TORONTO – Every team faces questions heading into spring training, and the ones before the Toronto Blue Jays with pitchers and catchers due to report Sunday are the same ones fans have consternated over all winter.
The off-season’s wheeling and dealing did little to bring real resolution to the club’s uncertainties in the bullpen, the rotation, at second base and in centre field, and if the voids feel much the same now as they did at the end of the 2014 season, well that’s because they pretty much are.
So, since little has changed on those fronts with the opening of camp in Dunedin, Fla., nigh, let’s skip the regurgitation and instead focus on four less obvious issues the Blue Jays must wrestle with in the weeks ahead (fear not, there are plenty of Maicer Izturis versus Ryan Goins versus Devon Travis stories on tap).
Do the Blue Jays have enough depth in their starting rotation?
Of all the things to worry about with the Blue Jays, this issue might get the least play but could be the most critical. In part, the answer here hinges on whether Aaron Sanchez opens the season as a starter or ends in a bullpen, as things look a lot steadier with the be-be-firing righty in the rotation.
Yet even if that ends up being the case, the 2013 season offers a stern reminder of how quickly a lack of depth can lead to Chien-Ming Wang and Ramon Ortiz making 10 starts, plus three bullpen appearances for slop-king Edgar Gonzalez.
The truth is the Blue Jays are perilously thin here. They were last year, too, but with R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman making 144 of the team’s 162 starts – a stunning 89 percent – things turned out fine.
Betting on that happening again is risky business.
Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison and Stroman, who’ll be breaking camp this time, make a solid front four, with Marco Estrada and Daniel Norris competing with Sanchez for the fifth spot. If Sanchez is needed for the bullpen, and that’s a strong possibility, the pool of potential starters thins out in a hurry, especially if there’s an injury or two, or someone falters.
Beyond that trio, the Blue Jays will have veteran farmhands like Liam Hendriks, Jeff Francis and Andrew Albers kicking around, each seen as emergency stop-gap more than temporary solution, while prospect Roberto Osuna could pitch himself up the depth chart but isn’t there yet.
Certainly there’s enough potential there for things to work out just fine, but a sore elbow or two could quickly rattle last year’s starting stability.
Do the Blue Jays have enough quality relievers to build a strong bullpen and survive the inevitable attrition?
The focus in recent months has understandably been on who’s going to close games and who’s going to bridge the gap from the starter to the ninth inning. But let’s be real about this – the Blue Jays aren’t just going to need seven relievers, they’re going need to at least 12-15 if things go well, and plenty more if they don’t (last year 23 different pitchers made at least one relief appearance, including utilityman Steve Tolleson, who took the mound twice).
Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Todd Redmond at this point appear to be the only sure bets for the ‘pen, with Sanchez and Estrada definitely there if they’re not in the rotation (Norris could start in triple-A Buffalo’s rotation to remain stretched out). From there the Blue Jays have a large cast of candidates to choose from, including former all-star Steve Delabar, Chad Jenkins, Rob Rasmussen, Kyle Drabek (who is out of options), and Ryan Tepera.
Gregory Infante drew praise for his winterball stint in Venezuela, fellow non-roster invite Wilton Lopez is two years removed from three very good big-league seasons in Houston, while prospects Osuna and Miguel Castro could both be pushed by the organization, but probably not until later in the year.
With so much inventory, the Blue Jays should be able to break camp with a decent seven, but things could very easily get dicey once attrition strikes. To have success, they’ll need a couple of pleasant surprises – like they had in 2013 when Cecil and Delabar threw down all-star campaigns – and to get a little lucky, too, the way they did that same year with the unexpected emergences of Neil Wagner and Juan Perez from the flotsam.
That’s a lot to ask for, and if it doesn’t happen, manager John Gibbons may be left with no choice but to ride any reliable relievers he has for as long as they can go, an approach that doesn’t often end well.
How will Blue Jays hitters adjust to their fourth hitting coach in four seasons?
This may not seem like the biggest deal but even new hitting coach Brook Jacoby acknowledged that he was cognizant of the role’s lack of continuity shortly after his November hiring. "I’m not going to try to make a big splash in the water, just let the guys know that I’m here for them," he said back then. "I’m going to work for them and, together, I think we can figure things out."
That’s a good approach since activist coaches hell-bent on instituting change can often do more harm than good, as too much tinkering can often leave hitters lost.
Jacoby is said to be similar to the departed Kevin Seitzer in substance, if not style, and Seitzer’s middle-of-the-field mindset was largely well received. Building off that work should go a long way in easing the transition.
What impact will all the roster turnover have on the clubhouse?
Clubhouse chemistry’s true value is a topic that can be debated ad nauseam without definitive resolution, but a group that doesn’t mesh on the field, if not the dugout, won’t succeed. That’s one of the many cautionary tales from the Blue Jays’ 2013 season, a campaign that underlined the difficulties in developing a talented group into a cohesive whole.
A rotten and injury-battered rotation combined with a lack of depth were the primary culprits behind that year’s train-wreck, but a lack of trust in each other among the players was also a factor, and the risk is that when adversity strikes, everyone looks out for themselves first, the team second.
There are those who believe that to some degree that hurt the Blue Jays during last summer’s swoon, too.
Things have a chance to be different this time, as the addition of two new franchise cornerstones in Russ Martin and Josh Donaldson – both of whom come from winning environments – really alters the clubhouse’s heartbeat.
Helping matters is that Martin and Jose Bautista have some history together dating back to their days at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., while Donaldson based his swing on that of his all-star teammate. Settling into the new dynamics of a clubhouse takes time, but the process is made easier when there are pre-existing connections.
That bodes well, as does the reputation both Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak have for being good teammates.
One school of thought is that since several of the players flushed out during the off-season shared nothing but collective failure together, a substantial turning over of the clubhouse may actually be beneficial. Whether it actually is or not we’re about to start finding out.