February 26th marked the first official spring training game for the Toronto Blue Jays. In a rained out 6.5 inning matchup against the Phillies they managed a 4-3 victory. While this game was perfectly meaningless there is just something amazing about seeing semi-real baseball again. Partially because it’s godlessly cold outside my windows, I will spare you the details as you might cry (or join me). Mainly however, baseball signifies balance in the universe and when we have baseball being played we know that warm summer days are not far off.
Here are some of the questions the Blue Jays need to answer this spring training:
5. Who will grab the final bench spots?
The Blue Jays enter spring training with a set starting lineup, there are no major position battles to be fought. The only positions available are on the bench which appear to be backup catcher, 4th outfielder, infield backup and a strong RH bat. John Gibbons has hinted at a 3 man bench again if they need to stash another bullpen arm due to some player option issues. The Jays have often carried an 8 man bullpen over the past few years leaving them a tight 3 player bench. The players competing for these 3-4 spots are: Moises Sierra, Anthony Gose, Maicer Izturis, Josh Thole, Erik Kratz and fan favorite/team mascot Munenori Kawasaki. One of the three spots will go to backup catchers Thole or Kratz with the other going to AAA, it appears that Kratz has the upper hand despite Thole having experience catching the knuckleball. Sierra is out of options and should have the upper hand to be a platoon partner for Lind against LHP, he has a 121 OPS+ against LHP vs Lind’s very poor 55 OPS+. This leaves 1 spot for Maicer Izturis who should split some time with Ryan Goins and backup SS and 3B. With the 4 man bench Gose would appear to have the upper hand and would be a logical 4th outfielder over Sierra. Kawasaki despite being amazing as a team mascot does not bring enough actual baseball skills but could serve as a temporary infielder replacement if needed.
4. Can they get the team to play as a team?
Despite the expected starting lineup only playing 3 games together in 2013 there was something missing with the group. I am not going to debate the worth of team leaders and veteran old guys but in 2013 the Blue Jays did not seem like a team. With the WBC many of the new additions missed most of spring training, got rushed or got injured during the tournament. It has been suggested that the team failed to mesh together as a result and once the injuries piled up the team was too far gone. Additionally Gibbons has suggested that the 2014 camp would be more focused on fundamentals and should serve to get the team better prepared for the start of the season. Early reports from this years camp have noted its “crispness” and a stronger team environment with players like Bautista spending more time talking to players. Hopefully its a sign that the Jays are working to create a better team environment prior to the start of the 2014 season.
3. Health, health and please God health?
In 2013 Blue Jay players spent a combined 1,478 days on the DL which was the 4th highest in the MLB with the second highest DL stints as a team. The Jays do not have the depth to suffer this type of loss to the expected 25 man roster again if they want to compete in 2014. As of the first spring game it appears that everyone is healthy and “in the best shape of their life”. The ever fragile Brandon Morrow did play a little joke on the media by covering his leg with band aids after it was reported he had calf tightness. Again health will be huge for Blue Jays in 2014 and they hope to see their regular starting lineup more the 3 times over the course of the season.
2. Will the second base & catcher positions be black holes again?
J.P Arencibia (0.1), Josh Thole (-0.7) and Henry Blanco (-0.3) combine for a terrible -0.9 WAR in 2013. This was a major loss of production from the catcher position and was seen as a major need to help improve the 2014 team. New catcher Dioner Navarro provided a solid 2 WAR in only 89 games for the Cubs in 2013 while Erik Kratz was worth -0.3 WAR with the Phillies in 68 games. That combination produced 1.7 WAR or a net increase of 2.6 WAR which is pretty significant. It has yet to be seen if Navarro can step back in the role of a full-time catcher but if he can along with a backup produce between a 2-3 WAR over 162 games that below replacement value could turn positive in 2014.
Second base saw 6 different players which included Emilio Bonifacio, Mark DeRosa, Ryan Goins, Maicer Izturis, Munenori Kawasaki and a 6 game test with Brett Lawrie. As a group they contributed 1.8 WAR (excluding Lawrie) but that covers all contributions not limited to 2B. In 34 games Goins produced 1.4 WAR thanks to his sparking defense. He earned a 12 Rfield which ranked him near the top in the MLB in only 34 games. This essentially means he was worth 12 runs over the average 2B man. Dustin Pedroia‘s best year of his career for example produced 18 Rfield. Now I am not going to suggest Goins will be worth 2-3 times more runs from fielding then Pedroia’s best year. Goins will be a valuable defensive asset at 2B who could find his way to a 2 WAR season despite negative offensive contributions. However I am not ready to call 2B fixed as filling it with a 1 dimensional player is a not a long-term answer. In healthy lineup having Goins bat 9th is not a major loss but I am just not yet convinced the black hole at 2B is fixed.
