Toronto Blue Jays: 5 Key Storylines Heading into Spring Training
The Toronto Blue Jays were expected to be a contending team in 2013 after their offseason makeover. But due to multiple factors, those expectations fell short and the team’s postseason drought continued.
As spring training approaches, the Blue Jays will be looking at this season as a rebound year. With few key departures or acquisitions, the team is hoping that a nearly identical roster will perform better this season than it did in 2013.
While this is certainly possible based on the roster the Blue Jays still have on paper, a lot of things will have to go right in order for the team to have a chance to compete this season.
That being said, here are five key storylines for the Blue Jays going into spring training.
All player stats are from Baseball-Reference.com.
Does the Rotation Improve from Last Season?
This is perhaps the most important issue for the Blue Jays heading into spring training this season.
One of the biggest reasons why the team struggled in 2013 was because of its mediocre starting pitching.
Despite the acquisitions last offseason of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, the rotation disappointed with a 4.81 ERA, 14th in the American League.
It also gave up a whopping 136 homers, third highest in the AL.
Dickey and Buehrle both struggled early on in 2013 before picking it up in the second half of the season. They’ll both be counted on to remain consistent from Opening Day this season.
Johnson, meanwhile, had a year to forget as he struggled with injuries and made just 16 starts, putting up a team-high 6.20 ERA. The team did not bring him back for this season.
The two holdovers from last year, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ, also missed significant time on the disabled list.
Barring any trades or acquisitions, the top four spots in the rotation for 2014 will likely consist of Dickey, Buehrle, Morrow and Happ. The team has opted to let multiple players compete for the fifth spot in the rotation during spring training.
Signing a free-agent starter such as Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez to bolster the rotation is also a possibility.
Regardless of how the team chooses to fill in the fifth spot, Dickey and Buehrle will have to perform better than they did last year. Morrow and Happ will also have to prove that their injuries are behind them. If these four pitchers go out and have good years, then it is almost guaranteed that the team’s record in the standings will be much better than it was in 2013.
The Battle for Second Base
The Blue Jays have never had a true second baseman since Aaron Hill was shipped out of town.
Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio both got a chance to take the full-time job last season, but neither player was very impressive with the glove or the bat.
With Bonifacio shipped out of town and Izturis relegated to a bench role, the Blue Jays called up Ryan Goins to make some starts at second base last season.
Goins did a decent job during the 29 games he started at second base. The rookie hit .252/.264/.345 on the season with two home runs, five doubles and 11 runs scored.
More importantly, he was very impressive defensively at second base and brought stability to the infield.
Based on his performance in 2013, Goins looks to be the front-runner for the job heading into spring training.
If Goins struggles, Izturis should get another chance to claim his job. While he had a terrible season last year with an offensive stat line of .236/.288/.310, it’s important to note that the 33-year-old is a career .269 hitter with a .331 OBP. He has also been a good defender in the past, and last year’s struggles on the field could be chalked up to playing on the turf for the first time.
According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, it’s conceivable that the Blue Jays might bring in outside help as well.
Heyman said on MLB Network that the Blue Jays are interested in free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew and might be willing to sign him and play him at second base.
Drew could also prove good insurance in case shortstop Jose Reyes, who has battled numerous injury issues in the past, has to spend time on the DL this season.
Going into spring training, second base is arguably the weakest position in the Blue Jays’ lineup, especially offensively. If the Blue Jays want to contend this season, then an upgrade here might be very important. But with upgrades required more desperately for the rotation, this may be a luxury the team has to put on hold.
Are Injuries Going to Be a Problem Again?
Injuries to key players were a major factor in the team’s struggles last season.
The Blue Jays were second only to the New York Yankees in the number of players put on the DL in the American League East.
Mainstays in the lineup such as Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie, Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus all spent time on the DL for large stretches of the season.
