DUNEDIN, Fla. – The long, slow buildup to the 2016 season officially opened Monday for the Toronto Blue Jays, with Marcus Stroman among those throwing a side session during the spring’s first workout for pitchers and catchers.
There were smiles, barbs and backslaps all around as preparations picked up for the defending American League East champions at the Bobby Mattick Training Center under idyllic blue skies and a perfect 21 C heat.
Stroman’s 20-pitch side wasn’t his first of the spring – “I’m pretty deep into bullpens,” he said – just his latest in his quest to emerge as the club’s ace this season.
“I want to be that guy, that’s why I put in all the work in the off-season,” said Stroman. “Everything I did was to hopefully be the ace, hopefully I have the opportunity to be the ace and kind of run with it. Everyone here is motivated, everyone knows what we’re capable of, and it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.
"We have a tight camaraderie in the clubhouse here, it’s more like a family than it is a team, we’re excited and we’re ready."
Unlike previous springs, the Blue Jays are also largely settled, particularly in terms of position players.
Manager John Gibbons pointed to Aaron Sanchez as "probably the main focus," given that he’ll either be the club’s fifth starter or a key set-up man. Beyond that, "We’ve got to figure out the bullpen a little bit, who’s doing what and where, that sort of thing, so there are some questions, but we like what we have, we just have to figure out how we’re going to do it."
"We’re a winning team, coming off a winning year – there’s going to be less questions," Gibbons added. "We feel pretty good, but we’ve still got to get it right."
Sanchez went 5-4 with a 3.55 ERA in 11 starts last season before being sidelined by a lat injury. He returned from the disabled list as a reliever, helping stabilize a bullpen that up until his arrival regularly frittered away leads.
Including rehab outings, he logged a total of 102 innings, a career high, but a number that raised questions about how much extra work he can handle this season.
"That’s been brought up," said Gibbons. "Personally, I’ve never gotten caught up with that. One thing I’ve always tried to do, depending on how a particular outing is going, if they’re struggling don’t leave them in there long, that will save you down the road. If they’re pitching well, let them run. I know the game is trying to micromanage everything, the innings pitched, and it is a concern, and you do need to have some guidelines, but we’re here to win, too. And if a guy is good, sometimes I think you limit some of these guys too much, and it affects them long-term, as well. There have also been a number of occasions where teams try to monitor a kid’s innings, and they still get hurt. Some guys get hurt, some don’t. I don’t think the game’s really figured it out yet, either."
Competing against Sanchez for a rotation spot are Gavin Floyd, Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison, who will likely end up at triple-A Buffalo if he’s not on the starting staff. The others are bound for a bullpen that will be anchored by Drew Storen and Roberto Osuna, one of whom will be anointed closer.
"He’s closed in the big-leagues for a few years and he’s really good at it, too," Gibbons said of Storen. "It’s going to come down to putting the best team together. Once you’ve closed in this league and been successful, and I’m talking about both those guys, it doesn’t make you feel good if you’re not in that role, but whoever is the odd man out is going to do fine in a different type role. It won’t be easy but I don’t think we’ll have a problem with it."
The Blue Jays also need to settle left field, where the starting job is Michael Saunders’ to lose, with fellow Canadian Dalton Pompey trying to displace him. Pompey could end up in Buffalo, too, if Saunders shows he can play every day, with Ezequiel Carrera, Junior Lake and Daniel Ceciliani candidates for the fourth outfielder’s spot.
"So much is going to revolve around Michael Saunders and how he’s playing, how he looks, if he stays healthy," said Gibbons. "Ideally he goes out there every day, that’s what he was brought here for two years ago. We want to look at Pompey, see how he’s progressed, he’s the future here. When he’s ready his time will come. We’ve got some other guys we brought in, guys like Lake who’s a right-handed hitter, whether it comes down to platoon or not, we don’t know that yet. You’ve got Carrera who can fit that fourth spot, we know him, but if Michael’s out there every day, basically all you need is a pinch-runner possibly, or late-inning defence guys so, so much is going to revolve around how Michael plays and how he looks, and how Dalton plays."
For most of the rest of the roster, it will be business as usual, getting ready for another season.
"We’re a confident group man, it’s pretty laid back in here, everyone knows what they’re capable of, everyone knows how special this team is, we’re just focused on going out there every day and doing what we’re capable of," said Stroman. "We’re not focused on any of the outside noise and we know what we can do."
SHORT HOPS: Ken Huckaby earned a promotion to manager of high-A Dunedin after managing at low-A Lansing last year. John Tamargo is the new manager at single-A Vancouver. He served as a hitting co-ordinator last year. … Jason Phillips is back with the Blue Jays as the second bullpen catcher working alongside Alex Andreopoulos. Phillips had been the bullpen catcher for the Seattle Mariners. He played for John Gibbons both in the New York Mets system and in Toronto with the Blue Jays. … To ensure all the pitchers in camp get enough work in, Gibbons said the Blue Jays will piggyback starters in some spring games and have some B games planned with the Philadelphia Phillies for later this spring. … Josh Thole caught R.A. Dickey’s bullpen session Monday.