DUNEDIN, Florida – Brandon Morrow arrived to camp healthy and with a noticeably heavier upper body, but when pressed to reflect upon a miserable 2013 season, he lightened his load by getting some pent-up emotions off his chest.
"Really, we pitched like garbage," said Morrow. "Starting pitchers were awful the first month, myself included. None of us were pitching like we wanted to, whether it was just bad luck we were going through at that time or just putting pressure on ourselves."
Manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker are counting on this year to be different. The club needs R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle to pitch like they did post-All Star Break. J.A. Happ appears a favourite to secure either the fourth or fifth starter's spot and must be more consistent. There's a void at the back end of the rotation which will be sorted out this spring.
Morrow is a lock, provided he doesn't get hurt. Staying healthy would mean bucking a troubling trend of the last two seasons. After making 30 starts and throwing almost 180 innings in 2011, arguably his best as a starter in the big leagues, Morrow's been limited to just 31 starts over the last two seasons. A strained oblique cost him almost three months in 2012; an entrapped nerve in Morrow's pitching forearm ultimately shut him down at the end of May last year.
Coaches and players alike lamented Morrow's latest injury, feeling bad for a fallen comrade but also disappointed because they viewed the flamethrower as the backbone of the rotation. In fact, last September, Mark DeRosa opined that losing Morrow "killed us."
There are questions Morrow, who turns 30 on July 26, can answer only with time. Can he pitch 180 innings? How about 200? While pitchers don't enjoy sole control over their win totals, can Morrow pitch effectively, deep enough into games to blow past his single-season career-high win total of 11?
"There's no question, it's important," said Walker of Morrow pitching healthy and pitching well. "He's definitely someone we're counting on to give us quality innings, to give us a good opportunity to win ball games. We need him out there every fifth day. We want him to be a workhorse for us. That's what we envision for the season."
Pitchers completed their medicals on Sunday and Morrow weighed in at 219 pounds, a full 30 pounds heavier than a year ago. The change is noticeable. His shoulders are broader. His chest is bigger.
"He looks like he's supposed to look," said Gibbons. "Last year, he didn't look like that. He looks like a good, strong, durable pitcher. But the fact that he's out there and he feels good is big for us."
Filling out the Rotation
As of today, Dickey, Morrow and Buehrle are the Jays' top three starters. Working off the assumption that Happ also has a spot, as many as seven pitchers will battle for the fifth job.
They are Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin, Marcus Stroman, Kyle Drabek and Ricky Romero.
"Somebody is going to rise to the top and somebody is going to, obviously, pitch well enough to take that (spot,)" said Morrow. "There's like eight guys vying for that position and I couldn't tell you who it's going to be but I know all the guys are capable of stepping into that spot."
While they both admit there are favourites, Gibbons and Walker won't say who has the inside track.
Rogers and Redmond each enjoyed periodic success in the rotation last summer, filling in when the likes of Morrow, Johnson and Happ were hurt.
Kratz Catches Dickey
Catcher Erik Kratz, acquired in the deal that sent reliever Brad Lincoln to the Phillies, is back with the organization that drafted him.
He caught R.A. Dickey's bullpen session on Monday and with the coaching staff leaning against having Dioner Navarro catch Dickey's knuckleball, the honour will go to the man who wins the second catcher's job.
"It's really all about the reps," said Kratz. "If you step in and catch him perfectly right off the bat, you're probably not trying that hard. That's really, for me, just a matter of not pushing it too much, not trying to be too perfect. Just trying to sit and wait for it to come to me."
Kratz travelled to Nashville during the offseason and spent about a week with Dickey, catching a couple of bullpen sessions.
Kratz, 33, is a 6'4", 255-pound, righthanded hitting catcher. The Jays selected Kratz in the 29th round of the 2002 draft. He made his major league debut with the Pirates in 2010 before moving on to Philadelphia.