Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays: Complete 2014 Season Preview

Mohammad ArshadCorrespondent IMarch 26, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays: Complete 2014 Season Preview

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

    It’s amazing how much a year changes things.

    Heading into the 2014 season, the Toronto Blue Jays have been completely under the radar and are not a popular pick to contend in the American League East.

    This is a far cry from last year when, following an offseason makeover, the Blue Jays began the 2013 season, chosen by Las Vegas experts, as the favorites to win the World Series.

    That certainly didn’t prove to be the case as the team struggled from the start, finishing 17.5 games out of a playoff spot.

    While the disappointments of last year have caused a lot of critics to offer a pessimistic outlook on the team’s chances heading into this season, what’s ironic about this is that the 2014 Blue Jays have returned nearly the same roster as last season that was predicted by those same critics to do so well.

    There were a lot of explanations given for the Blue Jays’ failure last season. Injuries, lack of chemistry and being unprepared because of the World Baseball Classic were the most popular ones.

    As none of those explanations will be coming into play heading into Opening Day this year, it’s up to the team to show that it can reach its potential and deliver on last year’s lofty expectations.

    With that being said, here is a complete preview of the 2014 Blue Jays season. This includes an analysis of the team’s performance in spring training, Opening Day roster predictions, breakout candidates, keys to success, a look at the team’s first series of the season in Tampa Bay and an outlook for the season.

     

    All stats are from baseball-reference.com

    Want to talk sports? Follow me on Twitter: @WahajArshad

Spring Training Recap

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    With not many roster spots being open for contention, spring training for the Blue Jays was a fairly uneventful affair this year.

    Several players did stand out with their performances, with pitcher Drew Hutchison being the most notable among them.

    Hutchison came into spring training as a contender for a spot in the back of the team’s rotation. But after looking dominant during his Grapefruit League appearances, the right-hander has all but secured a spot on the rotation over the rest of the candidates.

    With a fastball touching 95 mph, and displaying good command of his off speed pitches, Hutchison looks primed to have a good season.

    Another player who was impressive in spring training was catcher Erik Kratz. The 33-year-old was competing with Josh Thole for the backup catcher’s job. Despite hitting .400/.444/.720 in Grapefruit League action, he was sent to the minor leagues as Thole made the team. But no doubt Kratz's performance gives the team another option later on in the season in case a catcher struggles or is injured.

    Ricky Romero was another one of the standout players in camp.

    After spending most of last season in the minors, the former Blue Jays ace drew a lot of interest with his performance this spring training, as he posted a 3.72 ERA in 9.2 innings pitched.

    While he was still sent down to minor league camp eventually, the left-hander’s performance has put him back on the team’s radar.

    Not all players had a spring training to remember though. Several players that the team was looking to count upon in the regular season really struggled during Grapefruit League action.

    Ryan Goins was all but guaranteed the second base starting job heading into spring training, but has been a liability with the bat these past three weeks.

    Considering the team’s lack of depth at the position, Goins’ job still appears to be safe. But he’ll need to do a lot better than the .164/.233/200 slash line he’s currently put up in spring training.

    Prolonged struggles once the regular season starts could lead to Blue Jays manager Alex Anthopoulos looking at other options.

    Veteran J.A. Happ has, without a doubt, been the most disappointing pitcher in spring training this year.

    Expected to be a lock for a spot on the team’s starting rotation, Happ has done his best to play himself off of that role, after giving up 16 earned runs in just seven innings pitched. The 31-year-old has also missed time with a back injury.

    With Hutchison claiming the only other available spot on the rotation, Happ could find himself out of the rotation if the team opts to go with Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond or Esmil Rogers instead.

Injury Updates

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    Jose Reyes is currently dealing with a tight hamstring.
    Jose Reyes is currently dealing with a tight hamstring.Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    The Blue Jays have been relatively lucky so far on the injuries front, as no player has been dealing with any significant injuries and everyone on the Opening Day roster should be healthy to start the regular season.

    Closer Casey Janssen felt soreness in his shoulder early on in spring training, but it has since subsided and he has pitched a minor league game.

    Starting rotation hopeful J.A. Happ dealt with a back strain early on in spring training, but he has since been declared healthy and has made a couple of Grapefruit League starts since then.

