2014 Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Remember last year, when the Blue Jays were a trendy World Series pick after general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ offseason overhaul? That seems like a very long time ago. Injuries prevented Toronto from fulfilling those great expectations and have raised serious doubts about the team’s capability of contending this season, despite returning much of the same roster.

The Blue Jays did little to improve themselves during this past offseason, creating the impression that last year’s additions were an “all-in” move for the franchise. When those moves didn’t pay off, Anthopoulos didn’t have anywhere near the leeway he needed to bring in more talent. The final, humiliating blow was losing out on Ervin Santana, a much-needed starting pitcher whom the free agent market had all but placed in Toronto’s lap. That letdown can be overcome, but many things have to go right this season.

Depth Chart (as of 3/17)
C: Dioner Navarro
1B: Edwin Encarnacion
2B: Ryan Goins
3B: Brett Lawrie
SS: Jose Reyes
LF: Melky Cabrera
CF: Colby Rasmus
RF: Jose Bautista
DH: Adam Lind
SP: R.A. Dickey
SP: Mark Buehrle
SP: Brandon Morrow
SP: J.A. Happ
SP: Drew Hutchison
CL: Casey Janssen

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

New Faces
This section was a hell of a lot more interesting last year. Toronto’s only notable offseason signing was catcher Dioner Navarro. That’s not to say Navarro is an insignificant addition to the Blue Jays’ lineup. Last season, Toronto catchers batted a combined .194, worst in the AL and tied for last in MLB. As a group, they also compiled a .235 on-base percentage — worst in baseball — with a .348 slugging mark that ranked among the bottom third in MLB and .583 OPS that finished 27th out of 30 clubs.

So Navarro will be a significant upgrade over the likes of J.P. Arencibia, Josh Thole and Henry Blanco. Last season, the 30-year-old hit .300 with an .856 OPS, 13 home runs and 34 RBI in 266 plate appearances for the Cubs. He caught 55 games, backing up Wellington Castillo. Though Navarro hasn’t caught at least 100 games since 2009 with the Rays, the Blue Jays signed Navarro to a two-year, $8 million deal to be their starting catcher. Toronto also acquired Erik Kratz in a trade with the Phillies and he should be the backup catcher.

Josh Johnson could’ve been a key piece of the blockbuster Nov. 2012 trade with the Marlins. But strained forearm and triceps inflammation injuries limited him to 16 starts and decreased velocity. Johnson carried a 6.10 ERA to go with a 2-8 record and 105 hits allowed in 81.1 innings, so it’s understandable why the Blue Jays didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. Yet while his departure appears to be no great loss, could Toronto have used Johnson at the back end of its rotation or was he a lost cause pitching in Rogers Centre?

Rajai Davis no longer had a place in the Blue Jays outfield, and presumably wanted a starting job elsewhere. That makes it somewhat curious that Davis opted for a platoon situation with the Tigers. (That was before Andy Dirks’ back injury made Davis a likely full-time left fielder.) Toronto could miss his speed, but has outfield depth and less expensive players with Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra.

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Impact Rookies
While the Jays and Anthopoulos have been criticized heavily for not signing Santana or otherwise improving their starting rotation, one of the reasons such a move may not have been made is because help could be on the way. Marcus Stroman could get a shot later in the season after an impressive season in Double-A last year. The 22-year-old went 9-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 20 starts for New Hampshire, striking out 129 batters (and walking 27) in 111.2 innings. That performance silenced any doubts as to whether or not the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder could handle a starting pitcher’s workload.

Stroman presumably had an opportunity to make the big league rotation this spring, but hasn’t pitched all that well, allowing eight runs and 13 hits in nine innings of work. He’ll likely have to further develop his changeup and cutter in Triple-A before getting the call up to the majors.

Position Battles
Why was there such uproar over the Blue Jays losing out on Santana? Because he would’ve been a great fit at the back end of Toronto’s rotation. Instead, there’s a three-way battle for the fifth starter role between J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond. Stroman could still be in the mix, along with Ricky Romero and perhaps Dustin McGowan. But those three appear more likely to work their way into the rotation later in the season.

