2014 Toronto Blue Jays: Rebound or regression?
Starting rotation, health keys to potential success
After last year's headline-grabbing off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays opted for a quieter approach this winter as management did little on the heels of a disappointing 74-win season in 2013.
Baseball fans in Toronto and across Canada were thirsting for more after general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s additions of starting pitchers R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, star shortstop Jose Reyes and outfield Melky Cabrera more than a year ago didn’t pan out last season.
After Anthopoulos let the oft-injured Johnson test free agency (he signed with San Diego) and released underachieving catcher J.P. Arencibia, attention turned to free-agent starting pitchers Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
The Jays never seemed to be seriously involved in talks with Tanaka and Jimenez, who signed on with, respectively, the New York Yankees (seven years, $155 million US) and the Baltimore Orioles (four years, $50 million).
But they were reportedly close to signing Santana until he decided, according to Anthopoulos, that pitching in the National League would be more to his liking. The Atlanta Braves pounced and struck a one-year, $14.1-million deal with the right-hander.
That left Toronto with an off-season of work that yielded catchers Dioner Navarro and Erik Kratz along with former Detroit Tigers outfielder Matt Tuiasosopo, who was claimed off waivers from Arizona on March 21.
Questions remain as the Blue Jays prepare for a season-opening four game series in Tampa Bay, starting March 31 at 4:30 p.m. ET. We try to answer some of them below.
Dustin McGowan won the final spot in the starting pitching rotation. How will he fare?
McGowan has been healthy through spring training and that's encouraging. Too bad the Blue Jays didn't have him stretch out earlier in camp because he might be a five-inning pitcher to start the season.
McGowan kept his velocity in the 92-96 mile-per-hour range in his most recent appearance, a four-inning stint in a minor league game. A pitcher whom the Blue Jays have always said possesses the "best stuff" of any of their hurlers, McGowan pitched out of the bullpen for the team in 2013 and posted a 2.45 earned-run average in 25 games. He walked 12 batters in 25 2/3 innings but struck out 26 and held opposing hitters to a .190 average.
McGowan struck out seven in as many innings in his first four appearances this spring with a 3.86 ERA and .120 opposing average, so with his arsenal there is always a chance he could make an impact this season.
Can Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes stay healthy for the 2014 season?
Bautista is off to a good start, hitting a robust .340 in his first 18 pre-season games and showing no ill effects from a hip injury that ended his 2013 season one month early. A wrist injury also limited him to 90 games in 2012. Bautista combined for 97 home runs the previous two seasons but hasn’t reached 30 since.
Reyes missed 66 games with a severely sprained left ankle last season, his first in Toronto, but performed well when healthy with a .296 batting average and .353 on-base percentage in 93 contests. He’s currently nursing a mild hamstring strain.
Melky Cabrera had a breakout season in 2011 and was on his way to another in 2012 before he was suspended 50 games for failing a performance-enhancing drug test. Will he return to his pre-PED form?
Many Blue Jays fans no doubt were thinking Cabrera was a bust after Anthopoulos signed him to a two-year, $16-million free-agent contract. After hitting .305 in 2011 and .346 in 2012, Cabrera wasn’t the same at the plate last season, hitting at a .279 clip with only three home runs in 88 games.
An ankle injury cut short his season on Aug. 1 and a month later the left-fielder had a benign tumour removed from his spine. Cabrera is healthy now and hitting .429 through his first 18 exhibition games with nine doubles but zero homers. A rebound season is very possible.
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey won a National League Cy Young Award in 2012, and many have declared Brandon Morrow as having the best “stuff” of any pitcher on the Jays’ staff since he arrived in Toronto for the 2010 season. But does Toronto have a true ace?
The jury remains out on Dickey, who endured back and neck injuries last season, which he said prevented him from throwing his knuckler as hard as he wanted. Still, he managed 14 wins with a 4.21 earned-run average. The good news is Dickey is healthy this spring, and keep in mind he sported a 3.56 ERA in 2013 after the all-star break, more than a run lower than the first half (4.69,) so those are encouraging signs for an improved 2014.
