TORONTO -- The calendar is about to switch to 2014, and that can only be good news for a Blue Jays organization that is looking to close the door on a disappointing year and start with a clean slate in the American League East.
The goal during Spring Training will be to completely wash away the memories of a 2013 season that went off the rails before the end of April and instead focus on how the club can even the competitive balance within its own division.
It's sometimes easy to forget that Toronto was generally regarded as having the best team in the AL on paper at the start of 2013. The expectations have since changed, but the core remains mostly intact and a return to career norms from several players would go a long way in helping the organization regain its footing.
The offense projects to be one of the league's best, with Jose Reyes leading off and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion once again representing the heart of the lineup. Add in production from the likes of Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie, Melky Cabrera and Adam Lind, and there are the makings of a very productive group, if everyone can stay healthy.
The pitching is where most of the significant questions remain unanswered. R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will once again be relied upon to eat up a lot of innings, while the team's biggest wild card can be found in right-hander Brandon Morrow. The rest of the starting staff has yet to take shape, and barring any future additions, would see the likes of J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin battle it out for the remaining two spots.
Toronto's bullpen once again should be a major strength on the team with an impressive group of hard-throwing relievers that be can be used at manager John Gibbons' disposal. The depth can be found not only in late-inning relief, but also the middle section and Minor Leagues. There's a lot to work from, and it should at least help overcome some potential issues in the starting staff.
One year ago, the Blue Jays were among the favorites to win it all. The same hype won't surround the team this spring, but it's also possible that could work in the club's favor. Here's a closer look at the questions that require positive answers in order for the Blue Jays to once again become relevant in the AL East:
10. Will Rasmus be able to repeat his production from the 2013 season?
Rasmus was one of the few players on Toronto's roster that enjoyed a breakout season this past year. Despite missing the final stretch because of various injuries, Rasmus enjoyed a very productive year that saw him post 22 homers and an .840 OPS in 118 games. The season was reminiscent of his 2010 campaign in St. Louis, and another strong showing would ultimately result in a very large payday when Rasmus becomes a free agent at the end of the year.
9. Is 2014 when Lawrie breaks out and officially becomes one of the Blue Jays' best assets?
Lawrie's 2013 season got off to a rough start when he was forced to miss the first couple of weeks because of a rib injury. The problems extended to the field when he prematurely rushed back, and as a result, dealt with timing issues at the plate. It wasn't until the second half of the year that Lawrie really began to settle in and perform the way most people expected. He will once again be a key component of the offense, and if healthy, provides a lot more depth to an impressive lineup.
8. Will Dickey get off to another slow start, or will his second-half success from 2013 carry over into the new calendar year?
Dickey struggled during April and had difficulties keeping the ball in the park during the first half of the season, but after the All-Star Break, he became a different pitcher. The veteran knuckleballer posted an impressive 3.56 ERA during his final 14 starts, and the Blue Jays would be more than happy with that type of production next year.
7. Toronto's bullpen was one of the best in baseball this past year, but can the impressive group once again defy the odds and maintain that consistent level of production?
The bullpen was supposed to be the club's biggest weakness in 2013, but instead turned into a strength. The problem is that relievers are notoriously tough to predict from one year to the next. There's a long line of bullpen arms who have enjoyed a season or two of success in the Major Leagues and eventually fell on hard times. Closer Casey Janssen is the most proven commodity here, but there's plenty of depth with the likes of Sergio Santos, Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar. Even if some of the relievers falter, there are several other candidates that should be ready to step in.
6. Which version of Cabrera will show up in 2014?
Cabrera looked great in Spring Training, but when the season actually began he appeared to be a shell of his former self. Cabrera battled discomfort in his legs for most of the season, which not only impacted his power at the plate, but also his range in left field. It wasn't until the end of August that a cause was found, as Cabrera had a tumor removed from his spine during a very serious surgical procedure. Cabrera is supposed to be ready to go by the start of Spring Training and could be in line for a bounce-back season. He might never be the player he was in San Francisco, but there's still plenty of upside in his bat if Cabrera can prove his medical condition and various injuries are a thing of the past.
5. Who will be the Blue Jays' starting second baseman on Opening Day?
Toronto was expected to acquire a second baseman this offseason, but to date that move hasn't surfaced. That could open the door for rookie Ryan Goins to assume the full-time duties, while Maicer Izturis returns to his familiar utility-man role. There are plenty of question marks surrounding Goins' ability to hit at the Major League level, but he does provide well above-average defense at second, which is something the club missed in 2013. It's still possible that the Blue Jays could address this position with another move in January, but as of now, it appears to be Goins' job to lose in Spring Training.
4. The Blue Jays have a series of young starting pitchers ready to step into the fold, but who will emerge as a reliable option for a team that wants to win now?
Regardless of how Toronto's rotation ultimately sets up, there will be a need for another wave of pitchers throughout the season. The lack of organizational depth was exposed in 2013, as the likes of Chien-Ming Wang, Ramon Ortiz and Dave Bush were called upon to make starts. That won't be the case next year, as a talented group of youngsters is on the way. Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Stroman, Sean Nolin and possibly even top prospect Aaron Sanchez could get an extended look at some point. If Toronto ends up contending in 2014, it will very likely be because at least one person from this group emerged as a reliable option.
3. Following several years as a back-up catcher, is Dioner Navarro ready to handle a full-time workload?
General manager Alex Anthopoulos' first move of the offseason was agreeing to sign Navarro to a two-year contract worth $8 million. The move came on the heels of Navarro's impressive season with the Cubs that saw him hit .300 with an .856 OPS. However, Navarro only played in 89 games and hasn't been a full-time catcher since he started 115 games for the Rays in 2009. Navarro will need to prove he's up to the task of playing on a regular basis, while also maintaining his offensive upside at the plate.
2. Will this finally be the year that the team's overall health becomes a mere footnote instead of the defining storyline?
One of the underlying themes for each of the past two seasons in Toronto has been the number of injuries. In 2012, the Blue Jays lost Morrow, Hutchison and Drabek in a span of just four days, while the following year, injuries to Reyes, Lawrie, Morrow, Bautista, Rasmus, Cabrera and Johnson became major talking points. Every team is going to have its injuries, but the overall number that have taken place in Toronto has been alarming. There's enough depth to overcome a couple of injuries at any given time, but the Blue Jays will need to stay relatively healthy next year in order to remain in contention.
1. Is this finally the year that Morrow emerges as one of the best starting pitchers in the American League?
Morrow has all of the necessary tools to become one of the top starting pitchers in the game. He possesses an overpowering fastball and a wipe-out slider that leads to a high number of strikeouts. During the 2012 season, he also seemed to really figure out the art of pitching and became much better at mixing speeds and locations. The issue here is that in each of the past two years, he has missed significant time because of injury. The Blue Jays have spent almost their entire offseason searching for a frontline starter, but it's unlikely that the club will find anyone with more upside than Morrow. He is by far the biggest wild card on next year's roster, and his emergence as an elite starter would go a long way in helping the Blue Jays get back into the postseason.