Standing pat, Blue Jays assuming a lot
While rivals add, Toronto banking on returnees getting healthy, rebounding in 2014
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays physically have room for Ervin Santana. I can confirm this after standing in their clubhouse Saturday morning and seeing the empty locker -- with a variation of the word "Dummy" in the name slot -- currently employed as a lost and found for guys who misplace their jock strap or workout shirt or belt.
So if Toronto did decide to upgrade a rotation that had the second-highest ERA (4.81) in baseball last season and had 30 games started by guys with ERAs over 6.00, well, the Spring Training clubhouse wouldn't have to be renovated or rearranged, that's for sure.
And yet, a long-anticipated upgrade does not appear to be on the horizon here, even as a rival adds Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz in the span of a few days and the deepest division in baseball gets deeper.
"We'd like to [add a starter], but we're not going to do it at all costs," general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters earlier this week, setting off a firestorm of Twitter negativity (as if Twitter is ever really a bastion of positivity). "As we sit here today, I think it's unlikely at this point. We're getting so late into Spring Training."
Anthopoulos is mere months removed from a public proclamation that he'd like to improve this area, hence the frustration from fans.
"I think everything is going to be geared towards, 'How can we be better in the rotation?'" Anthopoulos had said on the last day of the 2013 season. "We'll start at the rotation and work our way down."
It can be difficult to dutifully hold a GM to his word when you factor in market fluctuations and unforeseen circumstances and budget realities. Still, the indigestion among the fans is understandable. In the wake of a last-place finish, the Blue Jays' lone move of significance this winter was an admitted overpay for a starting catcher -- Dioner Navarro -- who has profiled primarily as a backup in recent seasons. And that signing was necessitated by the lack of organizational depth at the position brought on by last winter's trades of Yan Gomes and Travis d'Arnaud that, to this point, have not reaped the expected results from key acquisitions Esmil Rogers and R.A. Dickey, respectively.
Oh, sure, other deals were sought this winter, namely for Ian Kinsler and for Brett Anderson. But those talks went nowhere, and now, unless Anthopoulos is publicly posturing as he continues to try to hammer out a team-friendly deal with Santana, what you see is what you get.
What do the Blue Jays have?
"A good group of quality players," Jose Bautista said. "Most of the times when teams do an overhaul, it's because guys are unproven or there's no belief by the front office in the group of guys. I just choose to believe that's not the case here."
The Blue Jays base their belief on a simple understanding that this was, a year ago, a team roundly expected to contend in the AL East, and this is, on measure, pretty much the same team heading into 2014.
If the law of averages functions in their factor, the Blue Jays ought to have better luck with health. Last season, between Bautista's hip and Jose Reyes' ankle and Brett Lawrie's oblique and Melky Cabrera's tumor in his back, Toronto used its projected lineup a not-so-whopping total of three times. Combine that with the injury absences of Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ, and you have a litany of excuses that explain away the 74-88 finish.
"Sometimes you get snake-bit," said manager John Gibbons, "or there's something in the water."
Of course, the other reality here is that it was fair to have concerns about the Blue Jays' rotation outlook a year ago, even before the injuries hit. Johnson was a well-established injury risk, Dickey was making the tough transition to the AL East at age 38, Mark Buehrle had already accumulated more than 2,600 innings and was 34, Ricky Romero was a mess, etc.
Are the Blue Jays actually any better off in the rotation now, with Johnson gone and Dickey and Buehrle another year older?
Brandon Morrow arrived to camp healthy and with a built upper body, as positive a development as any in Toronto's camp thus far. He had a ghastly 5.63 ERA last May, when his season was shut down because of a forearm injury, and injuries have been known to hound his career. But starters with a history of striking out 10 batters per nine innings tend to captivate the imagination.
"That's going to be huge for us," Reyes said. "We just need him to be healthy. When he's healthy, he's one of the best in the game."
And there is depth here. Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are returning from surgery, Dustin McGowan is getting stretched out and Rogers and Todd Redmond are out of options and competing for a back-end job. Most importantly, prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin are in the pipeline, and Stroman is a particularly attractive option if he makes a seamless transition to Triple-A.
"Last year, we were digging down in Triple-A and really didn't have the guys to fall back on," Gibbons said. "Now the quality of what we have is the big part of it. Even regardless of injuries, if somebody's not pitching particularly well, we have guys down there that we like. And if they're ready, they'll give us a chance to win."
Hey, you never rule out a ballclub's ability to piece something positive together, and the Blue Jays do have the pieces to do that. And while adding an impactful arm via trade is extremely doubtful in this Spring Training environment, there is always the possibility they could address a rotation need in-season, of course.
But man, you'd feel quite a bit better about their outlook in the AL East, where slow starts cannot be tolerated, if they added somebody with experience in providing quality innings, wouldn't you?
Not that Santana is any great bargain. Far from it. Teams that have kicked the tires on him have expressed some concerns not only about the inconsistencies in his stat lines but about the long-term durability of his elbow.
But at least Santana is capable of commanding the strike zone, and his groundball rate would fare favorably in what ought to be an improved infield defense, assuming Reyes is healthy and second baseman Ryan Goins' defense remains as remarkable as it was upon his arrival late last year.
For the Blue Jays to stand pat here is puzzling, amazing really. They've already essentially wasted the elite offensive outputs of Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in recent seasons, and a club with several over-30 stars doesn't have the luxury of "wait and see."
All along this winter, the thought was that the Blue Jays, whose two protected first-round Draft picks put them in a solid spot to add a guy attached to compensation, were waiting in the wings, ready to pounce when the price is right. But as you might have noticed in today's game, the price is rarely right, in the old-fashioned sense. Jimenez's four-year, $50 million guarantee earlier in the week from the Orioles is yet another provider of proof that so-called "discount" prices ain't what they used to be.
You either adjust to that reality or address your needs another way, or in the Blue Jays' case, stand still.
It looks like the Blue Jays are standing still, venturing into the exhibition stage of camp this coming week with a roster largely reliant on the theory that if everything goes wrong one year, it can't possibly go wrong the next.
That's a bold assumption, particularly in the East.