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Blue Jays Season Preview

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SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays started the off-season with a flurry of activity. They claimed Justin Smoak, signed Russell Martin, and traded for Josh Donaldson, Michael Saunders and Devon Travis all before the end of the first week of December, then things slowed down. There was the odd minor league free agent signing or waiver pickup but, for major moves, they were done in time to focus on the Christmas shopping.

In end of season interviews, Alex Anthopoulos seemed to put most of the blame for missing the 2014 playoffs squarely on the back of the members on the bullpen, so we expected some big moves to remake the pen. We really didn't get them. The bullpen will look different than last year, with Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos and Dustin McGowan leaving via free agency, but Alex seems to be hoping that some players will return to form, that some waiver pickups and minor league deals will pay off and that some rookies step up.

The biggest/worst news of spring training has been the injury to Marcus Stroman. Marcus had a great rookie season in 2014 and we were looking forward to seeing if he could become the ace that the pitching staff needs. And then, he tears his ACL during pitchers' fielding practice and is out for the season, and, well, a great depression hit Jays fandom. He'll be a very tough player to replace.

Roster Moves

There has been a fair bit of roster change over since the end of last season (program sales should go through the roof):

Departures

Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind, Juan Francisco, Bretty Lawrie, Anthony Gose, J.A. Happ, Casey Janssen, Brandon Morrow and Sergio Santos.

Arrivals

Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunder, Daric Barton, Dayan Viciedo, Ramon Santiago, Marco Estrada, Wilton Lopez, Johan Santana, Jeff Francis and rough 1000 (give or take) waiver claims and minor league free agent signings.

Projected Lineup

  • Catcher: Russell Martin
  • First Base: Justin Smoak
  • Second Base: Devon Travis
  • Shortstop: Jose Reyes
  • Third Base: Jose Donaldson
  • Right Field: Jose Bautista
  • Center Field: Dalton Pompey
  • Left Field: Michael Saunders/Kevin Pillar
  • Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion

We are half way through spring training and the Blue Jays still have a number of unanswered lineup questions:

Will Russell Martin catch R.A. Dickey?

I really do hate the way to Blue Jays have tried to make it seem like no one other than Josh Thole could possibly handle the Dickey knuckleball, but, they do seem to be giving Russell every chance to catch R.A. this spring. I think he's done a decent job. I'm hoping that they will let him do it during the season too. This question leads right into the next question...

Who will be the backup catcher?

If they decide that Martin can't handle Dickey, then we'll likely be treated to the fun of carrying 3 catchers, with Dickey, Thole and Navarro. Just the type of flexibility you want on the bench.

Will Navarro be traded?

The hope is that one of the other teams will have an injury and panic and decide they need Navarro, making us a great offer. He might end up being with the team to start the season, but I'm thinking that at some point, someone will make an offer that Alex likes.

Who will play first?

Another question that is still up in the air. Neither Justin Smoak nor Daric Barton have grabbed the job to this point. As I write this they have 3 hits in 43 at bats between them. The plan was for Smoak to play first, maybe in a platoon with Danny Valencia. If neither Smoak or Barton impress, then it is possible that Edwin Encarnacion will play first and Navarro will DH.

Who will play second?

At the start of camp, I was pretty sure Maicer Izturis would be our second baseman--at least to start the season--if he could show he had totally recovered from last year's injury. But, halfway through spring, it looks like the Jays are giving Devon Travis every chance to show he can do the job. If Travis gets the job, then Izturis would be the utility infielder. If Izturis wins it, then Ryan Goins or someone will get the utility role. Ramon Santiago had a good shot at the job, but he broke his collarbone on Sunday.

Can Dalton Pompey do the job in center field?

Jays fans have to hope so, there doesn't really seem to be a plan B.

Will Michael Saunders be back for the start of the season?

He says he wants to be ready for opening day, but I think it is more likely that he'll miss the first week or two. Kevin Pillar will handle the position until he's ready to go.

The Rotation

  • R.A. Dickey (R)
  • Mark Buehrle (L)
  • Drew Hutchison (R)
  • Aaron Sanchez (R)
  • Daniel Norris (L)
Can the Jays survive the loss of Marcus Stroman?

This is the big question. Before Stroman tore his ACL on a defensive drill, we were hoping that Marcus would become the team ace. Without him? It appears that the Jays have decided that Aaron Sanchez, who most seemed to think would be co-closer with Brett Cecil, will now be in the rotation.  And, as long as he continues to show well this spring, I think Norris will get the other spot.

What can we expect from Norris and Sanchez?

They are both very young, Sanchez is 22 and Norris 21. They have all the potential in the world but there will be ups and downs. Even Stroman had some bad starts last year. But they should be interesting to watch. I'd imagine the Jays would want to keep them to a limit of around 170 innings, which should get them through most of the season. If one were to stumble badly, Marco Estrado could step in, or, perhaps, in a month or two Johan Santana could be called up.

