When Ervin Santana signed with the Braves, more attention seemed to focus on the Blue Jays losing out on him. Toronto had a big need for starting pitching especially at the back end of its rotation and Santana could be had for a one-year contract. Losing a first-round draft pick wasn’t even a concern because the top 11 slots are protected and Toronto has the ninth and 11th overall selections. Until any of the Blue Jays’ in-house options emerge to man the fourth and fifth spots in the starting rotation, that has to be considered a major weakness on the roster.
Second base has also been a question mark in Toronto’s lineup since Kelly Johnson left as a free agent after the 2012 season. Emilio Bonifacio played the majority of the time at second last year until the Blue Jays traded him (and general manager Alex Anthopoulos ripped him after the deal was made). Maicer Izturis took over and didn’t hit much better. Even worse, he was a downgrade defensively. Here’s another position Toronto had an opportunity to improve, yet chose to stand pat and give Ryan Goins a shot to win the job.
Last season, Toronto starting pitchers accumulated a 4.38 ERA, the second-worst in baseball. Their opponents’ batting average of .272 ranked 27th out of 30 MLB clubs. Opposing batters also compiled a .788 OPS versus Blue Jays starting pitching. Only the Twins had a worse mark at .826. You get the idea. But just in case you don’t, Toronto starters had a collective 6.9 WAR, placing them No. 26 in the majors.
Whether it was from pitching largely indoors at Rogers Centre or facing AL East competition, R.A. Dickey followed up his NL Cy Young Award winning season for the Mets with a 14-13 record and 4.21 ERA in Toronto. His strikeout rate also dropped from 8.9 per nine innings to 7.1. Returning to the AL also wasn’t beneficial for Mark Buehrle, whose ERA increased from 3.74 to 4.15 while allowing nearly 10 hits per nine innings. But those are the Blue Jays’ top two starters and that won’t change.
The far bigger concern is at the back end of the starting rotation because Toronto doesn’t know who will fill that fifth spot yet. The fourth starter could also be a question mark. Drew Hutchison appears to have won the No. 3 starter job (though he will likely pitch between Dickey and Buehrle in the rotation) with a strong spring performance. Manager John Gibbons said J.A. Happ has a spot in the rotation if he’s healthy, but the left-hander has been hobbled by back injuries during Grapefruit League play.
Does that leave Brandon Morrow as the fifth starter? That would seem to be quite a slide for someone who was penciled in as the No. 3 man in the rotation coming into the spring. However, Morrow hasn’t pitched well in Florida and is coming off a season during which he was limited to 10 starts because of a forearm injury. The company line is that slotting Morrow fifth allows him to pitch the home opener versus the Yankees. But how much of a consideration can that possibly be?
Really, this comes down to Happ. If his back issues clear up by opening day, he’ll be in the rotation and it apparently doesn’t matter how well Todd Richmond, Esmil Rogers or even Dustin McGowan pitch for the rest of the spring. Marcus Stroman is also in the mix, but appears more likely to begin the season in the minors and will be called to the majors when needed. Until then, however, the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation carry a whole bunch of uncertainty with them.
While Anthopoulos received much more criticism and attention for not bolstering the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, he also did little to address the team’s apparent hole at second base. From all accounts this spring, Toronto views Ryan Goins as the favorite for the job. Anthopoulos has raved about the 26-year-old’s defense (or defence, if you’re Canadian), calling him an “elite” player with Gold Glove potential.
That would certainly be an improvement over Bonifacio and Izturis in the field. But what about at the plate? Can Goins hit well enough to keep his hold on second base? After Bonifacio was traded to the Royals and Izturis was a bust, Goins got the majority of playing time at the position. In 121 plate appearances, he hit .252 with with a .609 OPS. Prior to being called up, Goins wasn’t much better at Triple-A Buffalo, batting .257 with a .679 OPS. Yet that might be good enough, considering the offense Toronto has at other positions.
If Goins doesn’t hit, the first guy to replace him could be Chris Getz, who was a non-roster invitee to spring training. So it’s not like Getz would be a significant upgrade. Last year, he hit .220 with a .561 OPS for the Royals. Interestingly, he lost his job at the end of the season to Bonifacio.
This could be where Anthopoulos pursues a trade if neither Goins, Getz nor Izturis works out. The Reds’ Brandon Phillips would seem to be a good fit. But with an apparently tight payroll in Toronto, the four years and $50 million left on his contract is too rich for the Blue Jays. Not to mention that Phillips are declining across the board, though he doesn’t want to hear about it. Other possibilities could include Danny Espinosa of the Nationals, the Dodgers’ Dee Gordon, Nick Franklin of the Mariners or the Mets’ Daniel Murphy.
But if Anthopoulos could get a player like that, wouldn’t he have already done so during the offseason? The Blue Jays need Goins to win the second base job and keep it. Yet even if he does so, his lack of hitting could make the position a weak spot for Toronto throughout the season.