TORONTO (AP) - All winter long, the Blue Jays’ primary concern was upgrading the starting pitching. The biggest story in Toronto this spring, though, is the one about the free agent arm that got away.
After months of inaction, the Blue Jays thought they’d landed right-hander Ervin Santana on a one-year deal in early March. But when injury concerns flared up in Atlanta, Santana signed a similar deal with the Braves instead.
“I think it’s pretty obvious we were involved, it didn’t work out. I’m trying to take the high road here,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said after Santana turned him down, saying he’d rather pitch in a spacious National League park than face AL East foes in Toronto’s hitter-friendly dome.
Anthopoulos, who’d previously come “extremely close” to acquiring a starter through trade, must now start the season with almost the same staff he took north last year. Right-handed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the 2012 NL Cy Young winner, will be the opening-day starter again, while left-hander Mark Buehrle gets the third slot.
But none of the other three leading contenders, right-handers Brandon Morrow and Drew Hutchison, and left-hander J.A. Happ, have ever pitched 200 innings, and all three are coming off injuries. Morrow was limited to 10 starts last year by a nerve problem in his forearm, Hutchison hasn’t pitched in the majors since elbow surgery in 2012, and Happ missed most of 2013 after being hit in the head by a line drive. Happ dimmed his own chances with an awful spring.
Santana, who has topped the 200-inning mark five times, would have given the Blue Jays valuable depth. Without him, there’s more chance they’ll need starts from touted but untested youngsters like Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin, and Marcus Stroman.
Still, a confident Dickey insisted Santana would have been more “bonus” than “necessity” to Toronto. “I feel like we have what we need,” he said.
Here are five things to watch with the Blue Jays this season:
NAVARRO, THE NEW GUY: The one free agent Toronto did land this winter was catcher Dioner Navarro, who signed a two-year, $8 million deal. An All-Star in 2008, Navarro struggled before posting career-bests in batting average (.300) and home runs (13) in 89 games with the Cubs in 2013. His career .251 average and .313 on base percentage aren’t impressive, but he should still offer improvement on the departed J.P. Arencibia, who averaged .194. And Navarro has already won praise from his pitchers. “He’s doing a great job,” manager John Gibbons said. “Everything I’m hearing is they all love throwing to him.”
DEPENDABLE ‘PEN: With the rotation uncertain, the Blue Jays could begin the season carrying eight relievers. The closer is Casey Janssen, who has saved 56 games and blown just five over the past two years. Left-hander Brett Cecil and righty Steve Delabar were both All-Stars in 2012, setup man Sergio Santos has experience as a closer, and sidearming lefty Aaron Loup posted a 2.47 ERA in 64 games last year, down from 2.64 as a rookie. Also in contention are right-handers Jeremy Jeffress, Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers, all of whom are out of options.
GOINS GETS THE JOB: Rookie Ryan Goins was batting .164 with just one extra base hit in 55 at-bats as the spring training schedule wound down. But that meager production didn’t stop Gibbons from naming Goins his starting second baseman. Goins sparkled defensively in a late-season cameo last year, but his offensive output projects as putrid. “I think he’ll hold his own,” Gibbons said. “That’s all he needs to do.”
SHORT BENCH: With the exception of Goins, Toronto’s everyday lineup looks solid. That’s a good thing, because their short bench won’t boast much. Catcher Erik Kratz will likely handle Dickey’s starts and off days for Navarro, while Maicer Izturis can play three infield positions. Expect the final spot to go to outfielder Moises Sierra, who’s been taking grounders at first base, or Matt Tuiasosopo, who can play the outfield and both corner infield spots.
TESTED EARLY: Toronto will learn quickly how it measures up against all its AL East opponents. The Blue Jays begin with four at Tampa, then open at home with three against the rebuilt Yankees. Toronto visits Baltimore and then hosts the Orioles before welcoming former manager John Farrell and the reigning World Series champion Red Sox to town at the end of April. “It’s important that we get off to a good start this year, no question about it,” Gibbons said before spring training. “It’s probably as important a year to do that (since) I’ve been around here.”
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