Five Major Spring Storylines

It’s a glorious time of year: Spring Training has arrived!

With the Jays set to hold their first team workouts later today, I thought I’d take a look at Toronto’s major storylines heading into the spring and the 2012 season in general.

Presented in no particular order, here are the five biggest questions facing Toronto, and my view on what will happen.  These are not necessarily going to be answered in the spring, but will definitely be talked about.

Story: Who plays left field?

Issue: It looks like a two-horse race between Eric Thames and Travis Snider, with Ben Francisco and Rajai Davis likely relegated to bench status.  Snider has been a top prospect for what seems like an eternity with the Blue Jays, but has failed to live up to expectations.  To be fair, he hasn’t been given much of a chance (24 games in ’08, 77 in ’09, 82 in ’10, and 49 in ’11) with injuries and demotions limiting his playing time.  The Jays made it seem like they would give him a full year at the big league level last year, only to pull the rug out from under him in late April and ship him off to Vegas. 

Thames made his major league debut in May last year and had a pretty good 95 games (.262/.313/.456/.769).  His patience at the plate needs to improve (only 23 walks in 392 plate appearances), but he showed a decent amount of pop, hitting 12 HR.

My View: Though it seems like he’s been around forever, Snider is still only 24 years old, and is actually a year younger than Thames.  I would love to see Travis figure it out and stick with the big club, but I don’t think that will happen at the beginning of the season.  I bet that Thames wins the job out of spring training and earns the first crack at major league success.  Two reasons why I think this: 1) the Jays front office and manager have already gone on record to say that Thames has a slight advantage in the battle, and 2) Thames was taken on the Jays Winter Tour to meet and greet fans, while Snider wasn’t. 

I still believe in Travis, but he’ll have to wait a bit longer.

Story: What Colby Rasmus shows up?

Issue: In 2009, Baseball America ranked Colby Rasmus as the #3 prospect in all of baseball.  In his first two seasons he showed great promise, finishing 8th in NL ROY voting in ’09, then blasting 23 HR with an .859 OPS in his sophomore season.  But things fell apart for him last year.  He was the subject of negative press in St .Louis about his attitude, and feuded with manager Tony La Russa.  Upon being traded to Toronto, he hurt his wrist and only managed a paltry .173 average and .517 OPS in 35 games.  A small sample size, but also very troubling and worrisome results.  So what Colby Rasmus will emerge for Toronto in 2012: the uber-prospect dripping with potential, or the underachieving enigma? 

My View: I’m not ready to give up on Colby.  I think he is in store for a big year, one that will restore faith in him.  It might not be a 35 HR, .350 average type of year, but a good, solid season (20 HR, .800 + OPS).  Dealing with the negativity that surrounded him, and then adding a trade and an injury to that was a pretty serious burden in 2011, one that would impact the performance of many players.  The main reason I see him having a good year is hitting coach Dwayne Murphy.  In 2010 the Jays had a player on the roster who was a career underachiever.  Entering the 2010 season he had a career .729 OPS and had disappointed fans for several years.  Then he worked with Dwayne Murphy and emerged into the most complete hitter in the major leagues.  I’m not saying Rasmus will follow Jose Bautista, but I think Murphy might be able to push him on the same path. 

Story: Who pitches in the starting rotation?

Issue: With Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Henderson Alvarez likely locked into the top three spots, the big question is who fills the fourth and fifth.  Early speculation has Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan taking the mound, but both of those guys have a ton of question marks surrounding them.  Cecil took a step back last year and McGowan missed two years with injuries.  Will Cecil rebound?  Can McGowan stay healthy?  Or will Kyle Drabek, Jessie Litsch, Carlos Villanueva, or maybe even a rookie like Drew Hutchinson or Deck McGuire get a shot?

My View: Brett Cecil will likely start the season in the rotation.  He has prior experience, he’s left handed, and he seems to be in the Jays future plans.  McGowan is out of options meaning he can’t be sent down without being exposed to waivers.  For that reason I can see him starting the season in the rotation.  However, I think Litsch or Villanueva will ultimately get that spot, with McGowan heading to the bullpen. 

Story: Will Brandon Morrow finally put it all together?

Issue: Morrow is one of Toronto’s most dominating – and frustrating – starting pitchers. He can pitch an 8-inning gem with three hits, no runs, and 12 strikeouts, then follow it up with a 3-inning, 6 run disaster.  Now, fresh off a contract extension, and with the weight of being the Jays number two starter, will Morrow be able to harness his potential and pitch like the ace that he has the ability to be?

My View: In short, yes.  Morrow reduced his walk rate last year, and kept up his lofty strikeout rates, a very encouraging sign.  He also comes to camp knowing that he will be a full time starter with no restrictions – no threats of a bullpen demotion, and no innings limits.  This is his year.

Story: Will J.P. Arencibia be behind the plate for a full season?

Issue: Arencibia is one of the American League’s most promising young catchers.  He has elite power, and his defensive play improved a great deal last year.  There are two problems, however.  One is that when he isn’t hitting home runs, he doesn’t do much else.  A .282 OBP with 133 strikeouts in 486 plate appearances last year is not good.  The second problem is that Toronto’s top prospect is Travis D’Arnaud, who is projecting to be an elite major league player.  D’Arnaud also plays the catcher position.  Uh-oh.  If JPA can’t improve at the plate, he might be watching D’Arnaud take his starting spot.

My View: He has a career .319 OBP in the minors, including a .359 OBP in his final season in AAA Vegas, so it’s not like he can’t hit.  But there is a big difference between the minors and the majors, and to this point nothing suggests that Arencibia will be able to do enough to remain Toronto’s catcher of the future.  I hope I’m wrong, but I can see a scenario with JPA starting the year as a Jay and finishing it somewhere else.

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