Mar 8, 2014; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose (8) slides back to first base in the fifth inning of the spring training exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins at Florida Auto Exchange Park. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Yes, it’s early, but Toronto Blue Jays’ first ten games of spring training show signs of what is to come in 2014. It’s a cornucopia of good and the cliche “it is, what it is.”
Beginning with left field, it is already clear that Melky Cabrera‘s September operation to remove a benign tumour from his spine was successful. Cabrera, who trained with Jose Bautista during the offseason, came to Dunedin in great shape. He is fielding well (RF 1.67) and hitting better (BA .400) than anyone else save Jose Bautista. His overall play proves that he belongs on this team. The dark days of his PED shame and injury look distant now. Melky is a born again hard.
CF Colby Rasmus, played only two early games. He took himself out of the lineup because of a painful crick in his neck. The pain was bad enough for cortisone shots but it’s not serious. The Jays are playing it very safe with their regular lineup players. A natural reaction to the team’s last two seasons of injuries. One key message for this team is to stay healthy for the mere 182 spring training and regular season games ahead. There is no doubt Rasmus will play full time. Still, his absence gave an opportunity for the other centre fielder backups to show their stuff. Replacing him were Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar and Kenny Wilson who fielded well enough to be solid AAA depth.
RF Jose Bautista’s BA is .412 and has three homers in seven games. He looks as strong as he did in his monster 2010 season where he hit 54 home runs. His crafty defence earned him two assists throwing out base runners. Moises Sierra, Bautista’s back up, is hitting .313 and proved that his throwing arm is not only powerful, but accurate as well. He threw out Pirate Gaby Sanchez by ten feet, from deep right field to 3rd base, to give himself a double play and an assist. Rumours abounded all off-season about trading Sierra but as it stands, he seems the best candidate for the Jays’ fourth outfielder.
Five different candidates have played first base, but no one is going to push Edwin Encarnacion out. He is hitting .316 and fielding his position perfectly. The same goes for his platoon partner and fellow DH-man Adam Lind (BA .333). One pleasant surprise is Dan Johnson, 34, a minor league free agent, who has two homers and a field range of 2.63 after eight games. It is nice to know that if Lind or Encarnacion go down with injuries, then Johnson is a good replacement.
Second baseman Ryan Goins‘ 37 innings of defensive play have been spectacular. He has more assists (16) than anyone else on the team and his field range is a sky high 4.40. His BA average is only .250 but hitting coach Kevin Seitzer says there is more to Goins offensively to come. We will see. Chris Getz, 31, a KC Royals castoff, is showing he is good organizational depth at second base with his four double plays and .313 batting average in 29 innings work. If the speedy Getz played one more position than second base well, he would make a very good utility man for the Jays.
Shortstop Jose Reyes has not got his timing yet. He is hitting only .150. He made one error and his fielding range is 2.83. His .190 OBA has meant few opportunities to steal. His only attempt saw him caught. Four candidates so far played short but Reyes has the position sowed.
Brett Lawrie‘s defensive play at third base so far is superlative. He is seeing the ball well, 6 for 18, and he looks much more patient at the plate this year. The red bull seems to have matured a bit.
Dioner Navarro is the new starting catcher this year after J.P. Arencibia was let go. Navarro is proving to be a good defender with a RF of 4.33, no errors, and a .500 percentage of throwing runners out. He is hitting .278 and seems to be a major upgrade over his predecessor. Navarro has two backups going head to head for the job, Josh Thole and ex-Phillie Erik Kratz. Thole has not spent much time with knuckleballer Dickey this spring. Thole and Dickey worked with each other during the past several seasons. That may no longer be the case. Kratz might be catching Dickey instead. Thole may not get the backup role according to rumours because Kratz has a little more pop in his bat and that may be enough to sway the decision on who gets the job.
Utility man Maicer Izturis has not overwhelmed. He is 2 for 11 with 2 errors. Fan favourite Munenori Kawasaki, who played in in all of the first ten games, is 3 for 10, with one error and one stolen base. He is working hard to get out of Buffalo. Manager John Gibbons, who likes Kawasaki’s can-do attitude, penciled him in to play second, short, third and left field to see if he can be the team’s utility wunderkind. Bet on Kawasaki playing in Toronto sooner than later.
Out of 27 pitchers, 12 have a 0.00 ERA. No big deal, most have less than three innings in. It is hard to say who stands out. More time is needed to decide who stays and who goes. Still, relievers Steve Delabar, and Sergio Santos look very good indeed, as does prospect Aaron Sanchez, John Stilson, Sean Nolin, and Chad Jenkins.
Starter R.A. Dickey has pitched six innings with an ERA of 4.50. It appears he could once again eat up 200 plus innings. Starter Mark Buehrle has 5 innings with an ERA of 3.60. Buerhle looks to be the consistent workhorse he’s been for over the last decade. He does not overwhelm, but he works fast and gives hitters little time to dig in or adjust.
The Jays’ third pitcher, Brandon Morrow, says he is experimenting with his pitching repertoire. The big question is whether he can he go the 180 innings the team expects. Past history says no. He has had his injuries. Morrow is also a diabetic and even though it is a sensitive subject in the clubhouse, his condition means it takes him longer to recover. To his credit, Morrow put on a lot of muscle during off-season. Bulking up may give him the endurance and strength to get through summer. Morrow has had two outings for a total of 5 innings but was roughed up the second time to push up his ERA to 10.80.
J.A. Happ, the projected fourth pitcher in the rotation, has had two outings and both were simply awful. The truth came out this week that Happ has a bad back and it is totally affecting his play. He had to sit down after only one out during his second appearance. His ERA is 44.50. Tongues are wagging to replace him already with prospect marvel Marcus Stroman or even more remarkably with a Ricky Romero who in two appearances looked very good. Happ’s disappointing start reawakened the wish of many sages and fans that a free agent such as Ervin Santana needs to be signed. The four starting position needs revisiting.
RHP Drew Hutchison, 23, looks to be the best option for the Toronto Blue Jays’ fifth starter for one good, simple reason… he is the best pitcher available. Competitors Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers have not turned heads. While the other candidates struggled, he looks consistent. But hey, he only pitched five innings. Still, if there is something the Jays need after the disastrous 2013 season, it is a solid starter to anchor their rotation.
After 10 Grapefruit League games, the Jays have five wins and five loses. Everything seems good except the most important thing, starting pitching. The Jays must suss this out if they are going to climb higher in the highly competitive AL East. They must find answers to go beyond the context of “it is what it is.”