This forced the Blue Jays to rely upon bench players such as Mark DeRosa a bit too often. Even younger players who needed more seasoning in the minors such as Anthony Gose were pressed into service.
The rotation also suffered its share of injuries and exposed the team’s lack of depth at pitching. Because of this, it was forced to rely on the likes of Chien-Ming Wang, Ramon Ortiz and Aaron Laffey to make starts. These fill-in starters were largely ineffective and were a major factor in many of the team’s losses.
It goes without saying that having players stay healthy will be a major factor in determining the team’s success this season.
With the loss of DeRosa as well as speedster Rajai Davis, the Blue Jays also need to bolster their bench with players who could be effective replacements for injured starters on short notice.
The good news is that all the players who spent time on the DL last season appear to be healthy heading into spring training. This could allow the team to get off to a fast start in April.
Bottom line is, injuries were a major story last season and it remains to be seen how they affect the team this season.
Is Manager John Gibbons on the Hot Seat?
The Blue Jays’ offseason moves last season drew approval from both fans and analysts. But the one thing a lot of people were confused by was general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ decision to bring back John Gibbons to manage the team.
Gibbons’ first run with the team was perhaps more famous for his physical altercations with players Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly than it was for his managerial work.
After being fired by the Blue Jays in 2008, Gibbons didn’t manage for any other major league teams.
When Anthopoulos announced Gibbons’ return last season, quite a few people wondered why the GM didn’t hire a more experienced manager who had a history of success.
While Gibbons can’t really be blamed for the team’s disappointing season in 2013, the criticism over his hire has only increased as the losses have piled up.
Going into this season, Anthopoulos himself is under pressure to deliver a winning product by the fans that haven’t seen the team in the playoffs since 1993.
Even ownership would likely wish to see a greater return on the team’s massive payroll increase it allowed last season which enabled Anthopoulos make those offseason moves.
Heading into this season, the team’s ownership and front office have both made it clear that they expect to compete this season and not rebuild for next year.
If the team struggles out of the gate again this season, Anthopoulos might be pressured to make a change at manager in order to turn things around.
So it’s fair to say that Gibbons will probably be on the hot seat as the season opens and will be under pressure to make sure his team has a strong start to the season.
Who Will Impress Enough to Make the Team out of Spring Training?
Watching highly touted prospects and other minor league players competing against each other in order to make the team is usually the highlight of every spring training.
But there aren’t as many open roster spots on the team this spring as there have been in the past.
The team’s starting lineup is set with Ryan Goins being the only player who's not a complete lock.
It’s a different story when it comes to the rotation, though. With the departure of Josh Johnson, the No. 5 spot on the rotation has opened up and quite a few players will be competing for it in spring training.
Drew Hutchison, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek, Chad Jenkins and highly touted prospect Marcus Stroman appear to be the early candidates for the job.
Dustin McGowan and Jeremy Jeffress, who were both in the bullpen last season, will also be stretched out as starters in spring training and may be in the mix for a rotation role as well.
Further complicating matters is that Rogers, Redmond, McGowan and Jeffress are all out of options and could be claimed by another team if they fail to make the final roster.
It’s likely that the candidates who fail to make the rotation could be given consideration to join the bullpen, especially if they’re out of options and the team wants to keep them in the organization.
Finally, the team is also looking for players to add to the bench and replace the departed Mark DeRosa and Rajai Davis.
While Josh Thole should have an inside track for the backup catcher role, Eric Kratz will also compete for the job. Top catching prospect A.J. Jimenez should also be at camp, but the team will likely make him start the season in the minors and get a little more seasoning.
Moises Sierra should have a leg up for the outfield bench spot. The 23-year-old hit .290/.369/.458 in 35 games played last season. Anthony Gose could also have a shot at a bench role.
The good news is that even though there aren’t a lot of roster spots open during spring training and a surplus of pitchers, having depth in the minors will be very helpful for the team as the season progresses and the inevitable wave of injuries comes.