In less than 48 hours, I will have landed in Tampa (barring some travel disaster), hopped in my rental car and settled into my temporary home for Spring Training. I’ll unpack my suitcase, make sure the wireless and cable are working properly, maybe hit the gym and head out to buy some groceries.
Then, on Thursday, I’ll be off to the Bobby Mattick Training Center to begin reporting from camp. With Spring Training now upon us, it seems like an appropriate time to examine 10 key issues facing the Blue Jays during this preseason. I’ll include my early predictions, which might be totally different next week.
With that, here’s some food for thought until I arrive down south.
1. THE ROTATION: Roy Halladay is gone. That is the reality. With the man goes the innings, and the Jays are going to have to find a way to replace the 200+ frames that Doc provided each and every year. Five spots open. Candidates include: Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Marc Rzepczynski, Brandon Morrow, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, David Purcey, Dana Eveland, Brian Tallet, Casey Janssen, Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart, Reidier Gonzalez, Luis Perez, Brad Mills, Robert Ray. None listed have logged more than 178 innings in any one season.
My early favorites: Romero, Marcum, Morrow, Tallet, Rzepczynski.
2. THE BULLPEN: You think the rotation situation is a mess? How about race for bullpen spots. Arms in the mix for the seven jobs incluse Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Jesse Carlson, Shawn Camp, Jeremy Accardo, Zech Zinicola, Josh Roenicke, Brian Tallet, Casey Janssen, Merkin Valdez, Lance Broadway, Sean Henn, Zach Jackson, Willie Collazo, Dana Eveland, Steve Register, Dustin McGowan (I think I got them all). Within that, you have Gregg, Downs and Frasor vying for the closer’s job. Out of options? Tallet, McGowan, Camp, Valdez and Henn. Zinicola is a Rule 5 pick, so he’ll need to be offered back to Washington, if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.
My early favorites: Gregg (CL), Downs, Frasor, Camp, Carlson, Accardo, Zinicola
3. THE LINEUP: Like the rotation and the bullpen, the Blue Jays’ lineup is also a tough one to figure out right now. Losing shortstop Marco Scutaro to free agency left a gaping hole in the leadoff spot for Toronto. Adam Lind isn’t sure he wants to hit cleanup, perhaps creating a snag in manager Cito Gaston’s plans to bump Aaron Hill and Lind into the No. 3-4 holes. The uncertain status of the corner outfield spots only add to the confusion. It will take Gaston all spring to sort this one out.
Early Opening Day projection: 1. Jose Bautista, RF, 2. Aaron Hill, 2B, 3. Adam Lind, DH., 4. Vernon Wells, CF, 5. Lyle Overbay, 1B, 6. Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, 7. Travis Snider, LF, 8. John Buck, C, 9. Alex Gonzalez, SS.
4. THE INJURED: As if keeping track of the rotation and bullpen races wasn’t hard enough, new pitching coach Bruce Walton will be checking in daily with the Blue Jays’ medical team to monitor some of Toronto’s walking wounded. Jesse Litsch, who was the No. 2 starter at the start of the ’09 season, is out until around June or July after Tommy John surgery. Same goes for righty Shawn Hill, who was signed over the winter. Then, there’s Marcum (right elbow) and McGowan (right shoulder), who were rotation regulars in 2007-08 but missed all of last season. This week, righty Scott Richmond joined the group with a right shoulder issue and his status is unclear.
Prediction: Marcum has a decent spring and earns the No. 2 slot in the Opening Day rotation, McGowan opens the season on the disabled list to buy him more time, and also avoiding exposing him to waivers. Richmond also opens on the DL. Litsch and Hill are brought along slowly and might be considered for late-season outings. More likely, they’ll be kept away from the Majors in 2010, much like Marcum/McGowan were last year.
5. VERNON WELLS: With Halladay out of the picture, the Blue Jays need a veteran leader in the clubhouse. With his lofty salary, and a contract that will likely see him in a Jays uniform through 2014, Wells needs to step up and be that leader now more than ever. More to the point, Wells needs to show he can be the type of offensive threat the Jays felt he could be when they handed him that 7-year, $126 million contract after his impressive 2006 showing. Wells had surgery on his left wrist over the winter — perhaps explaining some of the hitting woes he went through last year. That’s what Toronto is hoping at least.