Happ has struggled with a back injury this spring, which threatens to cost him a starting spot. However, manager John Gibbons says the left-hander has a spot in the rotation if he’s healthy. So maybe there’s not really a battle for the fifth starter position after all. Or Gibbons might be trying to boost Happ’s confidence to make sure he competes for that starting gig until the end of spring training. Yet some, such as Blue Jays radio announcer Mike Wilner, believe Redmond has actually pitched the best of the three contenders and will be in the opening day rotation.

Not addressing the second base situation through trade or free agency has opened up the competition at that position. Ryan Goins appears to be the favorite, with Anthopoulos raving about his defense. The question is whether or not he can hit well enough to keep his spot in the lineup. Taking that into consideration, Maicer Izturis could get the job but he doesn’t have Goins’ glove. Chris Getz was a non-roster invitee and might be the best bat of the bunch, though that’s not really saying much.

As mentioned above, the Blue Jays traded for Kratz with eyes on him being the backup catcher. But there is the question of who catches knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Last season, Josh Thole accompanied Dickey from the Mets to Toronto for that job. While experience catching the knuckleball could give Thole an edge, he hit .175 in 2013. Kratz arguably didn’t hit much better, but his .213 average is almost 40 points higher and he has more pop, slugging nine home runs.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Injury Concerns
During the past two seasons, Jose Bautista has played a total of 210 games. In 2012, his season was finished by late August because of a left wrist injury that eventually required surgery. Last year, Bautista was again done for the season before September due to a bone bruise in his left hip. Freak injuries aside, can he be counted on to play 150 games and provide an MVP-caliber home run bat for the Blue Jays lineup, as he did in 2010 and 2011 when he hit a combined 97 longballs?

Jose Reyes missed nearly three months with an ankle injury last season, and has struggled with hamstring, calf and ankle issues throughout his career. Playing on Rogers Centre’s artificial turf wouldn’t figure to be kind to Reyes’ legs over the course of 81 home games. The same could be said for third baseman Brett Lawrie, who was limited to 107 games last year with rib cage muscle and ankle injuries. Outfielder Melky Cabrera appeared in 88 games due to various leg injuries and had offseason surgery to remove a benign tumor from his back. Will his legs stay healthy on an unforgiving artificial surface?

But it’s been pitching injuries that have ravaged the Blue Jays over the past few seasons. We’ve already mentioned the back injury that’s held Happ back this spring, and McGowan has dealt with shoulder issues (requiring more than one surgery) throughout his career. Drew Hutchison has been tabbed for a spot in the rotation (possibly in the No. 2 slot between Dickey and Mark Buehrle), but how many innings will he be able to throw after missing all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery? Brandon Morrow started only 10 games for Toronto last year due to forearm injuries that may have developed from relying too much on his cutter.

Best Case
For the most part, this is the same team that many picked to win the AL East and even the World Series, based on Anthopoulos’ big trades. Yet the Red Sox are the defending World Series champions and every other team in the division improved itself. Virtually everyone — especially on the pitching side — has to stay healthy for the Blue Jays to even have a chance of contending for a playoff spot. Ideally, Bautista, Reyes, Lawrie and Cabrera appear in 150 games. Dickey, Hutchison and Buehrle comprise a strong top-three for the rotation, Morrow makes 30 starts, Redmond or Happ holds down that fifth spot, or Stroman emerges as a major league starter by June.

Worst Case
Once again, the roster collapses due to injuries. Bautista looks increasingly brittle and can’t finish another season, while Reyes, Lawrie and Cabrera spend several weeks on the disabled list. Dickey and Buehrle continue to struggle pitching in Rogers Centre, as Hutchison and Morrow struggle to make 20 starts apiece. Meanwhile, the fifth spot in the rotation is a carousel and Stroman shows that he needs more time in Triple-A to develop. Oh, and second base is a black hole in the lineup as Toronto again looks at fewer than 75 wins.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Realistic Scenario
The AL East is loaded, probably the best division in MLB. The Blue Jays’ four division rivals would likely have to collapse for Toronto to have any chance at the postseason. And even then, the Jays can’t suffer any major injuries to their roster. Can this team win the 92 games it took to qualify for the playoffs last year? It seems very doubtful, especially with all of the pitching questions facing Toronto. And that’s not even considering the competition throughout the league that will contend for the AL’s two wild-card bids. A .500 finish or close to it is likely the best that the Blue Jays can hope for this season.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.