What a difference a year makes for this franchise.
Last spring, the Toronto Blue Jays entered February as one of the most exciting teams in baseball, buoyed by the offseason acquisitions of Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson. With stars like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion already on the roster, the first October run in 20 years was expected in Canada.
Of course, that dream never came to fruition.
After a 74-88 record and last-place finish in the AL East, the Blue Jays are back to avenge a lost season and compete with a roster of veterans and former stars.
This time, there is little buzz, no impact additions and limited expectations.
Can the Blue Jays surprise? With a roster similar to the team that was expected to win big last summer, it's not out of the question.
The next six weeks will determine how fans feel about this team heading into the regular season.
As the team heads to Dunedin, Fla., here's a spring training preview for the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
In Toronto, the offseason is measured in extremes.
Last year, the Blue Jays overhauled their roster, cashed in major prospects as chips for established, veteran stars and looked poised to win big when the season began.
This winter, at least thus far, has been inordinately quiet for Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto front office.
As of this moment, catcher Dioner Navarro is the only free-agent acquisition slated to be a starter or major contributor when camp opens. While Navarro had a nice 2013 season (.856 OPS), he hasn't been a starter or caught over 100 games since the 2009 season.
Of course, the lack of activity in Toronto could be a product of the market, not unwillingness to improve a roster that massively underachieved last season. If the team had acquired Ian Kinsler in November, a rumor reported by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet, perhaps the narrative entering camp would be different.
Despite that report, Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star disputes that a deal was truly close at all.
With six weeks before the season actually begins, look for the Blue Jays to keep their options open and rewrite this chapter before Opening Day.
Injury Updates Entering Camp
It's cliche to single out health as a key for success in professional sports. Obviously, successful teams need their best players to remain healthy, play often and display their respective talents.
Yet for this group in Toronto, health isn't just a key—it's everything.
How would the 2013 Blue Jays have fared if, say, Jose Reyes played more than 93 games? What about if Jose Bautista had played in 150 games? Starting pitching, expected to be a strength at this time last year, sunk to the depths of the AL East. If Brandon Morrow made more than 10 starts, that may have been quite different.
As camp opens, keep an eye on the day-to-day health of Bautista and Morrow.
For Bautista, it's simple: When he's actually on the field, opposing pitchers cringe. Over the last two years, the Blue Jays slugger has posted a 135 OPS+ in 210 games. That number, while down from his 173 OPS+ in 2011 and 2012, ranks 23rd in baseball. Unfortunately for Toronto, that production has only been present for 210 of 324 possible games.
Heading into spring, Bautista is healthy and looking to play his first full season since 2011. If he does, the Blue Jays will have one of the top 20 hitters in the sport in their lineup.
As for starting pitcher Brandon Morrow, his progress through spring is a key for this team. In fact, it may be the key to a winning season. That notion was portrayed by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, per John Lott of the National Post.
“Everything is good, and he’s a key guy this year in that rotation,” Gibbons said. “We need something big out of him. I’m not throwing everything on his back, but if he can bridge the gap there in that rotation, he can do wonders for us.”
In 2012, Morrow pitched to a 2.96 ERA. If he can regain that form, the Blue Jays will be a much better team this season.
Coaching Staff Analysis
The biggest shock to John Gibbons' staff this winter came when Pat Hentgen was reassigned and removed from his role as bullpen coach for personal reasons, per Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star. In his place, former Triple-A pitching coach Bob Stanley will take over the job.
Along with Stanley's arrival to Toronto, first base coach Tim Leiper and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer are new to the group.
This spring, keep an eye on how Seitzer works with the offense, specifically veteran hitters like Jose Reyes, Bautista and Encarnacion.
Upon his hiring in October, the former 12-year veteran hitter talked about working with this roster, per Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com.
My philosophy in a nutshell is to stay in the middle of the field, stay gap to gap, and make tweaks along the way with mechanics. Work with the guys on what their strengths are and then try to help them with their weaknesses too.
I also have a philosophy of, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' So, let guys continue to do what they've had success with, but at the same time be able to help them with adjustments they need to make when times are tough.
It's not easy to tweak the approach of veteran hitters, especially stars with track records of success. If the stars on this roster don't accept Seitzer's tutelage early, this relationship may not work.
A full list of John Gibbons' staff can be found here, per the official team website.
