Blue Jays’ Devon Travis a valuable piece, if healthy

Shi Davidi and Arash Madani discuss Francisco Liriano’s spring training and the Toronto Blue Jays setting up their rotation for the beginning of the season.

TORONTO – Some random observations after a week with the Toronto Blue Jays:

Devon Travis is the most important player on this team this week. Seriously: 10 days ago manager John Gibbons and the front office were skeptical Travis would be any place else but the disabled list when the season started. Saturday, after Travis went 2-for-4 with a double on a nasty 1-1 curveball from the New York Yankees’ Adam Warren, a run scored and an RBI in his second consecutive Grapefruit League game, Gibbons remarked that Travis could be in the lineup Monday for the season opener. “And I’m surprised to be saying that, to be honest,” Gibbons said.

He won’t be joining the team in Montreal next weekend, as the Jays look to protect his knee from the Olympic Stadium turf.

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• At some point within the first two months of the season, you’ll hear trade rumours involving a left-fielder or first baseman. General manager Ross Atkins had a good line this week to describe the team’s designated hitter/first base/left-field love triangle: “That left-field position is more about five players and three positions,” he said, referring to Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, Melvin Upton, Jr., Ezequiel Carrera and Justin Smoak and how some combination of those three will be in the lineup at left, first, and DH every day to start the season. You’ll hear the Blue Jays say they believe they will have a solid, average, everyday left-field situation that can be carried due to offensive excellence elsewhere around the diamond. But they’ll need to add another impact bat this year or next season, even if Rowdy Tellez makes it here. Speaking of which …

• Tellez, who will start the season at triple-A Buffalo and is a holdover prospect from the previous administration, has won over the new Jays management team. Dude took Troy Tulowitzki out to dinner to pick his mind; spent time with Blue Jays quasi-advisor Sean Casey, too. “He’s the same age this season as guys who will be drafted college seniors,” president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro said. Get Rowdy, folks …

• Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez told my show on Monday that he thinks Francisco Liriano can be the best starter on the staff. Wow. I don’t know about that but he is a difference-maker; the most impressive starter this spring, with every reason to believe that his innings will be a mammoth improvement over R.A. Dickey’s. Catcher Russell Martin has been forcing him to use his four-seamer more and he’s been a willing student.

• The Blue Jays will need to find another Joaquin Benoit this season. For some strange reason, Roberto Osuna has been seldom seen or heard going into the final week of Grapefruit League play and had an appearance scratched after a stiff neck. Gibbons wants to see a fair amount of him this week. J.P. Howell and Joe Smith, the off-season additions of note, have been OK – Smith in particular has picked it up in the last week; Jason Grilli is doing what you’d think he’d do, while Joe Biagini has pleased Gibbons and management but is also the next man up in the event a starter gets hurt. The good news is there will be some power relief arms at triple-A Buffalo; the better news is this rotation should be strong enough to mitigate against the bullpen being called on too often in the sixth inning, especially if Aaron Sanchez can master the change-up to get through the order a third time. It’s not a swing-and-miss change-up, but it can induce soft contact and control bat speed.

• Everybody looks better than they’ve ever looked before every spring training … but Jose Bautista sounds like a guy who believes himself that he is better than last season. There is a sense that Bautista wasn’t game-ready last spring because of lingering issues with his shoulder that impeded his off-season conditioning. His arm is better than it was in 2016, that’s apparent, and he has hinted he is willing to shift around the field if it helps Gibbons’ lineup. Bautista also told Stephen Brunt and myself that he will be a shade more circumspect in his words this season. Some might consider him chastened by his experiences in the off-season; instead, I see a player poised for a comeback.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Interesting discussion between Toronto Raptors assistant Rex Kalamian and Raptors TV guy Matt Devlin last week about Serge Ibaka and the “softening” of his defensive numbers over the past couple of seasons. Kalamian suggested that the shift of focus in the NBA to the perimeter has changed the defensive roles of a traditional No. 4 or power forward, putting an emphasis on guarding at the perimeter as opposed to rim protection – guarding in space, in other words. The Raptors haven’t only managed to win games in Kyle Lowry’s absence; they’ve become a more conscientious defensive team, too, statistically the best in the league since the all-star break.

