Do you hear that sound baseball fans?
It’s the sound of ice melting, of football fans crying, of lawn mowers, and of a ball smacking against a glove.
Baseball is back!
Spring Training is officially open and for the first time in forever, the Toronto Blue Jays enter a baseball season as defending AL East champions. They return with almost the exact same squad that fell two wins short of the World Series, so expectations are high. But just with any other team, there are still several questions to be answered this spring.
1. Who hits leadoff?
There seem to be two opinions when it comes to this question. One camp views it as a burning item, something that might determine if the Jays make it back to October. The other could care less. I am firmly entrenched on the side of the latter – really, who cares? For those complaining that the loss of Ben Revere might cripple the Jays because he was a “prototypical leadoff hitter”, you’re wrong. Revere might have been a prototypical leadoff hitter for a typical team, in that he could get on base, steal second, then score on a single. But the Jays are not a typical team. Revere’s speed was wasted at the top of the lineup – the risk of him getting caught was not worth taking with Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulo, and Martin coming up after him. This is a Jays team that doesn’t need a prototypical leadoff hitter. That’s why I think you will see a veritable mix-and-match of guys hitting first, at least at the beginning of the year. Don’t be surprised to see Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Michael Saunders (if he’s still here), Dalton Pompey, and maybe even Chris Colabello take an occasional turn. Ultimately my bet is on Devon Travis running with the job. But in the end, it shouldn’t really matter, and this situation reminds me of the first World Series team. The Jays won it all in 1992 with Devon White and his .303 OBP at the top of the order. They can win it again with Travis.
2. Of all the scrap heap signings, which pitcher has the best chance to make a real impact?
The Jays, like all major league teams, spent a lot of time in the bargain bin this offseason looking for gold. They signed the following pitchers hoping to catch lightning-in-a-bottle:
– Scott Diamond, last pitched in MLB in 2013, career 4.43 ERA
– Roberto Hernandez, 4.36 ERA for Houston in 2015, last posted a sub-4.00 ERA in 2010
– Wade LeBlanc, last pitched in MLB in 2014, hasn’t exceeded 100 IP since 2010
– Brad Penny, last pitched in MLB in 2014, last posted a sub-6.00 ERA in 2011
– Daniel Schlereth, last pitched in MLB in 2010, career 4.35 ERA
– David Aardsma, pitched a combined 71.1 IP since 2010, including 30.2 last season
– Gavin Floyd, hasn’t exceeded 100 IP since 2012
The one with the best chance to stick would be Floyd, simply because he was signed to a major league deal and is thus already on the 40-man roster. He was added at the expense of Chad Jenkins, which would seem to indicate that he will be given every opportunity to succeed at the major league level. He pitched well for the Indians last year (albeit in a very small sample size), and might be the odds-on-favourite to be the long man entering the season. Behind him, I would rate Aardsma and Hernandez as the only two that might even get a chance to sniff the big leagues.
3. What will happen with Edwin and Jose?
Encarnacion made it clear weeks ago that he would not negotiate towards a new contract during the season, meaning Opening Day is the cutoff date to sign him. Bautista had been pretty quiet on the situation….until yesterday. In a very public statement he flat out said he will not negotiate. Period. He has already given Rogers the number he feels he is worth, take it or leave it. The statement was many things. It was both a brilliant negotiating tactic and a non-starter for negotiations. It was both a refreshing piece of honesty from a superstar and a miscalculated outburst of emotion. Bautista came out looking like a hero for trying to stick it to Rogers, and a villain for placing personal greed over the health of the team. But what does it all mean? Unless there is a crazy turn of events, Rogers is only going to open the purse strings for one of the two sluggers, if that. The other will either be allowed to walk, or be dealt mid-season. If the Jays are scuffling in July? It might produce an opportunity to trade both for future assets. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The only happy ending I can see is a Blue Jays team that romps to the AL East title and reaches the World Series, allowing Rogers to reap in the rewards of another huge season. That might convince them that both players need to be brought back. But by then, it might be too late.
4. Can Marcus Stroman really replace David Price?
In reading many pre-season predictions, a lot of pundits out there are skeptical about Stroman. He has only made 24 career starts and pitched 157.2 career innings. How can he be expected to assume the role of team ace, and replace the 225+ IP with a low 2.00 ERA that Price would have produced? The real answer, sadly, is that nobody knows. Although he has the raw talent, the makeup, the attitude, and the (admittedly small sample size) numbers to be an ace, he hasn’t had to grind through a full season. He is going to slip up several times, and have a number of starts where he gets rocked. It’s how he responds to those, and how he holds up through the summer and into September, that will be most telling. He probably won’t match the numbers Price puts up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t too far behind.
5. Can the Blue Jays repeat?
Yes, yes they can. Tampa Bay has the makings of a very good rotation, but scoring runs will be a problem. The Orioles essentially brought back the same team that finished .500 and 12 games behind Toronto last year. The Yankees spent a ton of time fixing the back end of their bullpen, which was basically the only area of their team that didn’t need fixing. And Boston imported several big pieces, but still need a lot to go right with the tire fire that was the rest of their rotation last year, a clearly declining Hanley Ramirez, and their whale of a third baseman. As in Pablo Sandoval, a man who looks to literally be the size of a blue whale. If the Jays can get off to a good start – not necessarily playing out of their minds like they did last August, but a solid start to keep the wolves at bay, they can win this division. In fact, they should win this division.