The Toronto Blue Jays have plenty of work to do between now and the start of the 2014 season if they want to be considered post-season contenders.
To date, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has failed to address his team’s most glaring off-season need — starting pitching — through trades or free agency, while second base remains a question mark with one of Maicer Izturis or Ryan Goins projected to start there should the season open today.
But regardless of what external additions may yet come, if the Blue Jays are to contend in 2014 they’ll likely also need some surprise contributions from within the organization, possibly from players with little-to-no big league experience.
In 2013 playoff teams such as the Athletics (Sonny Gray), Cardinals (Michael Wacha) and Pirates (Gerrit Cole) saw rookie pitchers step in and contribute in a big way. Go back to the Blue Jays heyday of the mid ’80s and early ’90s and you’ll recall those teams also featured some significant (and surprising) rookie contributions from Tom Henke (’85), Fred McGriff (’87), Juan Guzman (’91) and Jeff Kent (’92).
Could Marcus Stroman do for the 2014 Blue Jays what Guzman did for the ’91 club? It's imaginable even if nobody’s counting on it.
But what about others? Here are five players in the Blue Jays organization who have yet to see significant time in the big leagues, but have the potential to help the club at some point in 2014.
1. Marcus Stroman:
Age: 22 | Position: RHP
Drafted: First round, 22nd overall, 2012
2013 Stats: (AA) 3.30 ERA, 1.128 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 in 111.1 IP.
Outlook: Despite never having thrown a pitch above double-A, most observers expect Stroman to crack the big league roster by mid-summer, if not sooner. The Duke product earned rave reviews late in 2013 for his performance in the Arizona Fall League, leading some to believe the Blue Jays might be sitting on their own Sonny Gray, the late-season rookie callup who starred for the Oakland A's down the stretch last season. Although Stroman will most likely begin 2014 with triple-A Buffalo, there's an outside chance he heads north with the big club at the end of the spring.
2. Sean Nolin
Age: 24 | Position: LHP
Drafted: Sixth round, 2010
2013 Stats: (AA) 3.01 ERA, 1.230 WHIP, 10 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 in 92.2 IP.
(AAA) 1.53 ERA, 1.302 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 5.1 BB/9 in 17.2 IP.
Outlook: Never mind his deer-in-the-headlights major league debut last May (1.1 IP, 7 H, 1 BB, 1 HR, 6 ER) -- that one's on the Jays for rushing him to the majors with only six double-A starts under his belt -- Nolin has big league talent and like Stroman, is a darkhorse candidate to crack the starting rotation this spring, depending on what the Jays do between now and the start of the season. Back in August, Blue Jays assitant GM Tony LaCava told Shi Davidi he prefers to see prospects spend a full season at each level, suggesting the team might take a more patient approach with Nolin.
3. John Stilson
Age: 23 | Position: RHP
Drafted: 3rd round, 2011 draft
2013 Stats: (AAA) 2.09 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, in 47.1 IP.
Outlook: One of the more intriguing arms in the Blue Jays system. Another high-risk, high-ceiling Anthopoulos draft pick, Stilson fell to the third round in 2011 after tearing his labrum while pitching at Texas A&M. But when Dr. James Andrews recommended an off-season rehab program over surgery, the Jays lucked out and watched as Stilson rose through the organization on the back of his mid-90s fastball. A former closer in college, the self-described "high-strung and intense" Stilson could figure prominently into the team's 2014 bullpen plans if Casey Janssen or Sergio Santos gets traded.
4. A.J. Jimenez
Age: 23 | Position: Catcher
Drafted: Ninth round, 2008 draft
2013 Stats: (AA) .276/.327/.394/.721, 3 HR, 16 BB, 37 K in 203 AB.
(AAA) .233/.258/.267/.525 in 30 AB.
Outlook: Last summer, Anthopoulos proclaimed Jimenez's defence major-league ready (he's thrown out 43% of base stealers over 6 minor league seasons), leaving his bat as the only remaining question mark. But after undergoing successful Tommy John surgery in 2012, eyebrows were raised this past November when Jimenez was a late-scratch from the Arizona Fall League. If healthy and even serviceable with the stick at triple-A Buffalo, Jimenez could supplant Josh Thole or the newly-acquired Erik Kratz for the backup catcher role with the big club as early as mid-season. Expect to see him and R.A. Dickey spend some quality bullpen time together this spring.
5. Andy Burns
Age: 23 | Position: 3B/1B/OF/SS/2B
Drafted: 11th round, 2011 Draft
2013 Stats: (A+) .327/.383/.524/.907, 8 HR, 21 SB, 25 BB, 38 K in 248 AB.
(AA) .253/.309/.419/.728, 7 HR, 12 SB, 23 BB, 55 K in 265 AB.
Outlook: A bat seemingly without a position, Burns turned heads at the Arizona Fall League in November, picking up player-of-the-week honours while experimenting at two new positions, first base and left field. In his three minor league seasons, Burns has also spent time at third (146 games), shortstop (74) and second base (13), the latter representing, "a great possibility for me," he told Fangraphs.com last month. With just 64 games under his belt above high-A ball, Burns is likely another full year away from consideration for time with the big club, but given the Blue Jays' lack of infield depth, there's a chance he can hit his way into some late-season consideration.