Toronto might have an ace in Morrow if he could return to 25-plus starts this season, something he has done twice in four years with the Jays. The 29-year-old showed glimpses of his potential in 2012 when he won 10 of 21 starts with a 2.96 ERA and 108 strikeouts before a left rib cage strain derailed his season. In 2013, Morrow didn’t pitch after May 28 due to a nerve injury in his forearm. He had a 9.00 ERA in his first three spring appearances this year.
Can Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus put together breakout seasons?
With Lawrie, it’s a matter of staying healthy. The Canadian missed the 2013 World Baseball Classic because of a rib strain and sprained his ankle in May. Maybe we saw the real Lawrie in the second half last season when he posted a .283 batting average, .346 on-base percentage, six home runs, 32 RBIs and seven stolen bases. Perhaps this is the season he reaches 20 homers and 15-20 steals. He’s had a strong pre-season (.333 batting in his first 17 games).
Rasmus, 27, got off to a strong start last season, hitting .263 with 16 homers and 48 RBIs in his first 89 games before a bruised eye and left rib cage strain limited him to 56 at-bats in August and September combined. The left-handed hitter is over a neck problem that bothered him for 10 days at spring training so we could see a breakout in 2014 if he’s able to improve his career .216 average against left-handed pitchers.
With infielder Mark DeRosa retired and speedy outfielder Rajai Davis leaving for Detroit as a free agent, who will be coming off the bench to pinch hit or pinch run late in games?
Scratch Anthony Gose, fan favourite Munenori Kawasaki and fellow infielder Chris Getz from the list for now as they’re bound for triple-A Buffalo. It isn’t a stretch to say this is the Jays’ weakness. Moises Sierra has reportedly beat out Matt Tuiasosopo for the fourth outfielder's job and is coming off a 2013 season in which he hit .290 with a .369 on-base percentage with one home run in 107 at-bats for the Blue Jays. Then there’s infielder Maicer Izturis, who offers a little speed and could hit .270 if he played full time. Josh Thole, who is R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher, also seems destined for a reserve role. He hit .175 in 120 at-bats for Toronto last season.
Second base was a black hole for Toronto last season with Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio manning the spot. Catcher wasn’t much better with J.P. Arencibia (now with Texas) hitting .194 in 138 games. Are the Blue Jays any better with Ryan Goins playing full-time at second base and Dioner Navarro behind the plate?
In a word, yes. The Jays’ starters, especially ground-ball pitcher Mark Buehrle, will be thrilled when Goins scoops up balls that Izturis and Bonafacio missed early in the 2013 season. The 26-year-old’s defensive play will be more important than any concerns about his potential struggles at the plate. A repeat of his .252 batting average for Toronto in 2013 will suffice.
Navarro is a good contact hitter with some pop, as evidenced by his .300 average and 13 home runs in 240 at-bats for the Chicago Cubs last season. Don’t expect the 20-homer seasons that Arencibia produced, but Navarro, a career .282 hitter, won’t bat below .200 either. The big question is durability, as he’s played at least 120 games at the major league level just once in nine seasons.
For the first time last season, relief pitchers Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil were named all-stars after posting earned-run averages of 1.71 and 1.94, respectively, in the first half. But they struggled afterwards, so is each a true all-star or one-hit wonder?
Cecil is probably closer to closer material than Delabar. After seeing his 2013 season cut short by elbow pain in September, Cecil has showed well in spring training, tossing 5 1/3 shutout innings through March 24 with six strikeouts and zero walks. He fanned 70 batters in 60 innings last season.
Delabar missed August with a sore shoulder that likely contributed to his unsightly 7.02 ERA after the all-star break and overall 3.82 mark. He’s nowhere near that bad but expect an ERA closer to 3.20 than his first-half performance of a year ago.