Blue Jays Spring Training: 4 Key Roster Battles

4 of 5

Sep 12, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) throws against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning at Rogers Centre. Tampa Bay defeated Toronto 1-0. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Fifth Starter

On the onset of Spring Training, this is probably the spot up for grabs with the most competition. Therefore, this is no clear favourite.

The competition:

Daniel Norris: After announcing himself to the MLB after striking out the David Ortiz with a knee-buckling curveball, Norris appeared to be out-of-steam after his rapid ascension through the minor leagues. With a low-90’s fastball with great command and full repertoire of off-sped pitches, Norris appears to be the real deal. Rated by several publications as the Jays’ #1 prospect (ahead of Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey), Norris may end up being the Jays’ cornerstone pitcher of the future.

By the time he reached the major, Norris appeared to be tired after dominating the minor league hitters in 2014 (12-2 record, 2.53 ERA, 11.8 strikeouts/9 innings). With those kind of numbers, it’s hard not to root for Norris to win the #5 spot in the rotation. Because he only pitched 6.2 innings in the MLB in 2014, each of his Spring Training appearances will be closely analyzed to see if he can be just as effective at the big league level. It’s a lot of fun looking back at Norris’ stellar 2014 and Jays fans should be excited to see him compete in Spring Training for a chance to be on the mound for the Jays every 5 days.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

Aaron Sanchez: Though Sanchez was brilliant in 33 innings out of the bullpen in 2014 for the Blue Jays (1.09 ERA, 2.80 FIP), the 22 year old California native still projects as a front-end starter for the Jays. Sanchez was rated 44th in MLB’s Top 100 Prospects for 2015 for his potential to be a dominant starter in the MLB. However, in 2015 Sanchez may ultimately end up as a reliever because of his success 2014 and because of the Jays’ relatively thin bullpen.

If the Jays didn’t view themselves as a contender, Sanchez would likely be going into Spring Training as the favourite to win the fifth starter spot. Although John Gibbon’s is giving Sanchez every opportunity to be a starter in 2015, it’s hard not to be tempted to have Sanchez pitch out of the bullpen for one more year. He was incredibly successful in 2014 in a relief role, and would be the favourite to serve as a set-up man for Brett Cecil (who appears to be the front-runner for the closer spot). So, if the Jays are in a “win-now” mode, Sanchez’s greatest value to the team may be as a reliever.

Still, if due to injuries or poor performance of other starters, Sanchez may wind up starting for the Jays in 2015. If Sanchez picks up where he left off in Spring Training this year and demonstrates he can extend his dominant arsenal of pitches over multiple innings, the Jays will have an extremely interesting situation on their hands. The key for Sanchez to prove himself as a starter in Spring Training will be control – he averaged nearly 5 walks/9 innings as a minor leaguer. If Sanchez can solve this issue that plagued him earlier in his career, the Jays will have a good problem on their hands – having to possibly sacrifice an arm in the bullpen to accelerate Sanchez’s path to becoming a starter in the MLB.

Marco Estrada:  At one point in his career, it looked as though former Washington sixth-round pick was one his way to becoming a legitimate starter in the MLB. In 2012 for the Brewers, he posted a 3.33 FIP as a starter, pitching 129.1 innings and striking out batters to a tune of 9.3 strikeouts/ innings. In 2013, he regressed a bit but posted a still respectable 3.86 FIP in 128 innings to go along with striking out 8.3 batters/nine innings.

However, in 2014, he failed to build on his achievements as a MLB starter. In 107 innings as a starter, Estrada gave up 27 home runs en route to a 4.96 ERA and 5.73 ERA. Though Estrada struggled as a starter last year, the Jays have clearly identified from his performance in 2012-2013 that he has the potential to adequately fill the fifth-starter spot in the rotation.

If Estrada does struggle when pitching multiple innings throughout Spring Training, the Jays will be relieved that the former Brewer had an excellent year out of the bullpen in 2014 after failing to impress as a starter. Although a return to the bullpen didn’t result in the impressive strikeout numbers Estrada achieved in 2012-2013 (7.21 strikeouts/9 innings), he achieved a fantastic 2.81 FIP in 43.2 innings of relief work to go with a 1.03 WHIP. While Estrada is in an intriguing option as a fifth starter, he may be best suited for an innings-eating role in the bullpen.

The Ideal Scenario: For me, the ideal scenario is for Norris to win the #5 spot out of Spring Training. Not only would it be fantastic as it will provide a glimpse into the Jays’ rotation of the future (Stroman-Hutchison-Norris and eventually Sanchez) but also allows the Jays to strengthen their bullpen with Estrada and Sanchez. Both Estrada and Sanchez had great years as relievers in 2014, and could definitely bring a lot of solidity to a currently thin relief corps.

Next: Who will be the everyday second baseman?