    The most serious injury in camp right now could be to shortstop Jose Reyes, as he has been shut down temporarily after feeling tightness in his left hamstring. An MRI has shown that the 30-year-old has a mild strain in the same hamstring. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has said that he isn’t worried about the injury and that he hopes that Reyes will soon be ready to close out spring training and be ready for Opening Day.

    “They said it's a very mild strain, so hopefully he gets in the next couple days,” Gibbons told MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm (via Mlb.com). "He's (Reyes) feeling pretty good after getting the results."

Lineup Preview

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Predicted Opening Day Lineup

    Jose Reyes, Shortstop. Switch Hitter.

    Melky Cabrera, Left Fielder. Switch Hitter.

    Jose Bautista, Right Fielder. Right-Handed Hitter.

    Edwin Encarnacion, First Baseman. Right-Handed Hitter.

    Adam Lind, Designated Hitter. Left-Handed Hitter.

    Brett Lawrie, Third Baseman. Right-Handed Hitter.

    Colby Rasmus, Centre Fielder. Left-Handed Hitter.

    Dioner Navarro, Catcher. Switch Hitter.

    Ryan Goins, Second Baseman. Left-Handed Hitter.

     

    Bench Preview

    Moises Sierra, Outfielder. Right-Handed Hitter.

    Maicer Izturis, Infielder. Switch Hitter.

    Erik Kratz, Catcher. Right-Handed Hitter.

     


    The Blue Jays lineup should be one of the team’s biggest strengths and will play a huge role in determining the team’s position in the standings this season.

    Though the loss of speedster Rajai Davis means that the Blue Jays likely won’t be stealing as many bases this season as last year, the offense should continue to be a nice blend of power and speed.

    Reyes should be the perfect table-setter at the top of the lineup with his ability to get on base and have game-changing speed on the base paths. He’ll need to stay healthy though, as he only played 93 games last season because of an ankle injury.

    Cabrera will be looking to bounce-back after playing only 88 games in an injury-plagued season last year, where he dealt with a benign tumor in his spine and lost most of his mobility. When healthy, Cabrera has the ability to make contact and get on base at a good clip at the top of the lineup. While he won’t be a dangerous base stealer, he should have enough speed to score from first on a double or go first-to-third on a single.

    Bautista will also be heading into the season looking to stay healthy, as he played just 118 games last season because of a hip injury. The 33-year-old slugger will look to be one of the dominant run producers on the team and should be a threat to hit at least 35 home runs if he stays healthy.

    Encarnacion was the best overall hitter on the team last season, as he hit .272/.370/.534 with 36 home runs and 104 runs batted in. He’ll look to continue that success this season. It’s worth noting that Encarnacion did spend time on the DL towards the end of the season last year, as he underwent surgery on his wrist. According to both the 31-year-old and the team, his wrist has felt just fine during spring training and he should be 100 percent healthy going into the 2014 regular season.

    While Lind should be a middle of the order bat for the Blue Jays on most nights during the regular season, expect him to get platooned when the team faces a tough lefty on the mound. With consistent playing time, Lind should hit at least 20 home runs again this season.

    Lawrie has struggled to hit big league pitching following his excellent rookie year. The Blue Jays hope that this is the season where he finally breaks out. By keeping him sixth in the lineup, the team would ensure that he won’t be facing additional pressure to perform. Staying healthy is also key for the third baseman, as he played just 107 games last season due to various injuries.

    Rasmus had a breakout year last season and would probably be hitting much higher in the lineup were it not for Blue Jays manager John Gibbons’ preference to split the right- and left-handed bats in the lineup. Last season, the center fielder hit .276/.338/.501 with 22 home runs, 57 runs scored and 66 runs driven in. Heading into a contract year, Rasmus can guarantee himself a big payday if he puts up similar numbers this season.

    Navarro is the only new addition to the lineup from last season, replacing the departed J.P. Arencibia. The 30-year-old Navarro is a well-travelled veteran and the team hopes that he can provide a more consistent approach at the plate than the strikeout-happy Arencibia. Considering that Navarro hit .300/.365/.492 in a part-time role with the Chicago Cubs last season, the offense would receive a real boost if he can put up similar numbers again this season.

    Because of the question marks in its starting rotation, Toronto will likely carry eight relievers in its bullpen. This means that the team will only have a three-man bench. This won’t be ideal, as Gibbons won’t have a lot of flexibility to make substitutions during late-game situations.

    Looking at the bench itself, Sierra should be a decent option, as he has the ability to hit and has a good arm from the outfield. He hit .290/.369/.458 in 122 plate appearances with the team last season.

