Pitching will be key to Jays’ season in 2014

Toronto manager John Gibbons says the Blue Jays will go as far as their pitching takes them this season. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Toronto manager John Gibbons says the Blue Jays will go as far as their pitching takes them this season.

Buckle up, then. It could be another bumpy ride through the talent-rich American League East.

Gibbons believes the Jays will score runs in 2014 while blunting opposition attacks with good defence. But when it comes to pitching, the Toronto manager seemed to be lowering expectations as the pre-season wore on.

"We don’t have to have a shutdown rotation, just keep us in the game, somewhat match the opposition and let the offence take over," he said during spring training.

"We really like our bullpen, (it’s) strong. We can match up pretty good down there and our defence is much improved if we can keep everybody on the field as well. So we’re feeling pretty good, but we’ve got to get some starting pitching."

From where, some might ask.

The Jays have been unable to add to the rotation of the team that went a disappointing 74-88 after loading up on talent. Take away an 11-game win streak last June and 2013 was a truly dismal season.

Toronto’s starters went 46-57 with a 4.81 earned-run average in 2013. Only Minnesota had a higher starting ERA (5.26).

Toronto pitchers ranked 25th in the majors with a 4.25 ERA. Playing in the hitter-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre, Toronto gave up 195 home runs — only the Baltimore Orioles yielded more (202).

Big right-hander Josh Johnson left town after failing to deliver. Free agent Ervin Santana chose the friendlier confines of the NL East in signing with Atlanta.

Pitching has been the keyword at Toronto’s spring training with one player after another fumbling the chance to join knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, left-hander Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow in the rotation.

With a combined salary of US$39 million this season, the big three of Dickey ($12 million), Buehrle ($19 million) and Morrow ($8 million) need to produce.

Who will help them was a mystery for most of the spring.

J.A. Happ (who will start the season on the disabled list with a back issue), Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond all failed to make a case for winning a starting job.

Drew Hutchison, who returned last fall from Tommy John surgery, did pitch his way into the rotation. In his first three spring outings, the 23-year-old right-hander gave up just three runs in 9.2 innings for an ERA of 2.79. Perhaps more importantly, he struck out 16 while walking one.

"We want strike-throwers," said Gibbons.

Happ walked nine, struck out eight and gave up 16 runs while compiling a 20.57 ERA in his first four spring training outings against major-league opposition.

Rogers and Redmond registered spring strikeouts (22 and 17, respectively) but gave up runs. Rogers’ ERA was 9.37 while Redmond’s was 5.40, both in their first six outings.

Asked if he believes the Jays have enough pitching, slugger Jose Bautista offered optimism.

"Talent-wise yes. There’s no doubt that in this room we have enough guys that are talented enough to lead us into having a great season," he said.

It’s all about translating that talent into execution and results.

The 2013 season was not just about underachieving. It was also about missed opportunities.

Toronto was 15-17 in games decided by two runs and 20-29 in games decided by one run.

Concerns about the pitching mean the Jays will go with an eight-man bullpen: Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, Sergio Santos, Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, Rogers, Redmond and Jeremy Jeffress (also to retain pitchers who are out of options and cannot be sent to the minors without going through waivers).

That leaves a thin three-man bench in backup catcher Josh Thole, outfielder Moises Sierra and utility infielder Maicer Izturis.

Janssen, whose spring has once again been limited to protect his shoulder, will be the closer once again. He converted 34 of 36 save opportunities in 2013.

Santos will serve as his set-up man with left-handed relief help from Cecil and Loup. Delabar and Jeffress offer velocity, although Jeffress’ control can be dodgy.

The starting lineup is set with Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus and Bautista in the outfield and Brett Lawrie, Jose Reyes, Ryan Goins and Edwin Encarnacion/Adam Lind manning the infield.

It’s a big season for Rasmus, who is eligible to become a free agent next year.

Newcomer Dioner Navarro starts at catcher in place of the departed J.P. Arencibia with Thole serving as Dickey’s personal catcher.

Navarro is on his fifth team in five seasons.

Fans may do a double-take at the 30-year-old Venezuelan’s chunky shape. But Gibbons, a former catcher himself, has no issue with the five-foot-nine 205-pounder.

"As long as he hits and he catches," Gibbons said with a grin.

Early reviews on Navarro have been positive, with pitchers applauding his handling of the staff.

Even Gibbons couldn’t resist a one-liner, however, after Navarro escaped injury following a foul tip in spring training.

"It’s tough to hurt that body," the manager said, drawing laughs.

The good news is that the Jays enter the season healthy, although Reyes is nursing a sore hamstring.

Cabrera, who required surgery to remove a tumour in his lower back last season, has been wielding a hot bat while turning heads in the outfield.

Bautista has also been swinging freely — and successfully — after two injury-shortened seasons (a hip issue in 2013 and wrist in 2012).

Toronto ranked 15th in the majors in hitting in 2013, with a .252 average.

With Lawrie, Reyes and the smooth-fielding Goins, expect infield defence to be exceptional. Goins’ bat remains a question mark.

Despite the constant questioning over pitching, it was a much more relaxed spring training than last year when the team was under intense media scrutiny.

"We’re not picked to win the World Series so I think that’s probably why there’s less attention. I guess that’s a good thing," Lind said. "You don’t have to get pulled in so many different directions with different media outlets. It allows us to concentrate more on baseball."

And Lind, who rocked one of the best beards in baseball during spring training, says team chemistry is excellent.

"There’s a bunch of nice guys in here," he said.

Still the pressure is on to perform after such a poor 2013, with Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos under the microscope.

Despite the poor results, 2013 attendance reached 2,536,562 for an average of 31,315 at the Rogers Centre. That marked a considerable jump from 2012 when attendance totalled 2,099,663 for an average of 25,921.

The Jays jumped from 23rd to 14th in total attendance among MLB teams.

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