DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays' ability to contend this year very well could come down to the performance of right-hander Brandon Morrow.
Morrow has all of the tools required to become an elite starting pitcher, but now he must prove everything can be held together throughout the course of an entire season.
It's impossible to pin the hopes and dreams of an entire organization on the shoulders of one man, but the fact remains if the Blue Jays are going to have a chance this year, Morrow will need to perform at his highest level.
"The thing I'm most impressed with, you look at him, he has put on a lot of weight, muscle," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of Morrow, who added 25 pounds during the offseason. "He looks strong, he looks like you're supposed to look, and last year he didn't look like that. He looks like a good, strong, durable starting pitcher. The fact that he's out there and feels good, is big for us."
There are very few people around baseball who question Morrow's abilities on the mound, but the durability factor is another matter altogether. Morrow has never thrown more than 180 innings in a single season, and he has gained the reputation of being someone who is frequently hurt.
A closer look at his track record and it's clear that type of stereotype is at least a little bit unfair. To start, the lack of innings during the early stages of his career were in relation to his past experience as a reliever with the Mariners.
During his first two years in Toronto -- 2010-12 -- he was placed under a strict innings limit by the organization. The Blue Jays shut him down late during the 2010 season, not because of an injury, but because he reached 146 1/3 innings -- an increase of 77 over the prior year.
In 2011, Morrow began the season on the disabled list with soreness in his right arm. That injury has since been brought up on multiple occasions, but the reality of the situation is that Morrow was going to be capped at 180 innings and the organization saw a benefit in giving him a delayed start to the year.
Morrow finished that season within two-thirds of the 180-inning plateau, and as far as the organization was concerned, it was mission accomplished.
That brings up the past two seasons, where the injury-prone label has really reared its ugly head. Morrow was well on his way to a breakout season in 2012 before a torn oblique muscle cost him over two months of the year. It was a major setback, but one that is extremely rare for pitchers, and doesn't come with much of a risk in the future.
The only significant arm issue Morrow has experienced came last year, when an impinged nerve in his right forearm limited him to just 10 starts. So while the track record falls short of perfection, it's also not nearly as serious as a lot of people make it out to be. Still, that doesn't mean Morrow is without regrets from these past two years.
"If you were healthy, you could be contributing -- and it was the second year for me like that," Morrow said when reflecting back on where things went wrong in 2013. "By the time I got back in 2012, we were out of it. So two years in a row like that are just extra frustrating, and when I found out [the injury] was going to be the rest of the year, it's tough.
"It's hard to sit around and watch the games, watch your friends and buddies struggle and have to go through that. It's a grind when you get that far back and things aren't going your way, it seems like there isn't anything that's going to go your way, injuries and just luck on the field."
That provided some extra motivation this offseason and Morrow arrived in camp this week looking like a different person. It's cliche for players to talk during the spring about being in the best shape of their lives, but when it comes to Morrow, it's obvious that his physique was transformed during his time away from baseball.
There's no longer any margin for error on a team that is in desperate need of an upgraded starting rotation. With the lack of moves made this offseason, there will be even more pressure on Morrow to take the next step in his development and live up to those lofty expectations.
"He's definitely someone we're counting on to give us quality innings, give us a good opportunity to win ballgames," Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said. "We need him out there every fifth day. We want him to be a workhorse for us. That's what we envision for the season.
"He looks physically fit to me, stronger, and we really need him to carry that over into the season to go along with R.A. [Dickey] and Mark [Buehrle] -- who will push that 200-inning mark again -- and J.A. Happ we feel can fit that mold as well. Brandon is definitely a key cog in this wheel and we're really banking on him being healthy and giving us quality innings."