Thursday, 19 February 2015

Watch This

So reporting days are looming, several layers are already in Dunedin and the Jays' press (and blogosphere) are awash with articles discussing unresolved questions that remain to be addressed in the six weeks or so ahead of us. This post represents an effort in a similar vein, but I will not necessarily restrict myself to questions of a major league nature. So here' my own list of things to watch between now and opening day, feeling obliged to at least notice the questions others are asking.

Unless Justin Smoak completely tanks, 7 of 9 lineup spots are essentially set, and those seven in some order being the top 7 in the batting order. One other - CF - has a strong favorite and the other - 2B - is presumed to be a spot you are going to have to carry.  But the reason i bring it up is that the commonly repeated assumption is that Russ Martin hits second and Michael Saunders hits sixth - I'm not so sure. The presumed seven has only 2 LH hitters, it seems kinda crazy to me to hit those two back-to-back. I'm gonna say keep an eye on the #2 spot in the order.

First Base
If Smoak does collapse, count on an import. EE can shift back to being the primary 1B of course, but someone will have to be imported to either play first or DH - at least able to hold up the strong half of a platoon with Valencia.

Kevin Pillar
Dalton Pompey has the inside track on the CF job - and I'm on record predicting wild success - but the Jays are going to have a real asset on their hands if Pillar continues to show improvement.  One of the big differences between the Jays and the similarly situated Red Sox is the depth of their rival's bench. If Pillar ends up being a quality 4th OF/PH it stands to make an important difference.

Dioner Navarro
Still possible he could be dealt but it's going to take real value in a near-term framework to get him at this point. The insurance behind the plate is important, and they will find ways to get value out of his role. That said, if AJ Jimenez blows minds in camp, and another team develops an injury that makes them more desperate to deal, this could change quickly. Watch this space.

Second Base
Obviously the most volatile non-pitching issue this spring, no one needs to tell you to watch it. However, very little of the commentary on the subject is complete. It's all "Izturus/Goins/Travis" - whither Steve Tolleson? Hell, Munenori Kawasaki even? Tolleson is a journeyman to be sure, but he pounded lefties last year and he underwent vision surgery over the off-season which greatly improved his sight in terms of picking up spin and movement on the ball. If he could get even up to replacement level vs. RHP he could be the best hitting veteran candidate. Kawasaki, for his part, is a believer in improved strength training his taken up to improve his lower half and while he's probably not going to turn into an above average player, he's also been slightly better over his last two years than Izturus has over his last three.Plus he's good for the clubhouse.
For my money, if there's anyone who case virtually no shot it's Ryan Goins. I do think Travis is actually the best player but my prediction is that the Blue Jays hope to have the luxury of letting him get six to eight weeks in Buffalo first, both to ease the transition and to buy a service-time year (which they will deny is a consideration.
Also, don't be shocked if Izturus is traded. It's true he's no great shakes as a hitter but he's a versatile veteran with a not-awful salary. There are a few teams thin enough on the infield to find that valuable.

You know about Norris, Sanchez and Pompey. And Devon Travis. You've heard the buzz about Miguel Castro but he'd have to be phenomenal to break camp in the majors. Look for him more along the lines of August maybe. If you pay any attention you know I love Roberto Osuna but he won't be interrupted for a bullpen stint. If he's up (not before the second half) it would be because he forced himself to the head of the line for emergency spot starter consideration. If Navarro is traded AJ Jimenez becomes a candidate. You'll hear raves about Anthony Alford but not this year for him. Probably a lot of buzz about Dwight Smith Jr but even if he were ready, there's no room and no rush.

Rotation Depth
This is the latest hot topic. So let's list them off. This is not so much a prediction of who's going o be the #5, or in what order pitchers may be filed  through in the event of emergency, but a list of options.
Buehrle, Dickey
Stroman, Hutchison
Sanchez, Norris
Estrada, Redmond
Jenkins, Drabek, Oramas*
Hendricks, Frances, Albers, Romero

And let's face it, if you make it as far as Hendricks it hardly matters anymore, right?

*What? You don't know who Juan Oramas is? He reached A+ and pitched well at the age of 20; pitched very well in AA at 21; lost most of his age 22 season to injury (TJ I believe); kicked ass again in AA at 23; struggled when he hit the PCL last year at 24. He'll be in the much friendlier IL this year at the age of 25 and you should WATCH this guy.

Bullpen options/Closer
John Gibbons mentioned Cecil and Sanchez as leading contenders for the closing job. This does not, of course, preclude a surprise candidate, but if everything develops the way the Jays would like, it's probably going to be Sanchez. Cecil may "deserve" it, and would be fine at it, but he's incredibly valuable as the guy who can put out the biggest fire at any time in the last three innings and locking him into the 9th constrains that weapon. I  could list the virtues of other candidates (Greg Infante is getting lots of blog-love lately) but who makes the impression in spring that changes Gibby's mind would be the epitome of a futile effort.

Moving beyond the closer role, let's look at the other  bullpen candidates - a list which will carry me over to the minor league portion of this entry. For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume Norris is the fifth starer and Sanchez the closer - watch how spring plays out to see if either assumption needs adjusting. 6-7 spots available (not counting the closer)

Set-up: Cecil, Delebar - yes, I have a hunch Delebar will be better than ever if healthy this year. Speaking of health, see today's article in the Post by John Lott.
Lefty specialist, middle relief: Aaron Loup
Middle relief: Todd Redmond
Middle/long relief: Marco Estrada.
Barring injury, that five are a VIRTUAL LOCK. A they are a quality crew. If Delebar does have the velo back, and Estrada pitches like he did in relief last year - and if Sanchez is the closer everyone thinks he can be (and don't fool yourself, you can list three such ifs about even the best of last year's bullpens) then that is a 'pen six deep and FINE. Yes Delebar is a fairly big "if" but the whole point in further discussion is how deep they are when it comes to addressing failed expectations.

Beyond that you need another solid guy and a limo/shuttle-rider who can be relied upon. Here's the issue though, the best guy to fill us out is Chad Jenkins - but he has options. Kyle Drabek doesn't. So if the front six are healthy and locked in and we are really down to only one spot, then watch to see if the Jays are impressed enough to do what they did with Jeremy Jefress last year (whom they were right about, he just waited until he was out of town to prove it) and carry a previously unsuccessful but talented arm and hope he puts it together when games count. Or will they look at the longer track record and trade/waive Drabek in favor of Jenkins?

If it's Drabek, then all eyes are on him to see if he refuses to follow Jefresses' example. Jenkins on the shuttle sucks for him in that he deserves better, but you're fine in terms of what he brings with him. If Drabek is gone and Jenkins is a full-timer, then you get into candidates for the shuttle which extends into a broader discussion of the Bisons' staff.

That and other minor league questions in part 2 tomorrow.

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