    Izturis is a veteran who has the ability to play multiple positions on the infield, albeit with limited defensive skills. While he has decent career averages with the bat, Izturis really struggled at the plate last season, as he hit just .236/.288/.310 in 399 plate appearances.

    Kratz should be catching every fifth day at the minimum during the regular season, as Navarro won’t be catching knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. The 33-year-old has looked impressive with the bat this spring training and no doubt he’ll be asked to take on a bigger workload if Navarro struggles as a starter.

Rotation Preview

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    R.A. Dickey. RHP.

    Drew Hutchison. RHP.

    Mark Buehrle. LHP.

    Brandon Morrow. RHP.

    Dustin McGowan. RHP.

     

     

    The starting rotation was Toronto’s biggest weakness last season, and it looks like a question mark again heading into the 2014 season.

    While Hutchison has cemented his role following an impressive showing at spring training, McGowan is still uncertain to land a spot in the starting rotation. But he makes this list because he has the most upside out of all of the rotation contenders.

    Dickey is predictably at the top of the rotation heading into his second season with the Blue Jays. The 39-year-old knuckleballer had a solid but unspectacular year last season as he put up a 4.21 ERA in 224 innings pitched. It’s worth noting that he did pitch the first half of the 2013 season dealing with a back injury and his numbers dramatically improved in the second half.

    Hutchison is likely going to be the second starter in the rotation, as Brandon Morrow will be the fifth starter, according to Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. Hutchison has looked strong this spring training and it appears that his stuff hasn’t been affected since undergoing Tommy John Surgery in 2012. The right-hander possesses a mid-90s fastball, along with a very effective changeup. He also has good control of his pitches. A good year from Hutchison would definitely take some pressure off from the rest of the rotation.

    Buehrle should, once again, be a solid innings eater in the rotation. While his numbers don’t appear impressive when looked at individually, the 35-year-old has the ability to pitch deep into games and keep his team in the contest. Last season was the 13th straight year the left-hander pitched over 200 innings and won at least 10 games. Look for Buehrle to once again be a reliable part of the Blue Jays rotation.

    Morrow is arguably the biggest factor in determining how successful Toronto’s rotation will be this season. The right-hander’s injury-plagued season last year was a big reason why the rotation struggled overall. When healthy and on his game, Morrow has the ability to be a frontline starter. He possesses a high-90s fastball and throws a devastating slider that has the ability to generate a ton of strikeouts.

    McGowan is another wild card here. The right-hander isn’t guaranteed a spot in the rotation, but after mediocre showings by other favorites for the spot such as J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond, McGowan is likely the team’s best bet for the role. The 32-year-old has always had good stuff, but health is the biggest concern for him. Since 2008 until 2013, McGowan had pitched just 21 innings in the major leagues because of various injuries. He was healthy for the most part of last season though, as he pitched out of the bullpen and had a 2.45 ERA in 25.2 innings pitched.

     

Bullpen Preview

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Closer: Casey Janssen. RHP.

    Set-up Man: Sergio Santos. RHP.

    Steve Delabar. RHP.

    Brett Cecil. LHP.

    Aaron Loup. LHP.

    Esmil Rogers. RHP.

    Jeremy Jeffress. RHP.

    J.A. Happ. LHP.

     

    The bullpen was a major strength for the Blue Jays last year and it should continue to be a reliable part of the team heading into the 2014 season as well since nearly all the relievers from last season will be returning.  

    Janssen should continue to one of the top closers in the American League after amassing 46 saves in 51 opportunities in the past two seasons. The right-hander doesn’t throw very hard like other prototypical closers, but his command and tendency to attack the strike zone make up for the lack of velocity.

    Santos has the repertoire to be a closer himself, but will act as the set-up man because Janssen is firmly entrenched in the closer’s role for now. The 30-year-old possesses a high-nineties fastball and a nasty slider that generates a lot of strikeouts. In 25.2 innings pitched last season, Santos posted a 1.75 ERA and 9.8 K/9 ratio.

    Delabar should be major part of the bullpen again this season after being one of the team’s best relievers last season and even making the All-Star team. Like Santos, Delabar’s fastball tops out in the high-nineties. His strikeout pitch is a heavy splitter than is especially devastating against right-handed hitters.

