Five questions as the Jays convene for spring training in Dunedin:
1. Who will play left field?
There is one and only one position battle at the start of this spring training. Every other position on the field is essentially spoken for. For a lot of folks, though, it’s not just a position battle. It’s about the subtle transition of Travis Snider from shining prospect to ... what? Regular major-leaguer with still a chance to be a star? Or a talent that will never come close to his potential?
Snider and Eric Thames are the main combatants, though before camp is over, Rajai Davis, Ben Francisco and maybe even Edwin Encarnacion will get cameos there.
Thames is one of those guys who doesn’t get a lot of respect but just won’t go away. He’s not much of an outfielder. Doesn’t hit lefties. Not very fast. Doesn’t rate very highly on the Holy Grail of on-base percentage. Still, the guy gets under your skin. The 12 home runs in 95 games. Forty-one extra-base hits. When he batted in the two-hole (71 games), he hit .285 with a slugging percentage over .500. He makes you wonder if he might hit 20-25 home runs if he got 500 at-bats.
Of course, if Snider can somehow harness all that talent, he wins this thing going away. He’s a decent defender. He can run, either to track down a ball in the gap or to steal a base. And the power potential makes Blue Jay scouts go weak in the knees. This is his fifth major-league camp, yet nobody in the organization wants to give up on him. He’s just 24, they say. His time will come.
Well, it says here, his time had best be now.
2. Who will emerge as the fourth and fifth starters?
Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow begin spring training at No. 1 and No. 2 and there’s little doubt that management would love to see Morrow step up to be a 1A right there on Romero’s level. A slimmed-down version of lefty Brett Cecil will likely fit in at No. 3. After that, there are eight other candidates you could rank as starters.
If we were handicapping, the pre-camp favourites would be Henderson Alvarez at No. 4 and Dustin McGowan at No. 5. The remaining six include Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Deck McGuire, Chad Jenkins, Scott Richmond and Jesse Litsch.
When you consider that Hutchison, McGuire and Jenkins have not pitched above double-A, that Litsch spent much of last year as a reliever and that Richmond may have reached his best-before date, there is not a lot of depth there.
Drabek remains a powerful talent but he took such a massive step backward last season that it may yet take him some more time to regain his standing. He made the opening day roster last year but lost his way early in the season and only made it back to Toronto as a September call-up.
The fact that Alvarez stepped straight into the big-league rotation right out of New Hampshire in August and made 10 starts, walking just eight men in 64 innings, should give confidence to any or all of Hutchison, McGuire and Jenkins.
If McGowan is able to pitch his way back into the opening-day rotation, it will complete his remarkable comeback from major shoulder problems that kept him sidelined from July of 2008 until last September when he flashed mid-90s velocity with a hard-biting slider. With a normal winter behind him for the first time in four seasons, McGowan is hoping to put all the pain and anguish behind him.
3. Will the real Colby Rasmus please stand up?
Did Colby Rasmus just have a bad season? Did the poisonous relationship between him and Tony LaRussa put him in a place where he was unable to perform? And did the mid-season trade to Toronto prove so disruptive that he was unable to salvage anything in the last two months?
Well, I guess we’ll find out.
Rasmus is a rare talent, a five-tool talent whose first two big-league seasons made everybody hungry for more. At 23, in 2010, he hit 23 homers with an OPS of .859, showed a good eye at the plate and played a wicked centre field.
Then last year happened. When he had a chance to land Rasmus without giving up a frontline player, Alex Anthopoulos jumped. The prevailing perception is that Rasmus will bounce back. Part of the problem could have been a jammed wrist that bothered him for the last six weeks of the season.
Rasmus is a quiet personality and a bit aloof. He may very well be the kind of person who needs some time to find his niche in a new and unfamiliar clubhouse atmosphere, especially in the middle of a season.
There is no denying he has a smooth swing and a very short, explosive swing. He has demonstrated a better-than-average eye at the plate. With a full spring training in his new uniform and a more relaxed approach to the game in general, it’s hard not to think the talent will shine through.
4. Who will be this year’s version of Brett Lawrie?
A year ago, Lawrie came to his first Blue Jay camp, straight out of double-A ball in the Brewers’ chain, and imposed his will all spring, making it very difficult for the team’s tall thinkers to send him down. Some in the organization felt he deserved to make the team as a result of what he demonstrated in Florida.
As the Blue Jay farm system continues to get better and better and as blue chip prospects move through the development chain, the Jays are hoping that cases like Lawrie’s become commonplace as opposed to rarities.
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud impressed the big-league coaching staff with his catching abilities and his all-round athleticism at last year’s camp, then went out and had a monster season at double-A. In many ways, he is at a similar stage as Lawrie was last year, coming off a breakout year yet probably still in need of topping off at triple-A.
Outfielder Anthony Gose had his first taste of the bigs last spring and entertained with his major-league ready defensive skills. His offence still needed work but he made progress at New Hampshire. He did not hit for a high average but did have a .349 OBP and a .763 OPS. Forty-three of his 129 base hits were for extra bases, including 16 home runs, seven more than he had hit in his first three pro seasons combined.
If he can take that to another level this spring, it could be at least thought-provoking for his bosses.
Probably the most intriguing youngster in camp this year will be righthanded pitcher Drew Hutchison who pitched at three levels last season, amassing a 14-5 record with a 2.53 ERA and a strikeouts-to-walk ratio of 171-35. Just 21, Hutchison’s poise and his pitching IQ could be his ticket on the fast-track to the big leagues.
The toughest jump for any young player is always the last one to the big leagues but it would not be a stretch to see any or all of these three in Toronto some time this year.
5. When is it time to go big?
After a two-year honeymoon as GM, Alex Anthopoulos got his first taste of an impatient fanbase this off-season. Both he and team president Paul Beeston have talked of payroll expansion “at the appropriate time” ever since they started this rebuild at the end of the 2009 season.
In the early days of his new regime, Anthopoulos became invested in building from within and that was met with plenty of favour by the fans who, apparently, then went out for a coffee, came back 15 minutes later and started tapping their feet in impatience. The Jays have spent many millions in an expanded scouting staff, many more millions in their development system and yet even more millions on the international front. It takes time for those kinds of systemic changes to produce fruit at the competitive level but once the pipeline is full, it can be self-sustaining. In truth, the real value of the grassroots work the Jays have accomplished won’t start to be felt for another two more years.
In the meantime, the big-league club seems to be tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. With a payroll that will nudge past $80 million this year, about $10 million more than last year, this could be that year.
The pitching staff is now an experienced, young pitching staff. There is reason to have more confidence in the bullpen with the additions made this off-season. The everyday lineup ranked No. 5 in the AL last year in runs produced, behind only New York, Boston, Texas and Detroit. With a full year of Lawrie at third, a full season of Kelly Johnson at second and Colby Rasmus in the outfield, there is potential for improvement.
When he has talked of stepping out and making a big acquisition, Anthopoulos has made no secret of the fact he would like to do it in the form of a mid-season move at a time when the team has established itself among the contenders. He would also like to do it at a time when revenues from attendance have started to improve.
People have been screaming at Rogers to reach into the vault and expand the payroll but there are few precedents in sports ownership where payroll has swelled ahead of revenue. It is almost always the other way around.
Teams like Texas and Anaheim have stepped up their spending the past few years, but only after their revenue streams, whether it is TV revenue or attendance, have started to spit out a steady flow of cash. And what kick-started those revenue streams? Some signs of success on the field.
The Rangers won the AL pennant two years ago with a $64 million payroll. They bumped it to $92 million last year and are going to be around $110 million this year, fortified by attendance of nearly 3 million and a new TV contract.