After spending a week covering the Blue Jays at spring training, here are some observations about where the team stands heading into the regular season.
THREE GOOD SWINGS
The young arms: Those around the organization for a long time are now ready to put this particular collection of arms and depth ahead of the Halladay/Carpenter/Escobar group. Aaron Sanchez has taken the starter’s role and run with it, and is smart enough to know it’s good to have people such as Russ Martin and Pat Hentgen in his ear. Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna have been the stories this spring while Daniel Norris has removed any doubt about his readiness to at least start the season in the majors. The young arms have also provided a new talking point for the chattering classes – the fact that general manager Alex Anthopoulos has the payroll in terrific shape for the two years following 2015, and that maybe that should factor into any analysis of his body of work.
The Donaldson-Martin effect: Clubhouse chemistry is a fantasy topic for sportswriters and fans – as Jose Bautista told Stephen Brunt and myself last week, the players don’t notice what we think they notice – but there’s little doubt the cumulative baseball IQ of this team has gone up with their addition.
Hutchison flying under the radar: I feel more comfortable than ever in saying that if Drew Hutchison’s changeup develops some consistency, you might be looking at the staff’s best pitcher this season – certainly, a worthy nominee for opening day.
SOS Edwin: I’ll buy that Edwin Encarnacion’s back is going to be OK, but I’ll feel a lot better after back-to-back games. Seriously, as difficult as it will be to replace Stroman, at least there are good young arms to audition. Without Encarnacion at first base or in the middle of the order? Smoak gets in your eyes …
Knuckling under: I have no doubt that Martin can catch R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball. My concern is what part of his body he will break, pull or strain in the process.
Case closed?: I’d feel a lot better about Brett Cecil closing if somebody with the Blue Jays seemed just a little bit excited about the notion. Not sure how I feel about a closer whose out pitch is a feel pitch, although I remember John Wetteland being able to make effective use of a fastball/curve mix.
FOR WHOM THE BELL THOLES
There’s often an element of horse trading when managers, GMs and their staffs set the 25-man roster, and it will be interesting to see whether Blue Jays manager John Gibbons gets his way and manages to convince Anthopoulos that Josh Thole needs to be on the team to catch Dickey and give Martin a day off.
Gibbons’ argument – which he has made publicly, and which has no small amount of support on his staff – is that Martin’s game-calling is wasted in a Dickey start. Anthopoulos, who is said by team insiders to be almost dead set against Thole going north with the team, might want to counter by suggesting that Dioner Navarro catch Mark Buehrle if Martin needs a breather, since the two worked together well last season. Of course if Navarro is traded the point becomes moot ... and the Arizona Diamondbacks have ramped up their interest in the Blue Jays (though it's worth noting that Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart told reporters Monday the team is not interested in acquiring Navarro because of his $5 million salary).
WHAT I LEARNED
The things you learn in a week hosting a sports talk-show
"It’s a good opportunity, a good chance to get there (to the majors) this year. That was one of the things about why I was getting frustrated: I played with those guys the year before and in 2014 they’re in the big leagues and I’m still here."
- Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Roberto Osuna, one of the success stories of spring training, discusses his frustration with the rehabilitation process after Tommy John surgery.
"This is as imposing and as intimidating a team defensively as I’ve seen in college basketball the past 20 years."
- CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg sees the University of Kentucky rolling through the NCAA mens basketball tournament to a 40-0 record and a national title.
"If that’s what they’ve wanted, they’ve done a good job, because that’s exactly what it is … I was in the big leagues all September last year … but this is a different ball club so far in spring training. I had a blast last year but the feeling’s different. Guys are talking shop … baseball."
- Blue Jays pitcher Daniel Norris gives a candid assessment of the Blue Jays team he joined last season as a call-up, acknowledging that management’s additions have changed the culture of the clubhouse.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
- Johan Santana made clear that one of the reasons he decided to cast his lot with the Toronto Blue Jays in a bid to resurrect his career was because of the training staff's patience and success with shoulder and elbow injuries. Left-hander Jonny Venters feels the same way about the Tampa Bay Rays, which is why he signed an odd two-year minor-league contract with the organization earlier this month in a bid to get back into the game after three Tommy John surgeries. Venters was 15-10 (2.23) in 230 appearances with the Atlanta Braves from 2010-2012, and won’t pitch until next season at the earliest.
- Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens will be front and centre Tuesday night when the Minnesota Wild and Devan Dubnyk visit the Bell Centre. Price’s nine shutouts are the most by a Canadiens goaltender since Ken Dryden had 10 in 1976-77. Price’s 40 wins are two away from the franchise record, held by Dryden (1975-76) and Jacques Plante, who won 42 games in 1955-56 and 1961-62.
- Any chance to get Fredrik Olausson’s name out there is not to be missed, so in honour of one of my favourite all-time Winnipeg Jets here’s to Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, who tied Olausson’s single-season franchise record for fourth-most goals among defencemen with his 20th. Phil Housley holds the franchise record with 23 scored in 1990-91 and 1991-92, while Dave Ellett is third with 22 goals in 1988-89.
After referee Neil Swarbrick sent off the wrong West Brom Albion player in a match at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday – Gareth McAuley was given a red card on a play in which teammate Craig Dawson was clearly the player who fouled Manchester City’s Wilfried Bony – West Brom manager Tony Pulis called for more video review of match officiating, going so far as to say Premier League managers should get two challenges per match. How much would you pay to see Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho get to use two challenges per match? Thought so. Me, too.