    Cecil joined Delabar at the All-Star game last year as he too had a great season, posting a 2.82 ERA in 60 innings pitched. Heading into this season, the former starter will be the top left-hander out of the bullpen for manager John Gibbons.

    With his three-quarters sidearm delivery, Loup remains one of the most unique pitchers in the American League. But that funky delivery isn’t to be underestimated though, as Loup showed last season when he put up a 2.49 ERA in 69.1 innings pitched. With the ability to pitch multiple innings, the 26-year-old has quickly become an integral part of Toronto’s bullpen.

    After competing for a role in the starting rotation this spring training but not appearing particularly impressive, Rogers should return to the long reliever role he held at the beginning of last season. The right-hander has good stuff but has struggled at times with his control. But his ability to pitch multiple innings and become an emergency starter in case of injury makes him a valuable part of the team. The fact that he’s out of options and would likely be lost on waivers also plays a role in him making the team.

    Jeffress is predicted to make the bullpen over better qualified candidates because he has two very important things working for him. First of all is his ability to throw a 100 mph fastball. Second is the fact that he’s out of options and would almost certainly be lost on waivers if the Blue Jays tried sending him to the minor leagues. If Jeffress can overcome his control issues and properly harness the velocity of his pitches, he has the ability to be a really dominant reliever in the near future.

    Happ will likely be sent to the bullpen if his struggles in spring training have indeed resulted in him losing his spot in the starting rotation. The left-hander has been through this before, as he came out of the bullpen for a while after being first traded to the Blue Jays.

Prospects to Watch

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    While the Blue Jays traded away most of their major league ready prospects last season during their trades with the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets, the team still has a few prospects who could come up this season and make an impact.

    Marcus Stroman. RHP: Many experts believed that Stroman was ready to break camp with the Blue Jays this year, but a 14.46 ERA in 9.1 innings pitched during spring training convinced the team that he needed more seasoning in the minors.

    Starting the season in Triple-A Buffalo, Stroman should be a candidate for a mid-season call-up if he pitches well.

    With the ability to throw in the mid-90s, and having experience at both starting and coming out of the bullpen, Stroman could be a valuable piece for the Blue Jays later on in the season.

    Aaron Sanchez. RHP: Widely recognized as the team’s top prospect, Sanchez is unlikely to be promoted to the major leagues this season, although a September call-up could be possible once the minor league season ends.

    Possessing a high-90s fastball and hard off-speed pitches, Sanchez offered a glimpse of his potential, as he posted a 0 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched in spring training.

    The Blue Jays are doing the right thing by bringing Sanchez along slowly, as it would be unwise to rush a prospect with front of the rotation potential.

    A.J. Jimenez. Catcher: Seen as the team’s catcher of the future, Jimenez is another prospect who likely won’t be in the major leagues until the rosters expand in September and the minor league season ends.

    Already seen as defensively ready for the major leagues, Jimenez will spend this season working on his hitting in the minors.

    The 23-year-old played just eight games in Triple-A Buffalo last season, and playing a full season there this year should be beneficial to his development.

Breakout Candidates

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Blue Jays have several players who might be prime breakout candidates this season. These include:

    Melky Cabrera. Left Fielder: Cabrera was slowed by a benign tumor last season that sapped his mobility. After undergoing offseason surgery to remove the tumor, Cabrera has looked like a new player in spring training.

    The speed that he lacked last season has been on full display as the 29-year-old has stolen bases, broken up double plays and has scored from first base on a double. Cabrera has also looked great with the bat, hitting a blistering .431 in 58 spring training at-bats.

    As he’ll likely be hitting near the top of the order once the regular season starts, Cabrera could potentially score 100 runs if he gets on base at a decent clip ahead of run producers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

    It’s also important to note that the left-fielder will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will be playing for a new contract.

    Brandon Morrow. RHP: After posting a 2.96 ERA in 124.2 innings in 2012, the 2013 season was supposed to be Morrow’s breakout year.

    Unfortunately, the 29-year-old made just 10 starts last season before missing the rest of the year with an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm.

    Heading into the 2014 season fully healthy, Morrow has a chance to pick up where he left off in 2012 and continue his ascent into becoming a top starting pitcher in the American League.

    The right-hander has all the tools, featuring a high-90s fastball and a very effective slider.

    Brett Lawrie. Third Baseman: After a tremendous rookie season in 2011 that saw him hit .293 with nine home runs in 43 games played, Lawrie’s play has fallen off in the ensuing two years, especially at the plate.

