Tao of Stieb: Jays facing questions this spring

Brett Lawrie (Chris Young/CP)

Eleven months ago, we were watching grainy clips of Josh Johnson mowing down hitters with his fastball. You could almost start to dream on those early spring results.

Could he be the Toronto Blue Jays’ ace? Might he be a Cy Young contender? Would that performance help pave the way for the Jays to compete for a playoff spot?

It’s funny how the mind can wander

Obviously, the reality was nowhere close to that, as injury and an insistence on nibbling led to a forgettable year for the player, and contributed to a bitterly disappointing season for the team.

You’d think that would be a lesson for all of us about the value of pre-season stats, and yet I find myself willfully forgetting all of that and getting anxious for this year’s Spring Training results.

It’s not so much that I choose to get fooled again. But there are a few intriguing questions that hang over the Jays’ forthcoming season that I’m not patient enough to wait to see how they play out in due time.

With that said, here are three things that I’ll be watching for out of Dunedin in the coming weeks.

Who’s Melky?: It was hard to even assess what it was that we saw in Melky Cabrera last season. Almost from the outset, he looked older, slower and weaker than what we had seen from his time in Kansas City and San Francisco. You had to remind yourself that this guy actually played centre field for significant parts of his career.

The news following the season that Melky had a tumour removed from his back might have helped to explain the drop off in his performance. But the knowledge of a contributing factor to his struggles isn’t necessarily an assurance that he’s fine and back to “normal”.

Tack on the suspicions that stemmed from his PED suspension the previous year, and Cabrera’s recent performance is too vague or muddied to provide any clear sense of what he could be in 2014.

Melky’s mobility, comfort at the plate and speed in the field will be one of the first things we’ll want to hear about from those who have eyes on him down south.

The Return of the Young Wounded Hurlers: The past two seasons have obviously been nightmarish when it comes to the health of the Jays’ starters. The result being far too many starts from temporary fill-in pitchers who have little business facing big league batters, much less taking a regular turn for a team with playoff ambitions.

Before they were injured, we weren’t quite sure what the team had in young pitchers like Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek. And while the Jays took a wise route by working them back from their respective Tommy John procedures on a deliberate timeline, the question remains as to what impact the time spent convalescing has had on their development. Do they need a year to acclimate themselves once again to the MLB level? Were we even sure that they were ready to pitch at that level in 2012?

It’s good that these two pitchers were well cared for and nurtured on their way back, but we’ll want to see if they can really contribute this year.

And as a side note, I’m sure that Brandon Morrow’s progress in returning from injury will bear as much scrutiny as ever.

The Hot Canadian Corner: There are things that Brett Lawrie does so well on the field as a 24 year-old that it’s hard not to get excited about his potential to be a star.

But haven’t we been saying that for a few years now? In some ways, he’s already managed to get the star treatment in terms of sponsorships and multimedia love. But in 1,149 plate appearances, he’s managed a .328 OBP, .427 SLG and 6.3 Fangraphs-flavoured wins.

Lawrie seemed to take some steps towards a more rounded and disciplined game in the latter half of 2013. His numbers improved to a .346 OBP and .417 SLG in the second half, after a dismal start following a pre-season injury. He also made fewer overly-aggressive baserunning gaffes.

But will we ever see glimpses of the comet that whooshed through the Rogers Centre in 2011? The guy who spit on borderline pitches and posted a .953 OPS over 43 games? He showed a veteran’s patience and power as a 21 year-old. It would be nice to see hints of that this March.

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