the final two months of the season in 2013. Delabar and Cecil were selected for the All-Star Game off impressive performances, and Janssen excelled in his first full season as closer and shows no inclination to give up the job.
Depending on what happens with the rotation, Rogers and Redmond could become candidates for the bullpen as well, and they are out of options as are McGowan, Jeffress and LHP Luis Perez. This could create a logjam and require some difficult decisions. Jeffress, who also has been mentioned as a possible starter, has electric stuff and could be on the verge of being ready to harness it. Perez is returning from Tommy John surgery and he was performing well before he was injured in 2011.
1. SS Jose Reyes
2. LF Melky Cabrera.
3. 1B Edwin Encarnacion
4. RF Jose Bautista
5. DH Adam Lind
6. 3B Brett Lawrie
7. CF Colby Rasmus
8. C Dioner Navarro
9. 2B Ryan Goins or Maicer Izturis
The potential for a potent offense is there, but the concern is health. Reyes (ankle sprain), Cabrera (spine tumor), Bautista (back, ankle, hip bone bruise), Rasmus (oblique, left eye contusion), INF Maicer Izturis (ankle sprain) and Lawrie (oblique) all were sidelined for significant periods of time last season. Encarnacion has emerged over the past two seasons as a force in the lineup. Last season, he hit 36 homers with 104 RBIs and a batting average of .272, an on-base percentage of .370 and an OPS of .904 with 82 walks against 62 strikeouts. He is the fourth player in franchise history to have back-to-back seasons of more than 35 homers and 100 RBIs.
Navarro should be able to provide better plate appearances than the departed C J.P. Arencibia did in 2013. While with the Chicago Cubs, Navarro batted .300 with a .365 on-base percentage with 13 homers and 34 RBIs in 89 games during 2013. Arencibia batted .194 with a .227 OBP and hit 21 homers with 55 RBIs while striking out 148 times.
Second base will remain a question until Goins proves that he can hit in the majors and Izturis shows he is better all-around than he was last year. 2B Chris Getz, who was signed as a minor-league free agent, provides some insurance.
TOP ROOKIES: 2B Ryan Goins showed superb defense when he played 34 games as the regular second baseman to finish out the season. He committed only one error and also made some brilliant defensive plays. But his hitting needed work and he addressed that during the offseason with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and how much that helped will be key. RHP Marcus Stroman (9-5, 3.30 last season at Double-A New Hampshire) showed he is ready for a chance in the majors. He is a long shot to break from spring training with the major-league club and likely will open with Triple-A Buffalo. But he should earn a callup sometime during the season, and if he continues to improve it could be sooner rather than later. LHP Sean Nolin is coming off a good season at Buffalo and New Hampshire and made one poor start with Toronto and could earn another promotion, but for a longer period.
--LHP Brett Cecil (sore left elbow) was sidelined in September due to a minor nerve issue and is ready for spring training.
--1B Edwin Encarnacion (left wrist surgery in September 2013) had cartilage cleaned up and is ready for spring training.
--LF Melky Cabrera (lower back surgery in September 2013) had a benign tumor removed from his spine and is ready for spring training.
--RHP Brandon Morrow (entrapped radial nerve in right forearm) missed the final four months of the season. He resumed throwing in mid-October and has been throwing bullpen sessions and in simulated games and arrived at spring training ready to go.