Prediction: Wells improves on his performance last season and Gaston throws the center fielder back into the cleanup spot to open the year. Wells seems unlikely to return to the .300-30-100 form he showed a few years ago, but expecting him to perform better than he did in 2009 does not seem like a whole lot to ask.
6. THE OUTFIELD: Wells will be in center field. That is what we know. With Alex Rios now out of the picture, the Blue Jays do not have a clear backup in center, either. That is one reason Jose Bautista, especially with his late-season success and ability to man center, is in the driver’s seat to grab the starting job in right field. Travis Snider needs to earn a spot with a big spring, and veterans Joey Gathright and Jeremy Reed are also in the mix. Randy Ruiz spent some time playing left field during winter ball this year, but Gaston was hesitant to throw him out there last year. Adam Lind also has the ability to shift out of the DH role and into left, if needed.
Prediction: Bautista wins the Opening Day job in right and Snider follows suit in left, allowing the Jays to keep Lind in the DH role. One of Reed or Gathright make the Opening Day roster as a bench player. My money would be on Gathright, considering he has experience as a leadoff man.
7. TRAVIS SNIDER: This is an important spring for Snider. Last year, he went through the ups and downs that many young players go through. Admittedly, Snider got a little too caught up in his early success and had a hard time dealing with the slump that followed. He’s said all the right things this winter. He learned from his trip back to the Minors, got his head straight over the offseason and got into great shape back home in Washington state. Snider is hungry to prove he can still be the slugger Toronto hopes he can become. And, at 22, he still has plenty of time on his side.
Prediction: Snider opens the year lower in the lineup, much like Gaston did with him to begin last season. As the season goes on, Snider gains Gaston’s trust and is slowly inched up the lineup toward the heart of the order, where the young hitter hopes to be a mainstay for years to come.
8. FIRST BASE: Overbay enters camp as the starting first baseman for the Blue Jays, but he is also in the final year of his contract. Facing free agency next winter, Overbay is a prime candidate to be traded, especially with top first base prospect Brett Wallace knocking on the big league’s door. The Jays also have Ruiz and Brian Dopirak — two power standouts in the Minors — able to provide stopgap solutions.
Prediction: Overbay opens the season at first base, but is traded before the July 31 Deadline. Ruiz makes the team as a backup at first and at DH. Wallace begins the year in the Minors, but joins the Jays before the year is over. If needed, Dopirak can be promoted to hold down first base until Wallace is deemed ready.
9. THE MANAGER: Gaston enters camp in a unique situation. At the end of last year, a clubhouse rift between the players and Gaston was made public, creating questions about his status for this year. New GM Alex Anthopoulos reorganized the coaching staff, but retained Gaston, who has announced his plans to retire from managing after this season. Anthopoulos plans on using the entire season to search for the new skipper, and Gaston will move into an advising role with the organization beginning in 2011.
Early managerial favorite: Third-base coach Brian Butterfield. Butter is considered one of the top third-base coaches and infield instructors in the game. He’s energetic, passionate, gets along great with the other coaches and the players love him. Great things to keep in mind when a team is in the midst of a youth movement. Butterfield is very detail-oriented and worked as a bench coach under former manager John Gibbons and also Gaston, before being shifted back to third base duties for the upcoming year. If the Jays want to stay in-house, Butter appears to be the top choice.
10. THE PROSPECTS: The only “problem” with the Halladay trade was that the Blue Jays do not figure to have any of the players they acquired on the field come Opening Day. It will take time for fans to see the results of the deal in Toronto. That said, Anthopoulos acquired three prized prospects in Wallace, righty Kyle Drabek and catcher Travis d’Arnaud for Doc, after the Jays also netted a solid pitching prospect in Zach Stewart as part of the Scott Rolen trade with the Reds last July. With those two moves, the Jays’ farm system received a major upgrade.
Prediction: Wallace opens the year with Triple-A Las Vegas, Drabek heads to Double-A New Hampshire and d’Arnaud begins with Class A Dunedin. Due to rotation depth, the Jays send Stewart to Double-A as well to start the season. Wallace joins the Jays at some point in 2010, and one of Drabek/Stewart might be in line for a September callup. It will likely take a couple years before d’Arnaud debuts in the bigs.
Is that enough for you guys to chew on? More from Dunedin soon…