Baseball season is just around the corner and TSN.ca has you covered for who's in, who's out and what to expect from all 30 teams. Today, TSN Blue Jays reporter Scott MacArthur answers the key questions facing the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays and how they stack up in the always competitive American League East.
GM: Alex Anthopoulos
Manager: John Gibbons
2013: 74-88 5th in AL East, Did not qualify for playoffs
QUESTION: What is the answer to the Blue Jays' starting rotation problems?
MacARTHUR: Cross your fingers. This is a starting rotation that could pleasantly surprise. If it falters, well, that would lead some to conclude that it simply met expectations.
If we work off the assumption that we generally know what the Jays will get from R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle (double-digit victories, ERAs on either side of 4.00 and more than 200 innings each,) then Brandon Morrow and Drew Hutchison become the keys to this whole thing.
Morrow, 29, is healthy after missing the final four months of last season with an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm. He has never pitched 180 innings in a single season (he did come close in 2011 when he threw a career-high 179 1/3 innings) and is out to prove he can stay healthy and be effective. Win totals aren't always an accurate reflection of a pitcher's season but the Jays need Morrow to swallow up 15 to 18 victories. If nothing else, the win total reflects that the pitcher went deep into enough ballgames to factor in to the result.
Morrow is potentially in a contract year. The Blue Jays hold a $10-million option on his services for 2015.
Hutchison, 23, was Toronto's best pitcher in the Grapefruit League. He underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in July, 2012, and threw 35 1/3 innings late last season in the minor leagues. The Jays, however, insist the gloves are off and Hutchison will not be subject to an innings limit this year.
The right-hander is a control pitcher and routinely was clocked with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s this spring. More importantly, Hutchison was painting both corners and was keeping hitters off-balance with his changeup.
Take this whichever way you will, but if we're talking in September about Hutchison having been the Jays' best starting pitcher in 2014, I wouldn't be surprised. That's a good thing if he turns out to be the ace of a surprisingly strong staff. That's a not so good thing if Hutchison goes through the typical ups and downs of a young pitcher while the rest of the rotation implodes around him.
Regardless, Hutchison's future is bright. Aside from his stuff and his command, the Blue Jays salivate over his mound presence and his desire not just to pitch in the big leagues, but to be a dependable, dominant staff ace.
You can look at the addition of Dustin McGowan to the rotation two ways and both are accurate.
From a personal perspective, McGowan's perseverance through multiple shoulder surgeries and various other ailments is to be commended and celebrated. He was a trustworthy arm in 25 appearances out of the bullpen last year and when, in September, he expressed an interest in stretching out to become a starter once more, people looked at one another puzzled.
What could he possibly be thinking? Well, at least to this point, he's proven this doubter wrong and good for him. Can he stay healthy? Who knows. Only time will tell.
From a club perspective, McGowan is the best option, which reflects poorly on J.A. Happ, who will begin the season on the disabled list with a bad back and who pitched poorly in four spring games. Happ, essentially, pitched himself out of the rotation.
Esmil Rogers, who cannot throw strikes consistently enough to be a starter and Todd Redmond, a strike-thrower who struggles the second time through an opposition's lineup, are better suited to the bullpen.
Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will begin their seasons at Triple-A Buffalo and Double-A New Hampshire, respectively. Both need more seasoning before they join Hutchison in what could be a potent starting rotation for years to come.
Don't be surprised if both Stroman and Sanchez make their big league debuts this year. Both are more than capable of making spot starts in case of injury or the poor performance of others.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos didn't secure external starting pitching help, either via free agency or via trade, and is left with some uncertainty at the back end of his rotation as a result.
QUESTION: Does Alex Anthopoulos take the blame if this season is a failure?
MacARTHUR: Yes, Anthopoulos will take some blame if this season is a failure, as he should. So should manager John Gibbons. So should the players. So should everybody in the organization.
Will Anthopoulos be fired? The heat is getting turned up on the general manager, who took significant risks when making the blockbuster trades with the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets last offseason. Those deals represented a sudden change in course, ushering in a "win now" mentality instead of the previous plan to draft, develop and patiently cultivate talent.
If Toronto has another down year, the club will have to determine whether it can win with a nucleus of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Both are elite sluggers on team-friendly tickets, possibly through 2016, and could fetch significant return.
Should Anthopoulos be fired, it will be interesting to see which direction the club takes. Anthopoulos was a lieutenant of former general manager J.P. Ricciardi and there are people who work for Anthopoulos who date back to the Ricciardi days. It could be time for the Blue Jays to fundamentally reset the baseball operations department by bringing in an outsider.
QUESTION: Is this the final season of the championship window?
MacARTHUR: This is a tough question to answer because, after last season, it feels like the window either never existed or was bolted shut.
The strange thing, despite what's been sold in these parts over the last 15 months, is that the future of the starting rotation (Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez) seems to be much brighter than the present. Maybe the so-called "championship window" is down the road a little bit.
The Blue Jays have shopped high-priced talent like Mark Buehrle in the past. They'd be open to moving him again if the season goes bust, although it's a difficult proposition considering Buehrle is owed $18-million this year and $19-million next season, the heavily back-loaded years of the contract he signed with the Marlins.
R.A. Dickey is locked in at $12-million per for this year and next. He has a club option for the same amount in 2016. He's being paid to be the ace. Would another club be willing to take on the money for an almost 40-year-old who throws an unpredictable pitch?
Offensively, with good health the Blue Jays should score their share of runs. They won't be a station to station ballclub; don't look for a lot of stolen bases. It will be up to Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to combine for 75 home runs and for Colby Rasmus, in a contract year, to repeat the .840 OPS he posted last season while cutting down on the strike outs. Brett Lawrie, now 24, is showing signs of maturity at the plate. He's devoted himself to studying video of opposing pitchers with Encarnacion.
I believe the Blue Jays will be a better team this season. However, I also believe the Tampa Bay Rays and the defending world champion Boston Red Sox remain the two best teams in the division.
The Baltimore Orioles have a potent offence but are dealing with questions in their starting rotation. The New York Yankees retooled after missing the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons but they're dealing with health concerns of their own – namely Derek Jeter (how he bounces back from a serious ankle injury,) Mark Teixeira (recovering from a torn tendon sheath in his wrist) and CC Sabathia (had elbow problems last season; his fastball has topped out at 91 miles per hour this spring.)
Typically, I don't like predicting because there are too many variables. I'll go so far as to say I think Rays starting pitching will catapult them to the American League East crown this year. The Red Sox will finish second in the division and win a wild card spot.
That leaves the Blue Jays, Orioles and Yankees to finish in spots three to five. The order is anyone's guess.
Who's in?: 1B Dan Johnson (minor league deal), C Erik Kratz (acquired from PHI), C Dioner Navarro (Two-year contract)
Who's out?: C J.P.Arencibia (Signed with TEX), OF Rajai Davis (Signed with DET), IF Mark DeRosa (retired), SP Josh Johnson (Signed with SD), RP Brad Lincoln (Traded to PHI), RP Darren Oliver (retired), SP Chien-Ming Wang (Signed with CIN)