Three key questions for the Toronto Blue Jays

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We’ve covered the Blue Jays’ shortcomings in the starting rotation and at second base, as well as the many injuries the team has had to deal with in recent seasons. Those are likely the biggest questions that hang over Toronto going into the 2014 season. However, with much of the same roster on hand as last year, improvement from a couple of key players could make a huge difference in Toronto’s success or failure. Those players, along with a general manager that’s taken a lot of recent criticism, are questions that need to yield positive answers for the Blue Jays this year.

Will R.A. Dickey rebound in his second year with the Blue Jays?
Dickey’s first season in Toronto was a bit of a rough one. Coming off winning the NL Cy Young Award with the Mets, the knuckleballer was traded to the Blue Jays, in large part because he agreed to a two-year, $25 million contract extension with the team. This was Dickey’s time to cash in, the culmination of years of struggle followed by breakout success. The Mets didn’t necessarily want to give the 38-year-old Dickey a new contract, preferring instead to sell high and get some young talent in return. Mission accomplished.

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For Dickey, he got his money but couldn’t quite follow up his Cy Young Award-winning success. As could be expected from a knuckleballer whose pitches take less of a toll on his arm, Dickey was durable and reliable, making 34 starts and throwing 224.2 innings for the Blue Jays. But his strikeout rate dropped to 7.1 per nine innings from 8.9 the previous season. Dickey also gave up 35 home runs, compared to 24 in 2012. Was the reason as simple as moving from Citi Field to Rogers Centre?

Perhaps. The controlled environment of the Blue Jays’ home park with a closed roof surely resulted in different humidity and wind speed or direction than Dickey worked in at Citi Field. Such conditions may have had an adverse effect on the knuckleball, influencing how it floated, darted or dropped on its way to home plate.

But Dickey was also surely affected by upper back and neck injuries he suffered early in the season, causing him to alter his pitching motion. As a result, Dickey’s velocity decreased, losing nearly two mph off his fastball. Even if he wasn’t a hard thrower, Dickey’s fastball was a key factor in him keeping opposing hitters off balance with his knuckleball. The change in mechanics also may have prevented Dickey from keeping the ball down, resulting in more fly balls. He was more of a groundball pitcher in his previous four seasons, but was split almost evenly in 2013. More fly balls are deadly for a pitcher at an extremely home-run friendly park like Rogers Centre.

Dickey has been focused on regaining velocity and keeping the ball down this spring. Better control should come with that as well. (Dickey issued a career-high 71 walks last season. To find success in Toronto, he’ll have to achieve all three objectives and live up to his contract, which kicks in this year.

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Can Brett Lawrie emerge into a cornerstone player for Toronto? 
The Blue Jays seemingly got their third baseman of the future when acquiring Lawrie from the Brewers in exchange for Shaun Marcum. The following year, Lawrie was called up to Toronto and put up impressive numbers, batting .293 with a .953 OPS, nine home runs and 25 RBI in 171 plate appearances. The future was going to be bright.

Lawrie’s future could still be bright. He just turned 24 and is entering his third full season (fourth altogether) as a major leaguer. Yet he seems to have plateaued a bit during his past two seasons, largely due to injuries. Lawrie appeared in only 107 games last year while straining a rib cage muscle and sustaining a sprained ankle. Manager John Gibbons also moved him to second base at one point, hoping to provide more offense at that position. That experiment lasted six games.

Fixing his swing was Lawrie’s offseason project, which will hopefully improve his batting average and perhaps even increase his power numbers. As MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm explained, Lawrie began to work on eliminating unnecessary movement as he worked into his swing, working especially hard with former hitting coach Chad Mottola on a hitch that threw off his timing. That project has continued with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, as he tries to quiet Lawrie down at the plate, smoothing out whatever waggles and other movement prevented him from properly loading up his swing.

Lawrie may never be a 20-homer hitter for the Blue Jays. The most he’s ever hit was 18 at Triple-A Las Vegas, which is typically a launching pad for hitters. Of course, the same could be said for Rogers Centre.

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Will Alex Anthopoulos redeem himself for missing out on Ervin Santana? 
What a difference a year makes. Going into last season, the Blue Jays’ general manager was viewed as a genius for engineering trades that brought him Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey, among several other players. Unfrortunately, those deals didn’t result in on-field success for Toronto, leaving Anthopoulos with little benefit of the doubt nor available payroll to work with.

Any chances he had of working more offseason magic appeared to be handcuffed by ownership burned by going “all-in” the year before with no success to show for it. Anthopoulos wasn’t able to acquire a starting pitcher to bolster the back end of Toronto’s starting rotation, nor was he able to make a deal for a second baseman that could provide some offense.

Yet Anthopoulos was on the verge of looking clever again, as the free agent market left Ervin Santana still available into mid-March. By waiting while team after team passed on Santana because no one wanted to surrender a first-round draft pick, nor meet Santana’s contract demands, the Blue Jays were in position to swoop in and sign one of the top pitchers available to a one-year contract at an affordable rate.

Unfortunately, Toronto was overtaken by the Braves, who suddenly had a need for a top starter with several injuries in their rotation. Pitching in the NL for a contender — and not in Rogers Centre — was just too appealing for Santana to refuse, despite Anthopoulos’ presumed best efforts. Waiting backfired on the Blue Jays.

However, as Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi pointed out in a recent column, it’s not Anthopoulos’ failure to make more big moves, but rather his poor drafting that may have put the Blue Jays in their current position. To be fair, Toronto traded young arms like Noah Syndergaard, Anthony DeSclafani, Asher Wojciechowski, and Justin Nicolino in last winter’s celebrated deals. Additionally, prospects like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez should join the big league rotation in the near-future.

But with the ninth and 11th overall selections in this year’s MLB draft, Anthopoulos has the chance to add some future stars and really can’t afford to miss. (The Blue Jays have the No. 11 pick as compensation for failing to sign pitcher Phil Bickford last year.) With a deep draft projected and several pitchers among the best available players, Toronto needs to pick up young building blocks that can be developed and kept under club control for years to come.

Ian Casselberry

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.

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