Hitting and defence sound but pitching a concern for Blue Jays in 2014

The Canadian Press
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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.

Five Toronto Blue Jays to watch this season

TORONTO — A look at five Blue Jays to watch in 2014:

R.A. Dickey

The erudite knuckleballer had a slow start last season before rallying to finish with a 14-13 record and 4.21 ERA. Dickey went 8-10 with a 4.69 ERA prior to the all-star game and 6-3 with a 3.56 ERA after. His goal is to start 2014 the way he finished 2013. He knows improvement is needed.

“Because I’m going through the AL East again this year,” he said. “So although they didn’t see the real me, I feel like especially early on in the season, I’m still looking for other weapons.”

Dickey believes his preparation has been superior this spring, without the distraction of the World Baseball Classic.

“I feel more ready,” he said. “I’m going to take that into the season with me. It’s no guarantee than things are going to be just perfectly smooth. But at the same time, the way I feel brings a level of confidence with it that you don’t have when you’re not as prepared. So I’m thankful for that.”

The 39-year-old, who will work with catcher Josh Thole, finished the spring with a 5.79 ERA.

Melky Cabrera

The 29-year-old left-fielder from the Dominican Republic is healthy again after having surgery to remove a tumour from his lower back. He played through pain in 2013, hitting .279 with 30 RBI in 88 games after joining the Jays as a free agent from San Francisco. It’s been a new-look Cabrera this spring. He hit .431 through his first 19 spring training games and showed good defence in the outfield. Cabrera is healthy enough that he will spell Rasmus in centre field as needed.

Dioner Navarro

The Jays are the fifth team in five seasons for the chunky catcher from Venezuela, who takes over from the departed J.P. Arencibia. At five foot nine and 205 pounds, Navarro is not your conventional pro athlete body type.

But the Jays pitchers seem to like him. And after the season Arencibia had in 2013, anything is an upgrade. Navarro calls an aggressive game, with an emphasis on throwing the first strike and getting ahead of the hitters.

“Attack, attack, attack,” is his preferred way to go at hitters.

A career .251 hitter himself, Navarro hit .300 in 89 games last season for the Chicago Cubs. The move to the Jays has been good personally for the 30-year-old Navarro, who makes his family home 70 kilometres from Dunedin in Riverview, Fla.

Colby Rasmus

Rasmus is eligible for free agency in 2015, making this a big year for the 27-year-old centre-fielder. A career .248 hitter, Rasmus had a banner season last year when he hit .276 with 22 homers, 66 RBIs and an .840 OPS (on base plus slugging). His OPS has risen from .517 to .689 to .840 in his time in Toronto.  His 2013 performance earned him a one-year, US$7-million deal, up from the $2.3 million he made the year before. Another quality season and he is looking at even bigger numbers. A slick fielder, Rasmus covers a lot of ground in the outfield.

Drew Hutchison

One of the few pitching success stories of the spring, Hutchison played his way into the starting rotation. Hutchison consistently threw strikes in spring training, with 16 strikeouts and just one walk in his first three outings. Just 23, his major league experience consists of 11 games in 2012 when he went 5-3 before being shut down and undergoing Tommy John surgery.

“We’re all impressed,” manager John Gibbons said of his spring showing, citing a harder-than-expected fastball with good command.

“The ball jumps on you more than I ever thought it did,” he added. “And he does it easy. It’s basically effortless. He’s great at hitting both sides of the plate, with some good off-speed stuff.”

Gibbons compares him to former Blue Jay and current Met Shaun Marcum.

Five Blue Jays storylines to watch this season

TORONTO — A look at five storylines to watch this season with the Toronto Blue Jays:

Starting Pitching

There are more than a few question marks here, which isn’t promising considering the Jays starters went 46-57 last season with a 4.81 ERA. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, left-hander Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow lead the rotation with Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan completing the quintet — at least to start with. The Jays will carry an eight-man bullpen, however, to have extra arms if needed.

Anthopoulos-Gibbons

General manager Alex Anthopoulos brought John Gibbons back last season to manage the Jays after John Farrell departed for Boston. Anthopoulos rolled the dice prior to last season, bringing in a list of big-name players from the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, along with other recruits. The big shakeup failed big time. The GM went the other route this off-season, with only a few moves. If Toronto continues to fail on the field, how much longer does Anthopoulos — or the affable Gibbons — have?

Attendance

About the only thing that went up last year for the Blue Jays was attendance. 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. Will Toronto fans remain on the bandwagon if the product disappoints again this season?

Defence

One positive this season looks to be defence with a healthy Melky Cabrera plus Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista in the outfield and Ryan Goins adding his fielding skills to an infield already brimming with talent in that area with Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes. The Jays underachieved on defence last season with Cabrera not moving as well as he is capable of and Maicer Izturis and the departed Emilio Bonifacio not performing that well in the infield.

The Bench

With Toronto going with an eight-man bullpen, the Jays bench will be very thin. Backup catcher Josh Thole, whose main job is to handle Dickey, is a career .251 hitter whose average dropped to .175 in limited major league action last season. The other two are outfielder Moises Sierra and utility infielder Maicer Izturis. The bench is weaker without the retired Mark DeRosa and departed Rajai Davis. And Toronto pinch-hitters hit .212 last season, 16th in the majors.

Organizations: Blue Jays, Rogers Centre, American League East.Gibbons Baltimore Orioles Toronto Blue Jays Dominican Republic Chicago Cubs New York Mets The GM

Geographic location: TORONTO, Redmond, San Francisco Venezuela US Boston

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