Five things to know about the Toronto Blue Jays as they start spring training camp:
1. Starting Staff
Starting pitching was supposed to be the main strength of the 2013 Blue Jays. Instead, Toronto's rotation faltered, finishing with a 4.81 earned-run average that ranked second worst in major-league baseball, ahead of only Minnesota. "We had three-fifths of the rotation not perform at all," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos lamented in late January. But despite the lingering disappointment, little has been done to bolster the staff this winter. Key holdovers include R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the only Toronto pitchers to make more than 20 starts last year, as well as injury-returnees Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ. Behind them, the Blue Jays boast an abundance of young but largely untested candidates, including Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, both of whom missed 2013 after undergoing elbow surgery the previous year.
2. Stroman Stands Tall
Among the many Blue Jays pitching prospects waiting in the wings, none is considered closer to being major-league ready than Marcus Stroman, a first round pick in the 2012 draft. The hard-throwing, 5-foot-9 right-hander might have made his debut already if not for a 50-game suspension at the end of 2012 for a positive test for a banned stimulant. Never short of confidence, Stroman will come to his first major-league camp this spring looking to earn a roster spot. If he can throw his changeup as well as he already throws his fastball and slider, he just might get one.
3. Avoiding Injuries
The Blue Jays have been battered by poor health in each of the past two seasons, so much so that at the end of 2013, Anthopoloulos acknowledged a need to become more risk averse when acquiring players with injury history. Former home run champion Jose Bautista hasn't played a full season since 2011 and Morrow has been limited to 31 total starts the past two seasons. If too many of Toronto's regulars make lengthy trips to the disabled list again, it'll be tough for the Blue Jays to end the 21-year post-season drought that's now the second-longest in baseball, behind only Kansas City's 28-year barren stretch.
4. Got Melky?
When they signed him to a two-year, $16-million US contract last off-season, Toronto probably didn't expect Melky Cabrera to keep playing at the same high level he had before his drug suspension in San Francisco. But they almost certainly expected more than they got in 2013, when Cabrera posted career worsts in homers and runs batted in during an injury-plagued season. The presumed cause of Cabrera's persistent leg and back pain was finally solved in August, when a benign tumour was removed from his lower spine. With that out of the way, the Blue Jays hope Cabrera can anchor left field and get on base ahead of Bautista and fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion.
5. Goins Good Enough?
Arguably the most suspect spot in the starting lineup is second base, where the Blue Jays will give rookie Ryan Goins every chance to win the job ahead of veteran role player Maicer Izturis. Goins sparkled defensively in a late-season cameo last year, but isn't expected to provide much at the plate. Anthopolous believes Goins can be "a Gold Glove-calibre defender" and is willing to tolerate his limited production at the bottom of an otherwise deep and powerful lineup. Just in case Goins can't get it done, the Blue Jays will begin spring training with a stockpile of additional infielders in camp, including Brent Morel, Chris Getz, Jared Goedart, Munenori Kawasaki and Steve Tolleson.