1. Who will fill the 5 rotation spots?
Lets set the stage as to who has guaranteed position of the 5 spots available. The first spot goes to the 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, he has already been awarded the opening day start against the Rays in Tampa. Dickey did not have a great 2013 but he gave the Jays 224 Innings and a slightly below league average adjusted 97 ERA+. In the second half Dickey showed some promise as to why the Jays originally traded for him. He is not an Ace but should be a valuable asset in 2014. Next we have Mark Buehrle who also did not have a great 2013 but did turn things around to throw just over 200 innings of about a league average adjusted ERA. Buehrle is an unspectacular workhorse but a valuable asset to the rotation, we should expect about the same in 2014 with hopefully a slightly above average ERA. The final guaranteed spot in my mind goes to Brandon Morrow whose 2013 was an injury write off. The hope is that Morrow is healthy and can return to the 2012 form that saw him pitch to an ERA+ of 143. Morrow has top of the rotation potential, if he is healthy and effective he is the ace of the staff. However Morrow has been very fragile over the years and has yet to sustain a prolonged run of success.
The next two spots will be battled between:
J.A. Happ – Happ is the favorite here to land the 4th spot. He might even already have the 4th spot but I am not ready to anoint it to him because frankly they can do better. There is little upside to Happ, he struggles to pitch over 5 innings and runs pitch counts full way too often. The Jays brass has been selling Happ really hard! It makes me pretty nervous actually and I do not buy that his new arm angle will turn him from a back of the rotation filler to an above average starter. If Happ is 4th in your rotation then AA can not talk about “depth” and keep a straight face.
Drew Hutchison – Hutchison did not pitch in MLB in 2013 as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. At 21 years old in 2012 Hutch put up a respectable 11 starts for a 92 ERA+. He appears to be fully recovered and at 23 is still young and full of potential. What Hutch will be is yet to be determined but he has as good as chance as anyone to make one of the final 2 spots. I might give him the 4th spot if he is fully healthy.
Esmil Rogers – Rogers is an un-sexy pick when you consider the absolutely terrible July/August numbers he pitched to but he mixed in a good September/April-June. Rogers has the advantage that he showed some real potential when his sinker was working and was a big part of the 2013 rotation. In moving from a RP to a SP Rogers made a massive IP jump which might have caused some fatigue. The Jays like Rogers and I don’t blame them as he can really dominate when he is on but at 28 his time might be running short. Still he has a great chance at landing a SP spot or a 6th guy from the pen.
Marcus Stroman – Stroman is the sexy pick here, he is a high rated prospect and at 22 appears to be MLB ready. I profiled Stroman earlier and he brings a lot to the table. Working against him is the list of other candidates ahead of him, he might deserve the 5th spot but there is no guarantee he gets it over a guy like Rogers. There is no crime in sending him to AAA for extra seasoning but he should find his way to the rotation in 2014.
Ricky Romero – Romero has fallen pretty far from the All Star up and coming pitcher of 2011. The guy had a 4.2 WAR, pitched 225 innings, 15 wins, 2.92 ERA, 146 ERA+ and signed a long-term contract as a fixture at the top of the Jays rotation. Sadly since then Romero’s stock has fallen so low he is not even on the 40 man roster and might be a lost cause. However if he can recover he would be a huge asset to the rotation. I am doubtful he makes the rotation out of spring but if his confidence and control is back, there is no better option.
Todd Redmond – Like Rogers, Redmond has a slight advantage in that he started 14 games in 2013 for the Jays. In the same way he was at times pretty good and at times pretty bad. Redmond might have a better shot at a bullpen job but he does have a chance at the 5th spot if he has a great spring. His first spring appearance was pretty nice and he looked like he wants the job. I wont count him out but I don’t see it as a great sign if he makes the rotation, lets hope he proves us wrong.
Kyle Drabek – Like Hutchison, Drabek is recovering from Tommy John surgery and appears to be ready to contribute again. The Jays want Drabek to succeed, he is the son of a former Cy Young winner and was part of the Roy Halladay trade. However to date, he has not really show much at the MLB level that inspires any confidence. He is more likely to start in AAA and could see the MLB rotation again but my expectations at this point are low for the now 26-year-old former prospect. I would give Hutichson a better shot if all was equal and fair due to his much better MLB record and age.
Chad Jenkins – Jenkins in all honesty has been pretty good in his limited MLB career and probably should rank higher on this list. He has a career 117 ERA+ in 65 innings split between starting and the pen. In fact last year he had a sparking 158 ERA+ yet he hasn’t been in much of the conversation. He has been equally as good as a starter and a reliever. He had a 1.61 ERA against teams with a Win% over .500, so there is not much fault I can find outside of his low k%. Jenkins is a worthy candidate who has yet to get a prolonged look but when he has he has been solid.
Sean Nolin, Dustin McGowan, Deck McGuire – These are the leftovers which make up players 9,10 & 11 on an extremely long list. The only guy who probably makes the team is McGowan. The Jays love McGowan and his potential but he is chronically injured. When healthy in 2013 he was a very solid bullpen contributor but it seems he would like to start again and the Jays seem to want to comply with this. I doubt it happens to start the season but who knows. Nolin and McGuire are the “other” prospects that might find their way to the MLB roster at some point. Of the two Nolin has a solid Milb track record and if it was not for the other 10 guys might actually have a shot. McGuire’s promise has been fading over the past few years and its doubtful at this point he contributes.