CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays unveiled a preview of their potential regular season lineup Wednesday for their Grapefruit League opener against the Philadelphia Phillies, and it looked a lot like last year’s batting order.
Manager John Gibbons used Jose Reyes at leadoff, with Melky Cabrera back in the two-hole followed by Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Dioner Navarro and Ryan Goins.
“We could always adjust some things,” said Gibbons, “but it’s basically what we looked at last year, other than Navarro’s in there. It’s a good lineup for the first day.”
Things looked good in a 4-3 win shortened by rain to 6½ innings, with Bautista hitting a massive home run right out of Bright House Field, Lawrie and Rasmus hitting back-to-back doubles, Cabrera adding a walk, a single and scoring on Adam Lind’s base hit.
The Blue Jays rarely were able to use their full lineup last year due to injury, one reason to think they’ll improve on both the number of runs they scored (712, ninth in the majors) and their on-base percentage (.318, 15th in the majors).
"Having two switch-hitters with good track records of on-base percentage is not going to hurt me or Edwin’s chances of driving runs in in," said Bautista. "And if we drive runs in, we’re on base for Lind and whoever hits behind him. The more you come up to hit with people on base increases your chances of getting a pitch over the plate and people making some mistakes because there’s more (for the pitcher) to worry about.
"An area of weakness was our on-base percentage as a team. It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t great. Ideally we can keep guys on the bases all the time."
The Blue Jays debated between using Cabrera out of the two-spot or lower in the lineup last season, partly because of the outfielder’s lack of mobility due to a spinal tumour. If they get the production they expect from Lind, Lawrie and Rasmus, Cabrera is probably the best fit to hit between Reyes and Bautista.
"He’s a good hitter and he gets a lot of hits," said Gibbons. "The only real downfall is he does hit a lot of groundballs, but you look at what he’s done the last few years, take away last year, and he’s been one of the better hitters in baseball. We like guys there that can get a lot of hits. He’s a switch-hitter, he can manipulate the bat a little bit, he knows how to do those things. Ideally, if he’s the player we expect him to be, then he’d be a good guy for that spot."
Cabrera had surgery to remove the tumour last August and his mobility has returned, but his movement will be closely monitored this spring.
"He looks fine but right now is when we’ll be able to tell, get a ball in the gap or a ball down the line, we’ll see how he goes after it," said Gibbons. "You can do all the drills you want but until real-time in games, that’s when we’re going to be able to tell. …
"We need him to be good and we need him to be able to move, that’s for sure."
HAPP GETS HIT: It wasn’t quite as ugly as the line looked but J.A. Happ’s first start of the spring wasn’t all he wanted it to be, either.
Two runs on four hits and a walk with three strikeouts and 37 pitches made for a long inning of work.
"For whatever reason, first game, adrenaline, things just seemed to be a little off for me," he said. "But I felt good out there and I anticipate next time getting through more. It’s not exactly how you draw it up, but it seems like it rarely is."
Happ is pitching from a new arm slot he used in his final three outings last season and manager John Gibbons said he liked what he saw. So too did the lefty who is so important to the team’s staff this year.
"(Pitching coach Pete Walker) thought (the arm angle) was good," said Happ. "I wasn’t thinking about it out there so it’s becoming more and more natural all the time."
DRABEK WILD: Kyle Drabek was a frustrated man after walking three batters in 1.2 innings of work, also allowing a hit and a run. The culprit on Wednesday was his four-seam fastball.
"Just upset with the command, because that’s been a struggle and I thought I had it figured out," he said afterwards. "I’ve had it so good in all the bullpens, it’s just frustrating for me to fall back into being wild a little bit. I know what I can do, and that’s not me."
SIERRA IN OF?: Moises Sierra tripled in his only at-bat Wednesday, and how he performs this spring will be closely watched. He’s out of options and is a candidate to become the club’s fourth outfielder and right-handed platoon partner for Adam Lind at DH, both areas of need.
"We need someone who can hit lefties, we don’t have that guy locked in," said manager John Gibbons.
A candidate may yet emerge toward the end of spring training when rosters get finalized and teams look to move players who are out of options. The fit for a bat off the bench is "ideally a guy that’s proven it at this level," said Gibbons.
As for Sierra, he adds, "over time you become a better hitter, normally the good ones do. He’s got a chance to be a good overall hitter, period. But he’s not established yet in the big-leagues, hopefully he takes advantage of this and becomes that guy."
Anthony Gose, a speedy left-handed hitter, is another candidate to be the extra outfielder, but both he and Sierra won’t make the team.
"It’s going to be tough to go with five outfielders and we’re not sure how the bullpen is going to stack up with how many guys we’re going to have down there," said Gibbons. "We’ve got some questions we’ve got to answer."