1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Jose Bautista, RF
3. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
4. Adam Lind, DH
5. Colby Rasmus, CF
6. Melky Cabrera, LF
7. Brett Lawrie, 3B
8. Dioner Navarro, C
9. Ryan Goins vs. Maicer Izturis vs. Chris Getz, 2B
Josh Thole, C
Anthony Gose, OF
Moises Sierra, OF
When play begins in the Grapefruit League, pay close attention to how manager John Gibbons deploys his lineup. Although spring training lineups and batting order can mean very little at times, this spring can be instructive when viewing the top third of Toronto's order.
If the projected lineup, per MLB Depth Charts, is what Toronto uses in 2014, it will be a tremendous move for a team that had 136 different lineups last season. None of the Blue Jays' most-used groupings featured Reyes-Bautista-Encarnacion in the top three spots, per Baseball-Reference.
The idea of stacking the best hitters atop the lineup isn't new, but Toronto needs to maximize the plate appearances for their best offensive players.
With question marks surrounding Lind's consistency, Cabrera's long-term success, Lawrie's offensive development and Goins' status as an everyday second baseman, splitting up the Reyes-Bautista-Encarnacion trio would be foolish.
1. R.A Dickey, RHP
2. Mark Buehrle, LHP
3. Brandon Morrow, RHP
4. J.A. Happ, LHP
5. Kyle Drabek, RHP vs. Drew Hutchison, RHP vs. Marcus Stroman, RHP vs. Ricky Romero, LHP vs. Sean Nolin, LHP
Same names, different story?
Right now, that's the hope in Toronto. If the Blue Jays sign an impact starter between now and March 31, perhaps the narrative around this group will change. Until then, the focus will be on a core of starters that pitched to a 4.81 ERA last season.
Until something changes, pay close attention to R.A. Dickey's knuckleball this spring. When the veteran righty was brought aboard last winter in a trade with the New York Mets, the Blue Jays acquired the reigning NL Cy Young winner.
In 2013, he was far from that.
After posting a 129 ERA+ for New York from 2010-2012, Dickey was below average (97 ERA+) for Toronto last season. While it wasn't unexpected to see Dickey pitch below his Cy Young form of 2013, his SO/BB ratio (2.49) was virtually identical to his breakout seasons (2.48 from 2010-2011) with the Mets.
Here's what changed: Dickey's ground-ball rate plummeted (40.3 percent), leading to more fly balls. In a park like Rogers Centre, that's a bad recipe.
During Dickey's spring starts, keep an eye on where opposing hitters are sending his offerings. It's that, not command, that will determine Dickey's 2014 season.
CL: Casey Janssen, RHP
SU: Sergio Santos, RHP
SU: Steve Delabar, RHP
MID: Aaron Loup, LHP
MID: Jeremy Jeffress, RHP
MID: Brett Cecil, LHP
LR: Dustin McGowan, RHP
Bullpens are fickle. On a year-to-year basis, it's hard to predict which groups will emerge as shutdown units. Due to injury, variance and random dips in performance from failed starters, the process of identifying a great bullpen is a fool's errand.
NBC Sports' Matthew Pouilot isn't a fool. In fact, due to a detailed projection system, he's far from it when projecting bullpen performance. Upon releasing his 2014 rankings, the Blue Jays came in seventh among AL teams. While that's far from poor, they could be even better, according to Pouilot, per Hardball Talk.
"The Blue Jays would have come in fourth here had I used both Dustin McGowan and Jeremy Jeffress instead of adding in Esmil Rogers. Rogers, though, seems like the best bet to have a spot."
As the battle for these coveted bullpen spots wages on in Dunedin, don't just focus on the relievers with guaranteed spots. If the Blue Jays choose the right combination of arms to take north, they could boast one of the best bullpens in the AL.
Prospects to Watch
This could become a sore subject for Blue Jays fans. In the span of a few years, this franchise has gone from having one of the most fertile farm systems in baseball to one of the worst.
The reason: big-ticket trades cost major prospects.
If Travis d'Arnaud or Noah Syndergaard or Jake Marisnick headlined Toronto's non-roster invitees, optimism would be abound. Instead, Tomo Ohka and Andy LaRoche are headed to camp and hoping to make the Blue Jays roster.
