If Jays stay healthy they could surprise in 2014

If they can actually stay on the field this time around, Toronto will have a team that could surprise a whole lot of people. (Frank Gunn/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. – We’re a week into the Toronto Blue Jays’ 38th Spring Training here in what they quaintly call "Delightfully Different Downtown Dunedin," and as I report for my 14th spring down here, I find myself wondering if the 2014 team might not wind up accomplishing what so many people believed the 2013 team was going to.

One year ago, the entire baseball world was abuzz about the Jays thanks to the two big-splash trades they made to radically change the team for what conventional wisdom said was the better. They had clearly won the winter, like the Anaheim Angels and then-Florida Marlins (now Miami) had done the year before and the Boston Red Sox had done the year before that. And just like those Angels, Marlins and Red Sox, the Blue Jays didn’t make the playoffs.

Not only did the Jays not qualify for the post-season, their year was an abysmal failure as they finished dead last in the American League East for the first time in a decade and only the fourth time since 1981.

No one was interested in the reasons (not excuses) behind the complete and utter collapse. Like the fact that three of the five starters in the Blue Jays’ projected rotation combined to make only 28 starts (Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow made 26 of those and, to be fair, were usually awful when they were healthy enough to get on the mound) or that everyday players Melky Cabrera (74), Jose Reyes (69), Brett Lawrie (55), Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus (44 each) combined to miss 286 games. That’s not an injury "excuse" – that’s one-third of your starting lineup missing over one-third of the season and another two players missing over a quarter of the year.

Would anyone have picked the Blue Jays to be a contender if they’d known that Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond were going to combine for 34 starts or even that Chien-Ming Wang was going to make six? That Munenori Kawasaki was going to play more games than Reyes? That Mark DeRosa was going to get over 200 plate appearances? Of course not, but that’s what happened.

It wasn’t a lax spring training, the weight of high expectations or the team simply not being all that good – it was the fact that the starting pitching was horrible for the first month of the season (helped not at all by a defence that featured neither Maicer Izturis nor Emilio Bonifacio being able to handle things at third and second, respectively), and then when the ship righted itself thanks to an improbable 11-game win streak in late June, everybody wound up getting hurt.

Why did the Red Sox finish last in the division in 2012? Everybody got hurt — and their injury issues weren’t as bad as last year’s Blue Jays. Who did most pundits pick to finish last in the division in 2013? The eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

I’m not suggesting the Blue Jays are going to go out in 2014, shock the world and barely break a sweat rolling to a division title as last year’s Red Sox did. After all, the Jays added only one player this winter in catcher Dioner Navarro.

I am suggesting, however, that almost all the talent that had the baseball world so excited going into last season is still right here, and that there’s no reason to believe the ground will collapse under the Jays this year like it did last. Truly, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for the Blue Jays in 2013, with the exceptions of Adam Lind regaining his form against right-handed pitching, Edwin Encarnacion delivering another stellar — and mostly injury-free — performance, Mark Buehrle being Mark Buehrle and, of course, the bullpen.

R.A. Dickey pitched with an injured muscle in the back of his neck and shoulder for the first two months of the season. He pitched to a 1.15 WHIP over the season’s final four months.

Lawrie came back early from a ribcage injury because the team’s infield defence was brutal without him and was only going to get worse without Reyes. It took him until July 23rd to get his batting average over .200 for good. From that point on, over his last 64 games of the season, Lawrie hit .292/.352/.421.

J.P. Arencibia had a historically awful offensive season – literally one of the worst of all-time. He’s replaced by Navarro, a one-time all-star who seems to be enjoying an offensive resurgence and just turned 30. Erik Kratz, who has hit 18 home runs in 338 at-bats over the last two seasons in Philly, is likely to replace Josh Thole as the back-up. Thole hit .175 for the Jays last season and has eight home runs in over 1,000 big-league at-bats.

Ryan Goins may not hit — though some make it out as though he’s bringing a toothpick up to the plate, which isn’t so — but batting ninth he won’t have to, and his eye-popping glove work that was on display over the final six weeks of 2013 is enough to both stabilize the defence and keep him in the lineup.

Goins brings up the rear in what could be a very powerful offence, should everyone stay healthy and if Melky Cabrera can do what he was doing the two years before a spinal tumour took his legs right out from underneath him.

Surely, the Blue Jays are owed some luck on the injury front, but truly, they don’t need that much – they just need to avoid the multiple catastrophic, long-term injuries that have taken the wind out of their sails the last couple of years.

They didn’t add a starting pitcher over the winter (though Ervin Santana remains available), but there wasn’t a proven, reliable, top of the rotation starting pitcher to add. And, unlike last season when emergency airlift starters Wang, Redmond, Ramon Ortiz and Aaron Laffey made a total of 25 starts and posted a combined ERA of 5.38 — averaging just under 4 2/3 innings per start — this year young up-and-comers like Marcus Stroman, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin and maybe even Aaron Sanchez will be asked to shoulder the load when the Blue Jays need them – unless one of them makes the team as the fifth starter.

Last season was a gut-punch to a fan base that expected much more than it got and the lack of activity in the off-season wasn’t a lot of fun either. But there’s still plenty of talent gathered in Dunedin, plenty of players with outstanding major-league resumes, and if they can actually stay on the field this time around, Toronto will have a team that could surprise a whole lot of people.

The Jays’ will play a four-inning intra-squad game on Tuesday before saying goodbye to the minor-league complex for the year. They open up their Grapefruit League schedule Wednesday in Clearwater against the Phillies, a game that can be heard live (and free!) through the mlb.com audio package.

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