• I don’t know if Morales is going to be able to replace Edwin Encarnacion’s bat, but the key acquisition of the off-season for the Blue Jays is already a similarly sublime clubhouse presence. Of special note is the Cuban’s eclectic music taste, on display in the morning at the team’s spring training Dunedin complex. Morales has a wireless speaker on the floor near his locker and plays a mix of jazz, rhythm and blues and rock. Asked what type of music he’d have with him if he could choose just one CD for a desert island, he smiled and told interpreter Josue Pelley: “Got to be rock ‘n’ roll.”

Morales believes music plays an important role in clubhouse life. In fact, during a recent interview it was the topic he expanded upon more than any other.

“Of course, we try to listen to a different kind of music. We have a multicultural clubhouse,” he said. “In baseball, there is always not just problems inside the clubhouse; people have their issues off the field, too. I just try to bring happiness and kindness into the clubhouse, not just by talking but by music … trying to bring something that makes everybody happy.”

• Want to go to a football game at the University of Arkansas? Don’t bring an umbrella in the event of rain; they are prohibited. But you can carry a concealed handgun if you get an “enhanced” permit that allows you to carry guns into government buildings, bars or college campuses – including sporting events. Ah, but there’s a catch: you’ll need to pass an eight-hour course! And be 21 years old! The bill is currently working its way through the state house and Senate. ‘Murica, folks. ‘Murica.

A PEEK AT THE WEEK

Tuesday
NHL – New York Rangers at San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are in the middle of a six-game losing streak and between playoffs and World Cup competition, you wonder if it’s all catching up to them.

NBA – Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets. It’s the last of 16 back-to-backs for the Warriors and it’s a ball-buster: Tuesday in Houston, Wednesday in San Antonio against the Spurs. Head coach Steve Kerr needs one win for 200 career victories and with 237 games he’s well ahead of the NBA-record pace set by Phil Jackson, who needed 270 games to reach the figure.

Wednesday
NHL – Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins. A potential Stanley Cup preview.

Thursday
NHL – Sharks at Edmonton Oilers. Leon Draisaitl joined Connor McDavid as 70-point scorers this past weekend, the first time the Oilers have had two players with as many points since Alex Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff in 2005-06. The Oilers are in a mood to improve their playoff position in these final two weeks.

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Friday
MLS – Sporting Kansas City at Toronto FC. The Reds make their home debut after losing in the MLS Cup.

Exhibition Baseball – Blue Jays versus Pittsburgh Pirates, Olympic Stadium. The Pirates made a habit of putting a world of hurt on Expos teams throughout the years. Former Pirates star Willie Stargell had the longest-measured HR ever hit at the Big O: 535 feet, clubbed on May 20, 1978 – but the yellow seat that designated where the ball landed was sent to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys after the Expos relocated to Washington, D.C.

Saturday
MLS – Real Salt Lake at Minnesota United. The MLS record for goals allowed in a 34-game season is 67 by Chivas USA in 2013. Through four games the expansion Minnesota team has allowed 18. You do the math.

THE ENDGAME

Is David Price’s psyche too soft for Boston? Sure seems that way. Price has had his back up all spring with reporters covering the Red Sox, even before developing an elbow issue around which he created excess drama by saying if he was younger he’d consider having surgery. Price is being set up as a fall guy by his own words. No wonder some of his former teammates on the Blue Jays were surprised – almost to a man – that he elected to go to Boston instead of a more mellow media market such as St. Louis, which would have been more in keeping with his previous stops in Tampa and Detroit. No way this ends happily ….

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

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