Ben Shapiro of MassLive.com did a great job breaking down the issues in Toronto's farm system along with highlighting the names to watch this spring: Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Kevin Pillar.
If you've never watched Stroman pitch at any level, his height (5'8") will be the first thing you notice upon watching him throw. Despite his frame, he's a solid prospect and contender for the No. 5 starter role this spring. During an interview with MiLB.com's Robert Emrich, Stroman discussed how his height is a motivating factor.
Everyone says I'm too short to be a starting pitcher and I have to be a relief pitcher. I just keep quiet and work and continue to go out and prove to people I can be a starter despite being 5-foot-8. I don't believe in stereotypes because I've had to face them my whole life and I continually had to go against the grain. It's something that motivates me.
Sanchez, MLB.com's No. 1 prospect in Toronto's system, is also a potentially dominant starter. MLB.com's Bernie Pleskoff had this to say after watching the 2010 first-round pick:
"I believe Sanchez can become a top-of-the-rotation starter if he can more frequently showcase the dominating take-charge demeanor and the smooth delivery I saw most recently."
Pillar, a 25-year-old outfielder, doesn't project as a future star, per MLB.com. However, he could project as a solid backup as early as this season. If injuries limit Jose Bautista or Melky Cabrera, a big spring could put Pillar on Toronto's radar.
If the Blue Jays are going to be a contender in 2014, leaps from young players would buoy their cause in the AL East. Luckily for Toronto, two young players are on the cusp of breaking out this summer: Third baseman Brett Lawrie and reliever Jeremy Jeffress.
While it may seem that Lawrie has been around for a long time, 2014 will only be his fourth year in the big leagues. At the age of 24, the versatile third baseman has displayed an all-around game not often seen from young third baseman.
In the history of baseball, only 11 third baseman have hit at least 25 home runs and stolen at least 25 bases through their respective age-23 seasons. That list (subscription required) includes stars like Adrian Beltre, Garry Sheffield, Scott Rolen and David Wright.
With power, speed and the ability to play excellent defense, Lawrie could become a star very, very soon.
Unlike Lawrie, Jeffress isn't a well-known name around the sport. By the end of 2014, that could change.
The 26-year-old reliever has limited big league experience (49 innings pitched since 2010) but is improving in one key area on a yearly basis: K/9.
Since debuting in 2010, Jeffress has posted a higher K/9 rate in every single season. From 7.2 to 7.6 to 8.8 to 10.5, the Blue Jays have a reliever that's on the cusp of a K/9 rate over 11.0.
How good is that? Only 18 relievers (subscription required) eclipsed that mark last year (min. 50 IP). Among them: Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland and Jason Grilli. In other words, some of the most dominant relievers in baseball.
If Jeffress can become a reliable option for John Gibbons, a star could emerge.
Position Battle Predictions
No. 5 starter battle: Kyle Drabek, RHP vs. Drew Hutchison, RHP vs. Marcus Stroman, RHP vs. Ricky Romero, LHP vs. Sean Nolin, LHP
If this battle is about money, expect Romero to reclaim his status as a member of the Blue Jays rotation. The 29-year-old lefty and former AL All-Star is still owed more than $15 million over the next two seasons, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.
If the winner is determined by untapped potential, Kyle Drabek, a former top prospect, could emerge after Tommy John surgery cost him most of the 2013 season.
This battle exists in the present, but ig could be an afterthought if Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana walks through the doors at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium later this month.
Of the candidates vying for a spot as camp opens, Drabek, once the prize of the Roy Halladay trade with Philadelphia, is the pick to win the job.
Second base battle: Ryan Goins vs. Maicer Izturis vs. Chris Getz
This competition represents one of the saddest of spring training. Last season, Goins, Izturis and Getz posted respective OPS+ marks of 66, 65 and 55.
Due to the presence of Jose Reyes and a deep, talented batting order, Toronto can likely get by with one poor offensive player. The key will be determining which of these second base options could show an improvement this coming season.
Goins will turn 26 when camp opens, making him the baby of this group. Both Izturis and Getz are on the wrong side of 30, limiting whatever upside they have. Realistically, they are bench players.
If Goins shows improvement at the plate, plays solid defense and meshes with double-play partner Jose Reyes, he'll be the starting second baseman when Toronto opens the season against Tampa Bay.