2015 Toronto Blue Jays: Team on the rise?

The Toronto Blue Jays' pre-season performance has been encouraging and the manager believes it’s a more talented group than recent years. We discuss some of the players, young and older, and their roles in our Blue Jays season preview.

Young arms fill out rotation, Cecil to close, Travis in 2nd-base mix

From left, Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Devon Travis and Brett Cecil will try to help the Blue Jays end the longest current playoff drought in baseball at 21 years in 2015. Bautista will patrol right field and Donaldson takes over from the traded Brett Lawrie at third base. The rookie Travis has the inside track on the second-base job and Cecil succeeds Casey Janssen as closer. (Canadian Press/Getty Images/

The sun has been shining over the Toronto Blue Jays' spring training facility for the better part of four weeks, their pre-season performance has been encouraging and the manager believes it's a more talented group than recent years.

So, that must mean the longest current playoff drought in baseball at 21 years will end in September, right? Well, they must still play the games.

With Toronto's April 6 season opener at Yankee Stadium in New York approaching, we offer a look at a Blue Jays outfit that will try to improve upon last season's 83-79 record and third-place finish in the American League East.

Young starters

Pitchers Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez will open the season in the starting rotation after fellow youngster Marcus Stroman was lost for the season in early March after tearing a ligament in his left knee.

Norris, who turns 22 on April 25, has had an outstanding spring coming off arthroscopic surgery last October on his left (throwing) elbow, posting a 2.41 earned-run average in his first five starts with four walks against 21 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings. Norris has only 6 2/3 innings on his major league regular-season resume but he fanned Boston slugger David Ortiz for his first strikeout (see below) and appears ready to make an impact in 2015.

Early in spring training, the 22-year-old Sanchez appeared destined for the-then vacant closer's job, but the Stroman injury thrust him in the mix for a starting role. The right-handed fireballer has looked sharp in exhibition play, limiting the opposition to a .217 batting average and issuing only four walks over 18 1/3 innings covering five starts through March 29. In a late-season audition with the Jays last September, Sanchez flashed a 1.09 ERA, albeit in 33 innings, allowing just 14 hits.

Cecil the stopper

Brett Cecil seems to have put an inflamed shoulder from earlier this spring in the past, appearing in minor league games and blanking the opposition in his first two spring training innings as he will take over the closer's role to start the season after Casey Janssen signed with Washington as a free agent in the off-season. Cecil possesses a borderline unhittable curve that allowed him to post a 2.70 ERA in 53 1/3 innings in mostly a set-up role last season.

Managers tend to have a righty bias with stoppers – only six lefties have notched 20 saves the last five years – but the 28-year-old Cecil is fit for the role. In each of the past two seasons, he is one of only four lefties to work 50-plus innings and boast a least a 50 per cent groundball rate and 25 per cent strikeout rate. Cecil converted five of seven save chances in 2014.

Bullpen overhaul

Toronto ranked 25th among 30 teams in bullpen ERA last season at 4.09, so it wouldn't be surprising to see a different look in 2015. Closer Cecil is a lock, as is Aaron Loup as the left-handed setup guy, and likely Todd Redmond as the long man. Former Milwaukee hurler Marco Estrada, who could spot start, pitch in long relief or the seventh inning, will break camp with the Jays. Others in the mix include lefty Colt Hynes and righty Liam Hendriks along with 20-year-olds Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna.

Castro and Osuna, at camp as non-roster invitees, have emerged. It wouldn't be far-fetched to see Castro, who has reached 100 miles per hour on the radar gun this spring, get save chances this season. Osuna, who had Tommy John surgery a little more than a year ago, could be the first Mexican pitcher on the Toronto roster since Esteban Loaiza in 2002.

Canadian content

The Blue Jays will open the season with three Canadians on the roster after third baseman Brett Lawrie (Langley, B.C.) was dealt to Oakland over the winter in the Josh Donaldson trade: catcher Russell Martin (Montreal) and outfielders Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) and Michael Saunders (Victoria). Martin will become the 21st Canadian to play for the Blue Jays after Pompey appeared in 17 games last September. At 386 games, pitcher Paul Quantrill of Port Hope, Ont., holds the record for most games played as a Blue Jay by a Canadian.

Other new faces

Pompey and second baseman Devon Travis could make it six rookies on the roster with Norris, Sanchez, Castro and Osuna. Then there's waiver claim Justin Smoak, formerly of the Seattle Mariners, and Donaldson. Smoak started slowly this spring but has swung the bat better since March 20 and could be used in a part-time role as a first baseman/designated hitter. Donaldson takes over from Lawrie at third and is coming off a second consecutive 158-game season in which he hit 29 home runs and 98 RBIs after 24/93 totals the previous campaign.

Toronto let Colby Rasmus walk as a free agent (he laters signed with Houston) and traded Anthony Gose to Detroit because it envisioned Pompey playing in centre-field each game. The 22-year-old hit .317 across three minor league levels last season and was promoted to the big leagues in September. He has shone at the plate in 18 games this spring with a .327 average and .364 on-base percentage through March 29. The switch-hitting Pompey can be a big asset in steals after recording 43 steals in 50 attempts in the minors last season and is considered an above average fielder who covers a lot of ground (see below).

Rookie 2nd sacker?

A groin injury to Maicer Izturis and a strong spring at the plate opened the door for Devon Travis to start the season at second base. Acquired from Detroit in November for outfielder Anthony Gose, the 24-year-old Travis hit .352 in his first 54 at-bats this spring and appears to have beat out defensive stalwart Ryan Goins for the job. Travis hit .298 with 10 homers for double-A Erie last season and was named the Tigers' minor league player of the year in 2013.


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