TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays are trickling into Dunedin, Fla., for spring training and they arrive to considerably less fanfare and far fewer external expectations than last year. A largely moribund off-season, at least to this point, highlighted by the addition of free agent Dioner Navarro to replace outgoing catcher J.P. Arencibia has done little to soothe the angst over the 74-88 collapse of 2013, or suggest that better times are imminent.
Barring some surprise additions—the Blue Jays remain tentatively engaged with free agent starters Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez—general manager Alex Anthopoulos appears ready to bank on better health and rebound performances to turn things around. At minimum, the hyper-charged environment of unreal expectations will be gone, and perhaps that subtraction will end up being a significant addition.
“Pressure is real,” manager John Gibbons, who has repeatedly said his team didn’t handle the expectations well, stresses during an interview. “There was pressure from the outside and pressure we put on ourselves, trying to live up to it. A big part of it is it’s a new team with a bunch of new faces in a new city, so they’re all trying to settle in and make a name for themselves, and it didn’t start well.
“I don’t think that’s uncommon in the sports world—and I think that played a part in it. But that’s not the reason we finished the way we did.”
The prime culprit on that front was a starting staff unfortunately prone to surrendering big early leads and making early exits. The Blue Jays' starters earned-run average of 4.81 was the second-worst in baseball—better only than the Minnesota Twins—while their 899.1 innings pitched was the third-fewest.
Not a good combo.
Reinforcements to bolster the staff were expected during the off-season—a deal for Brett Anderson fell through because of injury concerns—but unless something comes together with Santana or Jimenez, Gibbons is looking at a front four of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ, with plenty of candidates for the fifth spot.
Leading contenders include Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison, with Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin and Dustin McGowan, who will be stretched out at the start of camp, also in the mix.
Ricky Romero remains an intriguing and tantalizing wild-card, essentially a roster afterthought with the potential to make a significant difference if he can regain his past form.
"We keep leaving him out, but who knows what happens with him," says Gibbons. "Ricky may show up to camp, everybody has overlooked him, and all of sudden boom, he takes off and he's the old guy. I still have that in the back of my mind."
Such a recovery would dramatically change the Blue Jays' outlook, but barring a surprise or two, it's difficult to imagine their rotation making enough gains to close the 23-game gap between them and AL East champion Boston, or the 17.5 games they finished behind Tampa Bay for the second wild card.
At the same time, if Morrow remains healthy enough to fulfill his ace potential, Dickey spreads his strong second half over the entire year, and one or more of Hutchison, Stroman and Drabek emerge, the Blue Jays may end up surprising some people.
To that end, Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker decided that the Blue Jays "are going to try and push the pitchers a little more," during spring training. "There's only so much you can do with those guys, we've got some older ones," says Gibbons. "But maybe get them stronger coming out of the gate, we can get some more innings out of them."
Another area that will be closely watched this spring is the team's work on fundamentals, a long-running point of discussion last year. The World Baseball Classic complicated matters for the Blue Jays last spring by pulling Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie, Dickey and Arencibia out of camp for extended periods, costing the team valuable reps together.
Gibbons has spent the past 10 months replaying things in his mind and aside from concerns about Emilio Bonifacio's uneven defence at second base, doesn't believe there were any major warning signs that were missed.
"I don't think we played bad in spring training, regardless of what our record says, as far as fundamentals and things like that," Gibbons argues. "You always fall back on, we had veteran guys all around, they've done it before. Running, cut-offs and relays ain't new to these guys, they've been doing it since they were kids. That's why I think a big part of it is we put too much pressure on ourselves to perform and it didn't work."
The manager will be closely watching a number of players during spring training, including:
Melky Cabrera: The left-fielder is said to be moving well after late-season surgery to remove a tumour from his spine. The tumour limited his mobility on the field and at the plate, and his return to form is crucial for a spot that was an offensive black hole last year.
Brett Lawrie: The third baseman added hot yoga to his workout regimen during the off-season and Gibbons is eager to see what the 24-year-old can do over the course of a full campaign. Some believe the more settled and relaxed approach at the plate he employed in the second half last year is a key to unlocking his offensive potential.
Brandon Morrow: The nerve issues in his forearm seem to be behind the 29-year-old right-hander, who appeared primed for a breakthrough before the injury troubles hit. Morrow has long had ace stuff, and his emergence could really pull the rotation together.
J.A. Happ: The left-hander's had a star-crossed stint since joining the Blue Jays in July 2012 but there's some excitement over the change in arm slot he made last September. Should that adjustment hold and prove effective over the long haul, Happ may play an important role in the rotation.
Dioner Navarro: The new starting catcher comes to the Blue Jays after posting an .856 OPS in 89 games for the Chicago Cubs last year, but since he logged only 470 innings behind the plate Gibbons is eager to "see what he can do and how durable he is."
There are plenty of other issues to ponder as well, from whether Ryan Goins is ready to handle second base on a more regular basis to who complements Adam Lind as the right-handed DH. The progress of key prospects such as catcher A.J. Jimenez and Aaron Sanchez will also be a focal point.
Finally, the possibility of a late addition or two hangs in the air, even if parachuting someone in once camp is already underway and battles have been established isn't necessarily ideal.
"It brings optimism to the outlook of a team because you're probably bringing in a proven guy," says Gibbons. "But it doesn't help the guys who are out there competing for those spots, because they think they're the right guy for it."
The process of sorting all that out is about to begin.
A quick look at the 2014 Blue Jays:
Spring home: Dunedin, Fla.
2013 record: 74-88, fifth in the American League East
Manager: John Gibbons
Grapefruit League opener: Feb. 26 @ Philadelphia Phillies
Hello: Dioner Navarro; Erik Kratz; Brent Morel; Rob Rasmussen; Chris Getz; Steve Tolleson; Dan Johnson; Tomo Ohka.
Goodbye: J.P. Arencibia; Josh Johnson; Mark DeRosa; Rajai Davis; Darren Oliver; Brad Lincoln; Thad Weber
Projected Rotation: R.A. Dickey; Mark Buehrle; Brandon Morrow; J.A. Happ; and Esmil Rogers/Todd Redmond/Marcus Stroman/Drew Hutchison/Kyle Drabek
Projected Bullpen: Casey Janssen; Steve Delabar; Sergio Santos; Dustin McGowan; Brett Cecil; Aaron Loup; Esmil Rogers/Todd Redmond
Projected Starters: C Dioner Navarro; 1B Edwin Encarnacion; 2B Ryan Goins; SS Jose Reyes; 3B Brett Lawrie; LF Melky Cabrera; CF Colby Rasmus; RF Jose Bautista; DH Adam Lind
Projected Bench: C Josh Thole/Erik Kratz; INF Maicer Izturis; INF Brent Morel; OF Moises Sierra/Anthony Gose
Key Non-Roster Invitees: Munenori Kawasaki; Chris Getz; Steve Tolleson; Dan Johnson; Tomo Ohka
Notables Out of Options: Esmil Rogers; Todd Redmond; Luis Perez; Jeremy Jeffress; Moises Sierra