DUNEDIN, Fla. – The main topics of conversation surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays this spring have largely centred around the futures of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and the race for the rotation’s fifth spot between Aaron Sanchez and Gavin Floyd.
Throw in a dash of fourth outfielder talk and a little bit of leadoff hitter debate and there’s your news cycle.
Yet with their Grapefruit League sked down to seven games before two exhibition contests against the Boston Red Sox in Montreal set the stage for opening day versus the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, much more than that has gone on for the defending American League East champions.
So what exactly has been flying under the radar?
"From my perspective we’re playing good, crisp baseball," manager John Gibbons said after a 6-4 win over the Detroit Tigers on Thursday pushed the Blue Jays’ record to 15-4 this spring. "There’s nobody that’s here as a pitcher that’s been roughed up at all, and we’ve played great defence, really. That was a big part of our success last year when we turned that around."
Solid fundamentals always play, and the Blue Jays have certainly demonstrated that. But good spring records are often a product of strong organizational depth, as many games get decided late by players destined for the minor-leagues.
Take Thursday as an example.
R.A. Dickey was most pleased about getting his pitch count up to 100 pitches over five innings of work and unconcerned about the four runs he surrendered on eight hits and a walk. He left with the game 4-4. "I was able to maintain my velocity through pitch 100 and felt great," he said. "At this point of the spring, I’m optimistic."
But it was four shutout innings of relief from Arnold Leon, Chad Girodo, Ryan Tepera and David Aardsma that locked things down after a Jon Berti single and Andy Burns ground-rule double in the sixth inning pushed across the margin of victory.
"I was a little concerned a couple months ago about the depth but from seeing these guys down here and how they look, it’s really answered that question," said Gibbons. "We didn’t know 2-3 months ago what that was going to be like."
Pitching coach Pete Walker believes the depth of arms at this point is in stark contrast to last year, when Marcus Stroman’s knee injury left a gaping hole in the rotation while there were "mass questions" in the bullpen.
"It’s certainly been a more comforting feeling from our end," he said of the current group. "As a staff, they’re doing the things we preach in our pitchers’ meetings, attacking the strike zone, keeping the ball down, elevating when necessary, not walking guys, continuing that trend from last year. That was really a big point of focus coming in again.
"To me, minimizing free passes is critical and for the most we’ve been doing that this spring. Controlling innings, not letting them get out of hand. Those are real important points that maybe get lost in the shuffle. We’re doing the thing we’re supposed to do. There haven’t been a lot of pitchers’ meetings when we’re reinforcing things. The points are made and they’re carrying it out."
As promising as that is – the 162-game grind’s inevitable attrition makes depth crucial – it’s the big boys that need to get things done and to that end, the Blue Jays got some good news Thursday.
Troy Tulowitzki, hit on the hand by an errant Bartolo Colon offer Wednesday, is well enough that Gibbons said he might be in the lineup Friday when the Blue Jays visit the Philadelphia Phillies. Jose Bautista (neck stiffness) was also listed on the travel roster for that game, while Edwin Encarnacion (oblique) is expected to make his spring debut at some point this weekend.
All that should only help fuel the camaraderie the players developed last season and insist was crucial in their run to the American League Championship Series. Whether you’re in the camp that believes such talk is utter bunk, or the camp that fully buys in, last year’s bond has transferred to 2016 seamlessly.
"That was the thing I wanted to see the most – the energy is the same," said Chris Colabello. "One of the things I feared was that after an off-season it wouldn’t feel like the same clubhouse, that things had changed. Something everyone talked about was the dynamic of the group that we had, the chemistry we had. If anything, it’s gotten even stronger because guys are getting more comfortable around each other.
"It feels like we didn’t spend any time apart. I still think people are downplaying it because you can’t do what we did last year without it. It’s good to have it back."
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Josh Thole – who last week tweaked an off-season adjustment to his swing, maintaining the same new hand angle without the Julio-Franco-esque forward bat point – agreed.
"If I could pinpoint one thing it’s the camaraderie on this team. And it’s been from Day 1," he said. "Especially in spring training, everyone is excited to be here, but usually you ease into getting comfortable with everybody. I think keeping essentially the whole team together is a huge part of carrying that over from what we did last year."
How much all that ultimately matters will be determined by the way the regular season plays out, a year that may, or may not, reveal fault lines hidden under the warm and pleasant embrace of Florida’s springtime sun.