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The Battles This Spring

Posted By Ben Fisher On Feb 21 2012 @ 4:40 pm In Toronto Blue Jays | No Comments

Blue Jays’ training camp opens tomorrow, although that hardly changes much down in Dunedin, where all coaches and nearly all players have long-since arrived and are holding informal daily workouts.

It is to be lauded that so many players have shown up early when, in reality, there isn’t a ton on the line. You can essentially boil down the training camp battles to two significant ones – the back end of the starting rotation and the left field job – and two lesser ones – fourth outfielder and back-up infielder. However, even these few battles will impact the over-all complexion of the club and offer up a distinctly different look from its somewhat amorphous current make-up.

Back End of the Rotation

We know this much: Romero is No. 1, Brandon Morrow is No. 2. You can question whether Romero is a legitimate ace and whether Morrow is consistent enough to be the second-best starter on a good team, but it’s hard to see any circumstances aside from injury whereby either man will not begin the season atop the team’s rotation.

The 3-4-5 slots are less clear. Henderson Alvarez has the inside track on one of the jobs on the strength of a decent 10-start tryout, but the Jays need to protect their young assets and I don’t see the 22-year-old being afforded much rope if he gets shelled this spring (I also don’t see him throwing 200+ innings for what is a play-it-safe front office).

Ironically, more secure could be Brett Cecil, who had a terrible 2011 but is now being built up as a leaner, meaner player who has supposedly moved beyond his injury-riddled past (the spring is filled with these kinds of stories, some of which prove to be true and some of which don’t). Cecil won’t excite a fan base still smarting from the lack of any big off-season splash, but he represents one of the few in-house options who have experienced success at the major league level and also prevents any expediting of the developmental process on the team’s other young arms. It also helps, of course, that he’d add another lefty to the mix alongside Romero. If Alvarez and Cecil can have even decent spring showings, it’s hard to foresee any scenario where they don’t find themselves on the roster come April.

After that, it becomes a crapshoot. Kyle Drabek and Dustin McGowan look like the most likely candidates based on holding major league experience, but Drabek hasn’t given anyone in the organization reason to trust him after a 2011 flameout and McGowan was given every opportunity last fall to secure a 2012 starting spot, but couldn’t do it.

Interestingly, while the Jays have previously had some fringe veteran starters hanging around for depth purposes, the next-in crowd are pretty much exclusively farmhands trying to break through into the majors (assuming no one else is added). Drew Hutchinson and Deck McGuire are often cited as the most major league-ready of the team’s pitching prospects, but Chad Jenkins could also get an extended look, as could 2011 reliever Joel Carreno.

Left Field

Eric Thames is a nice player who served up some surprising power in 2011, but this race comes down to what Travis Snider emerges in Dunedin. Toronto has seen glimpses of his slugging potential and he remains just 24 years of age, but it’ll still take a pretty strong spring to wash away memories of a disastrous season that saw him post an OPS .114 under his career average.

Much of the shine has come off Snider’s star since arriving in 2008 as a blue chipper and quickly putting up eye-catching numbers. But it’s hard to pinpoint the nature of his 2011 problems, which is both a good and bad thing. No, he didn’t seem to lose any bat speed or abandon his fundamental plate approach (he had trouble with off-speed stuff, but that was also a problem of his in previous seasons), so the basics still seem to be there. However, the Jays are comfortable with Thames patrolling left field and won’t hesitate to send Snider down once again if he fails to show progress.

Fourth Outfielder

This may not wind up being a battle at all, as the team could conceivably carry five outfielders, with Bautista, Colby Rasmus and the winner of the Snider/Thames clash starting and Ben Francisco and Rajai Davis both getting back-up at-bats. The logic behind that thinking states that whomever wins the Snder/Thames derby may not be completely ready for everyday work, so having more OF’s around could potentially lighten the load and ease some of the pressure.

If they don’t opt for five outfielders, they will have to decide what they value more between Francisco’s pop (career: .430 slugging and .762 OPS) or Davis’ speed (125 steals over the past three seasons). You’d think that Davis could hold an edge defensively, but he looked awfully unsure of himself in centerfield over what was an injury-marred 2011. Of course, all of this is a moot point if Davis doesn’t show that he has bounced back from the leg injury that finally wrapped up his first Jays campaign (there has to be a reason Francisco was brought on board).

Back-Up Infielder

Only an injury could bring any instability to the Blue Jays’ infield for the coming season, with Adam Lind (1B), Kelly Johnson (2B), Yunel Escobar (SS) and Brett Lawrie (3B) all entrenched at their respective positions. That, combined with the aforementioned five-outfielder possibility leaves what is likely just one spot for a back-up to be chosen out of incumbent Mike McCoy and newcomers Luis Valbuena and Omar Vizquel.

McCoy holds the edge in terms of versatility and while that’s still an appealing characteristic, it happens to be a less urgent one on what is a deeper Jays’ team that last year’s version. The intriguing wild card in all this is Vizquel, whose best days are behind him (he’s 45), but would provide instantaneous credibility and help mentor Latin American players like Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria. Valbuena is 20 years younger and may, at this stage, be the better defensive option, but I just don’t see the Jays kicking Vizquel to the curb in favour of a fringe major leaguer. If anything, it’ll be a loyalty towards the scrappy, hard-working McCoy that shuts the door on the 11-time Gold Glove winner.

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