BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Toronto Blue Jays haven’t officially announced it yet, but if all goes according to plan in March, Marcus Stroman will be taking the ball when the Jays open the defence of their A.L. East division title on April 3 in St. Petersburg.
The 24-year-old will become the team’s fifth different opening-day starter since Roy Halladay was traded following the 2009 season, and the youngest in Blue Jays history, breaking the record of youthfulness set by Drew Hutchison last year.
Stroman is looking forward to an opening day nod, but isn’t taking anything for granted yet.
"I haven’t been named that guy, so all the work I’m doing right now is to be that guy," said the righty, before appearing at the Buffalo Bisons’ Hot Stove Luncheon. "I want to be that guy, obviously I want to be the ace, that’s why I play the game. You don’t play the game to be second place ever, you want to be elite, you want to be the best."
"I want to be the ace," Stroman continued. "I’m ready for it, I think I have a good opportunity to run with it and I would love to be the guy to put an end to having a bunch of different opening-day starters. I would love to be the guy who’s pencilled in every year. That’s why I work as hard as I do."
But an ace isn’t just the guy who gets the ball on opening day, as Blue Jays fans can attest to, having seen Hutchison struggle through an up-and-down 2015 and fail to make the playoff roster. The Blue Jays haven’t really had an ace since Halladay left, and they go into the 2016 season with only one starter, R.A. Dickey, who has ever thrown as many as 200 innings in a season.
Stroman is determined to join that club this year.
"I feel like that’s the number," Stroman said. "That’s the goal of every starting pitcher. If you want to be considered an ace, you want to be a horse, you want to be that guy you have to be able to go out and throw 200-plus innings every year. Mark Buehrle, you know what I mean? That’s kind of the standard."
The Blue Jays will miss Buehrle’s reliability this season, but Stroman says he’s ready to be that innings-eater.
"I’m excited for the opportunity and the challenge," he said. "I’m sure it’s something that a lot of people are doubting me being able to throw 200 innings because I’m five-foot-eight, but it’s something that I’m perfectly fine with them doubting because I’m sure it’s going to add a little fuel to the fire and I’m sure it’s going be a little added motivation when I’m out there."
So far, Stroman has made a career of proving people wrong, but more importantly than that, he has the multiple weapons that are necessary to get through a lineup three and four times, something that’s needed to get deep into games on a regular basis.
"I’m extremely confident in my repertoire and I feel like I have a good mix where I should be able to turn a lineup over and over and over," said Stroman. "I feel like I get stronger as the game goes on. The more I’m able to start mixing pitches in, the better I feel."
And as far as hitters getting multiple looks at him as the game continues?
"That’s not something that I’m worried about at all," said Stroman, unsurprisingly. "I feel like the more times I see a hitter, I feel like they’re at the disadvantage, whereas sometimes people might think it’s the other way around."
That the conversation has moved from Stroman’s health to Stroman’s ability is near-miraculous given that he’s not even a year removed from a knee surgery that generally takes nine to 12 months from which to recover. Stroman revealed that his knee wasn’t all the way back when he made seven starts for the Blue Jays in September and October of last year, but he hopes to be all systems go this year.
"It’s a process until your knee’s actually 100 per cent, but it’s different to feel 100 per cent," Stroman explained. "My doctors put me in a position where I felt 100 per cent, but was my knee actually 100 per cent at five months out? Probably not, but it was at a position where I could play. And my knee checked out on every single test, so that’s the reason why they let me return to play, and that’s the only reason. It’s a process. I’m nine months out, it’ll be a year opening day. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready to go, no brace, and I’ll feel 100 per cent by opening day."
If Stroman is completely healthy, which is expected, the only question that remains is how much of a load can he shoulder? He threw a career-high 166.1 innings in 2014, but the knee injury limited him to just 54 innings last year, including playoffs. Two hundred is a big jump, but Stroman, who is a walking ball of self-assurance, thinks he’s ready for the challenge.
"My body’s there, my arm’s there, mentally I’m there," Stroman said. "Now it’s just a matter of mentally locking it in every five days. My mindset, honestly, is to go nine innings every time I take the ball so (getting to 200 innings is) a matter of being able to go out there and limit the bad outings. I’m not going to be content with going six, seven innings. I want the ball in the eighth; I want the ball in the ninth. I think it’s just taking that mantra into it every day. (David Price) instilled that into me as well. He said don’t ever want to give the ball up to the bullpen, that’s the last thing you should ever want to do. And I really took that to heart. That’s the mantra. Am I ready to do it? Absolutely. Am I going to do it? We’ll see."
And we’ll be watching. If Marcus Stroman can shoulder that load in his first full season in the big leagues, the Blue Jays will be in extremely good shape in 2016.