DUNEDIN, Florida - General manager Alex Anthopoulos believes the 2014 edition of the Blue Jays will contend in the American League East.
It begins with starting pitching.
"We have the talent," said Anthopoulos. "Last offseason because guys were hurt, we didn't have the bodies. We didn't have Hutchison or Drabek. We knew we needed Romero to bounce back. Happ was coming off a foot injury. We have a lot more bodies and a lot more depth. Beyond our front five last year we were thin. We had Romero who scuffled as our sixth starter coming out of camp. Beyond that, it was Ramon Ortiz and Chien Ming-Wang and we had to sign five minor league free agent starters. We didn't need to do any of that this offseason."
One of the catchphrases of the offseason, and now here in Dunedin, is "internal depth," a reference to the club's young cadre of pitching prospects beginning to bump their heads on the minor league ceiling. It's needed, too, because Anthopoulos seemed to pour the final dose of cold water on upgrading his rotation via an external option, most notably Ervin Santana, the last marquee free agent pitcher on the market.
"We'd like to do it but we're not going to do it at all costs," said Anthopoulos. "As we sit here today, I think it's unlikely at this point, we're getting so late into spring training.
Anthopoulos continued, "It's a comparison, how much better are they than what you have." We have to make that evaluation. Term and dollars are important. You like every player but at certain years and dollars they don't make sense for us. If it's just a draft or something and you're just picking a player, then abilities are a separate thing but there's obviously an acquisition cost to all of these guys."
As for the persistent chatter linking the Jays to Santana and other free agent starters like Ubaldo Jimenez (signed with Baltimore) and Matt Garza (signed with Milwaukee,) Anthopoulos suggested the reports were overblown.
"To trades? Yes. We got very close on some trades. Free agency-wise, I don't think we ever got close at all."
Fans, understandably, don't want to hear excuses for the misery of 2013. It was clear as early as April the club had flaws, not the least of which were starting pitching that didn't match they hype and poor infield defense. Still, health, or lack thereof, played a role. When J.A. Happ was hit in the head with a line drive by Tampa Bay's Desmond Jennings on May 7, he joined Josh Johnson on the disabled list. R.A. Dickey already was pitching with an injured muscle in his neck and Brandon Morrow was dealing with forearm pain, which ultimately was diagnosed as an entrapped radial nerve that would end his season weeks later. Only Mark Buehrle was healthy.
Brett Lawrie went down with a strained oblique suffered in a World Baseball Classic tune up game in early March and missed opening day. Jose Reyes was lost to a severe ankle sprain on April 12, which necessitated the expedited return of a rehabbing Lawrie. He wasn't ready and would end up getting hurt again. Reyes was back by the time Lawrie returned on July 13, but Lawrie played at second base that day and the two wouldn't play the left side of the infield together until July 19.
Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus also missed significant time but their injuries occurred once the Jays were out of the race.
Anthopoulos had no intention from diverting from the course set out with the major trades of last offseason. He wants the players he's assembled from years past, most of whom remain here, to get the job done.
"We weren't going to take away from the core of this team," said Anthopoulos. "We made a change behind the plate; that was important to us. Second base, we think there's obviously going to be turnover there. A third of our lineup is probably going to be different from opening day last year."
DEALING WITH INJURIES
There's nothing the Blue Jays could do about Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie injuring their ankles sliding into second base. Nothing could have been done to prevent Brandon Morrow's nerve injury.
Anthopoulos puts a lot of the aches and pains that befell last year's club in the "freak injury" category. The club is concerned about the number of oblique injuries it's suffered, however.
"Colby (Rasmus) missed about four to six weeks and Rajai (Davis) missed two to three weeks," said Anthopoulos. "There are some things that we tweaked there. Like I talked about at the end of last year, it seems obliques are popping up a lot more or at least they're being diagnosed a lot more. It felt like for us, the last two years, we were getting a lot more obliques so we reevaluated some of the strength and conditioning work that we were doing and made some tweaks there."
Brett Lawrie's missed time with an oblique strain in each of the last two seasons. He added yoga to his offseason workout regimen in an effort to loosen his core muscles.
Brandon Morrow missed almost three months of the 2012 season with an oblique strain.
FILLING OUT THE ROTATION
Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond appear to be the early favourites to land the final starter's job. Both are out of options, meaning they could be lost to waivers if the Jays tried to send them to the minor leagues.
They face stiff competition from emerging youngsters like Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman and Kyle Drabek, and could find themselves in the bullpen if they don't win a starting job out of spring training.
"We started before with an eight-man bullpen," said Anthopoulos. "We could do that as well. If everyone is throwing the ball that well and we don't want to expose anyone to waivers, or we don't want to trade someone and not get full value, we could go to an eight-man bullpen."
HIGH PRAISE FOR GOINS
Ryan Goins will have to earn the starting job at second base this spring but his boss loves his defense.
"He's as good defensively, I believe, as we've had here since Orlando Hudson was here," said Anthopoulos. "I think he's that good a defender. Defensively, he's gold glove caliber. The question will be the bat. Obviously we've got some competition for him and if he does make this team we view him right now as the nine-hole hitter. I think with Ryan, because the defense is so good, it allows him to not have to hit as much because he can help us on the other side of the ball to such a great extent."
Maicer Izturis, Brent Morel, Chris Getz and Jonathan Diaz also are vying for the second base job.