    Injuries have played a big factor in his struggles, but the biggest issue has been his over-aggressiveness in the batter’s box and his tendency to swing at everything.

    After spending a large part of spring training working with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and slowing down his tempo at the plate, Lawrie looks primed to finally realize his enormous potential at the plate.

Top Keys to Success

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    The Blue Jays will need a huge year from Brandon Morrow in order to compete this season.
    The Blue Jays will need a huge year from Brandon Morrow in order to compete this season.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    With a good offense and a dependable bullpen, there are only a couple of areas the Blue Jays need to focus on in order to be a competitive team in the AL East.

    Staying Healthy: Dealing with a massive number of injuries was easily the biggest challenge the Blue Jays faced last season.

    Three members of the starting rotation missed a significant amount of time on the DL.

    Five members of the starting lineup missed time on the DL.

    Overall, only the New York Yankees had more players hit the DL in the American League last season than the Blue Jays.

    The injuries exposed the team’s lack of depth. With so many regulars on the DL, the Blue Jays were forced to rely on inexperienced prospects and minor league veterans to fill the void. These players largely proved to be ineffective.

    If the team wants to compete this season, it will need to find a way to keep its key players on the field for a large part of the season.    

     

    Starting Pitching: This is the weakest area on Toronto’s Opening Day roster and could very well end up being the reason the team isn’t able to compete.

    While Dickey and Buehrle are proven veterans, the rest of the rotation is simply facing too many question marks.

    Hutchison hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012 when he underwent Tommy John surgery.

    Morrow was injured for a large part of last season, as he made just 10 starts.

    McGowan hasn’t been a starting pitcher since 2008, and if he isn’t in the starting rotation, the team doesn’t really have many other viable alternatives.

    If at least two of Hutchison, Morrow and McGowan can step up and perform well this season, then the team’s chances to compete become much higher.

    Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine Dickey and Buehrle carrying the load by themselves.

    Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos might also need to explore the trade markets and look for a mid-rotation starting pitcher.

Previewing the Toronto Blue Jays Opening Series

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Blue Jays will open their season with a four-game series on the road at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays beginning March 31.

    R.A. Dickey should take the mound against the Rays’ David Price during game one of the series.

    Drew Hutchison should pitch in game two against Alex Cobb.

    Mark Buehrle will likely face fellow lefty Matt Moore during game three of the series.

    Brandon Morrow, most likely Toronto’s fourth starter, should get the ball against Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer.

    This will be a tough opening series for the Blue Jays. All of the Rays starters that Toronto will be facing had good seasons last year, with Price having the highest ERA at 3.33.

    Toronto has also struggled at Tropicana field, going 4-6 there last season.

    While Tampa Bay has the edge with its starting pitching, Toronto’s offense should have an edge over its Rays counterpart. The Blue Jays should also have an edge over the Rays when it comes to bullpens.

    With Toronto playing the New York Yankees in the next series, it’ll be important for the team to get off to a good start against Tampa Bay in order to avoid being in a hole early on in the season.

    A split against the Rays is likely the most optimistic possibility here considering the Rays’ pitching prowess and the Blue Jays’ struggles at Tropicana Field.

2014 Toronto Blue Jays Season Outlook

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Going into the 2014 season fully healthy, the Blue Jays should be better than the 74-88 record they put up in 2013.

    An offense led by the likes of All-Stars Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista should easily finish in the top five in the AL in runs scored.

    If Colby Rasmus puts up similar numbers as last year and Brett Lawrie finally takes that next step, the Blue Jays should have no problems scoring runs in a hurry throughout the season, despite having a mediocre hitter in Ryan Goins at the bottom of the lineup.

    The bullpen, led by closer Casey Janssen and All-Stars Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil, should continue to be one of the best relief corps in the AL.

    But again, because of the question marks in their starting rotation, it’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays contending in the tough AL East.

    Toronto easily has the worst starting rotation in its division and definitely has a bottom-five rotation in the AL.

    With none of its top pitching prospects ready to make an impact anytime soon, everything depends on the Opening Day starting rotation.

    Unless pitchers like Brandon Morrow and Drew Hutchison have breakout seasons and R.A. Dickey can recapture his 2012 CY Young form, Toronto likely won’t be in contention for the playoffs, no matter how good the offense is or how the bullpen does.

    That’s simply the harsh truth.

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