What to expect from the rest of the rotation?

R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are getting older (Dickey will be 40 and Buehrle 36 this season) and they won't be able to pitch 200 plus innings each season forever, but the Jays need them to do it this year. Both had good years last year and both should be helped by the improved Jays defense.

Many have picked Drew Hutchison to have a break out season, and we really need it now. He's a year further removed from Tommy John, so his arm should be stronger and I'm hoping that he benefits from Russell Martin's better defense and framing ability the most. He should be over 200 innings, barring injury.

The Bullpen

This is another spot on the team where we still don't know how things are going to shake out.

Locks

Brett Cecil (L) and Aaron Loup (L).

Cecil, at the moment, is out with ‘shoulder inflammation', but he should be pitching again soon, barring the problem being more serious than the Jays are saying.

Likely to make the pen

Steve Delabar (R): Steve has been hitting 95 with his fastball and he's throwing strikes. If that continues, he's in the pen.

Wilton Lopez (R): From 2010 to 2013, Wilton pitched in 68, 73, 64 and 75 games. I think that impresses Alex. And he doesn't walk many, an average of 1.7 walks per 9 innings. He doesn't get a lot of strikeouts, but he keeps the ball on the ground. I think, as long as he doesn't look too bad this spring, he's got a spot.

Marco Estrada (R): If he doesn't get a spot in the rotation, which could still happen, he'll be in the pen.

Todd Redmond (R): The way he pitched in the long relief role last year, he deserves to get the job again.

If those 6 make the pen, then there is room for one more.

Those who could get the last spot

Miguel Castro (R): Castro ended last year at Dunedin, I'd think the team wouldn't want to jump him all the way to the majors, but Gibby does like the idea of having his 99 mph fastball in the pen. They enjoyed having Sanchez doing that last year. I'd prefer him starting in the minors, but you never know.

Chad Jenkins (R): I get the felling Chad is going to be making the trip back and forth to Buffalo as many times as he did last year. Gibby likes him, but he's having a tough spring.

Colt Hynes (L): If the team wants a 3rd lefty in the pen, he could be the guy.

Jeff Francis (L): Another possibility if they decide on a 3rd lefty. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in Toronto at some point this season, but I doubt he'll break camp with the team.

Kyle Drabek (R): Out of options, but I don't think the team is all that worried about losing him off waivers. If he is terrific this spring and if there is another injury or two.

Top Prospects

Our three top prospects Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey look to be making the team this year.

Norris is, well, your typical lefty, in that he's a little different than your average baseball player. For one, he spent his off-season living in a VW camper van, growing a beard that would make Grizzly Adams jealous, looking like your basic homeless person. On the mound, he's not typical at all. He started last season in A ball and finished it as a September call up. Along the way he 11.8 batters per 9 innings and put up a 2.53 ERA. Putting him into the Jays starting rotation, at age 21, might be asking a lot, but he seems to be someone that can handle it.

Sanchez is a year older than Norris. He was called up to the Blue Jays at the end of July last year, to pitch out of the bullpen. He modeled his 99 mph fastball for us. In 33 innings, he struck out 27 batters and had a 1.09 ERA. As a starter, presuming they don't decide to put him back in the pen, he's going to have show us that he has more than a fastball and we won't be seeing him hit 99 on the radar gun as often. Control is a concern, he's walked 4.8 batters per 9 innings in his minor league career.

Pompey, like Norris, started 2014 in A ball and finished it in Toronto. Between the 3 minor league stops, he had a .317/.392/.469 line with 43 stolen bases. He has a good eye at the plate, a good line drive type swing, speed and plays great defense. He is just 22, I'd expect some ups and downs offensively, but if plays great defense, we should be happy.

Outlook

The loss of Marcus Stroman is a huge hit to the Blue Jays hopes. The offense, from 1-5, will be as good as any in the league. If the 6-9 spots can do enough offensively to get back to the top of the order quickly, offense shouldn't be a problem for the team, as long as they can stay reasonably healthy. And the team defense should be much improved from last year. If the pitching can hold together, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot.

If the pitching can't keep the team in games, or if the bullpen can't holds leads, if there are more injuries, well things won't end well. If the team can't compete, I'd expect John Gibbons and Alex Anthopoulos to be fired and for the team to hit the 'rebuilding' button at the trade deadline.

Before the Stroman injury, Vegas had the Jays at 11/4 to win the division, 10/1 to win the AL Pennant and 25/1 to win the World Series, putting them right in the middle of the pack for winning odds. I'd imagine, their odd have dropped since the injury.

Personally, I expect the Jays to win somewhere around 85 games. A bit of luck and they could be in the playoffs.