DUNEDIN, Florida – The Blue Jays kick off their 31-game exhibition schedule on Wednesday and there are decisions to be made at key positions. Here's a breakdown of where the battles will be, the players involved and how one decision may have an effect on another.
This goes without saying: We're working within the confines of the current Jays roster.
Guaranteed: R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle
Almost Certain: J.A. Happ
As many as nine guys, some with almost no chance of landing the job, but are included here, anyway, are vying for the final available spot.
They are Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, Ricky Romero, Chad Jenkins, Aaron Sanchez and Dustin McGowan.
This will be intriguing because there is a business case to be made and, depending on how spring training plays out, potential performance cases to be made.
On the business end, Rogers and Redmond are out of options, meaning both must break camp with the club or risk being lost on waivers. The bullpen is an option if neither gets a starting spot – more on that later when we look at the possibility of a seven-man or eight-man bullpen.
Hutchison and Drabek each have big league experience. Drabek dating back to 2010 and when he cracked the opening day roster a year later and Hutchison when he was a mid-April call up two seasons ago. Both are back to full health following Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgeries in the summer of 2012.
Drabek needs to drastically improve on 1.683 career WHIP over 169 1/3 innings, particularly in the walks department – he's averaged 5.8 bases on balls per nine innings over his brief career.
Hutchison is a control pitcher, not overpowering, and appears to be the most polished of the non-established big leaguers in the group.
Nolin, a big lefthander, and top prospects Stroman and Sanchez would have to mesmerize Toronto's brass to break camp with the club, which itself will be a tall task. There are voices amongst the decision-makers who caution against putting too much value on Grapefruit League numbers because there are occasions when pitchers are facing what amount to minor league-calibre line-ups.
Jenkins, like Nolin, has options remaining and can be sent to the minor leagues without waivers. Stroman and Sanchez aren't on the 40-man roster at the moment and can be sent to the minors without burning one of their three option years, at least not right away.
Romero appears to have been relegated to afterthought status, a deep valley for the one-time ace, just three years removed from a 15-win season and All-Star appearance.
McGowan has interest in starting, but after multiple shoulder surgeries and not having consistently started in six years, it's an unlikely scenario. He'll be stretched out this spring, but McGowan is likely destined for the bullpen.
Barring an incredible spring performance, it seems one of Rogers, Redmond, Hutchison or Drabek will come away with the final starting spot. Stroman has an outside shot. If the decision is strictly business, it'll be Rogers or Redmond starting the season in the rotation.
Regardless, most of the kids on the list are bumping their heads on the minor league ceiling and are expected to be contributing to the Blue Jays sooner rather than later.
BULLPEN (SEVEN-MAN or EIGHT-MAN?):
Guaranteed: Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup and Dustin McGowan.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has to decide on whether to go with a seven-man or eight-man bullpen. Choose the latter and you'll have one fewer bench player (three instead of four) at manager John Gibbons's disposal.
The eight-man bullpen scenario occurs if neither Rogers nor Redmond secures the final rotation job. The Blue Jays were reminded last year that a club can't have too much pitching and there's a strong probability either would be lost if exposed to waivers.
Jeremy Jeffress, a flame-throwing right-hander, who briefly impressed with a 0.87 ERA over 10 1/3 big league innings last season, also has a shot at making the team. He adjusted his arm slot downward late last season and is in the process of successfully treating a juvenile epilepsy diagnosis. Jeffress is out of options and clubs love hard-throwing pitchers. The Jays got Jeffress through waivers at one point last season. There is no guarantee they could do it again.
Left-hander Juan Perez, 35, has returned to health after straining his elbow last summer. He's caught in a numbers game.
Meantime, Neil Wagner appears destined for Triple-A Buffalo regardless of performance. He has an option and he, too, is caught in a numbers game.
Competing: Ryan Goins, Maicer Izturis, Chris Getz (non-roster invitee,) Jonathan Diaz (non-roster invitee,) Munenori Kawasaki (non-roster invitee) and Steve Tolleson (non-roster invitee.)
Goins is the incumbent, having concluded last season as the Jays' second baseman. Anthopoulos loves Goins's defense, saying last week he believes Goins is the best in Toronto since the days of Orlando Hudson.
Goins's biggest challenger is Getz, a former Royal, who has familiarity with both Gibbons (Royals bench coach, 2008-2011) and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer from his days in Kansas City. Getz is a left-handed bat.
Here is where the Blue Jays thin out considerably, especially if they begin the season with an eight-man bullpen.
Backup catcher: Erik Kratz or Josh Thole.
Kratz, who strikes an imposing figure at 6'4", 255 lbs, is a right-handed bat who's hit 18 home runs in 378 at-bats over the last two seasons with the Phillies. Considering the likelihood the second catcher will play more this season (Dioner Navarro hasn't played more than 89 games in a season since 2009,) the Jays could value Kratz's offense over Thole's long history with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Navarro won't catch Dickey. Kratz spent a week with Dickey in Nashville in the offseason and has caught all of his bullpen and live batting practice sessions so far this spring.
Right-handed Bat to Platoon with Adam Lind: Moises Sierra is out of options and Toronto needs to determine if he is the viable option.
Backup Infielder: Manager John Gibbons has said on more than one occasion that he prefers to use Izturis off the bench because he can play around the infield. It's a role Izturis became accustomed to in Anaheim.
So, if the Jays go with an eight-man bullpen, that's it. Anthony Gose, under the scenario presented above, would begin the season in Buffalo.
Should the Jays go with a seven-man bullpen, the roving outfielder spot opens up and is likely Gose's to take with the likes of Kevin Pillar and Kenny Wilson getting more seasoning in the minor leagues.
Each club will play five games this spring under the new instant replay rules. Managers will be encouraged to throw the challenge flag at some point each game during the exhibition contests.
"We had that meeting last week and they said the umpires will notify us before the game and say, hey if you get a chance, try it," said manager John Gibbons.
The Blue Jays played a four-and-a-half inning intra-squad game on Tuesday at the Bobby Mattick Complex.
Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin each pitched a scoreless inning.
Aaron Sanchez gave up the game's only run, a Maicer Izturis single. It was the fourth and final hit he allowed in his inning of work.