- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

TORONTO (AP) - The upcoming season for the Toronto Blue Jays seems destined to be defined by the one young pitcher who’ll miss it and the two even younger guys who’ll try to replace him.

Toronto’s plans for ending baseball’s longest active playoff drought took a serious hit when Marcus Stroman suffered a season-ending knee injury in spring training.

The second-year right-hander tore a ligament when his knee buckled as he backed off a bunt during a pregame fielding drill. He’s out for the year after undergoing surgery.

“It’s tough,” Stroman said. “I just feel like I let my team down. I’ve worked harder than I ever had this offseason.”

The injury changed Toronto’s thinking about 22-year-old right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who might have been closing games rather than starting them if Stroman was still healthy, and 21-year-old lefty Daniel Norris, the van-dwelling surfer dude.

The two pitchers now look likely to get their shot in Toronto’s rotation, slotting in behind 200-inning workhorses R.A Dickey and Mark Buehrle, and 24-year-old right-hander Drew Hutchison.

How successful they are could well determine what happens to the Blue Jays, out of the postseason since winning their second straight World Series in 1993 and the only team that hasn’t reached the playoffs this century.

“We may have to rely on a young guy who may not be proven,” manager John Gibbons said. “Stro was a baby, too, but a special guy.”

Sanchez has already shown signs that he could also be special. He excelled out of the bullpen in 24 games last season, posting three saves and a 1.09 ERA in 33 innings, striking out 27 while walking nine and holding opponents to a .128 average.

With the increased demands of a starting role lying ahead, the hard-throwing Sanchez has spent this spring refining his slider.

“With the way he throws, it could turn into a big strikeout pitch for him,” Gibbons said.

The Blue Jays are also high on Norris, currently better known for spending his winters searching for prime surfing spots while living out of a 1978 Volkswagen camper van nicknamed “Shaggy.”

“He’s a different bird,” Gibbons said. “Anytime you live in a van, I wouldn’t say that’s normal.”

Norris had an abnormal 2014 season, rising from Class A to the majors after going 12-2 with a 2.53 ERA at three minor league stops. He underwent elbow surgery last October to remove bone spurs, and expects to be better this year than the pitcher who made five appearances for the Blue Jays in September.

“He’s a student of the game,” Gibbons said. “He’s a very smart kid and he’s grounded. He’s got the most important thing: He’s got a great arm.”

After Jose Reyes and the Blue Jays went 83-79, here’s what else to watch as they try to move up:

MIGHTY MIGUEL: Sanchez and Norris aren’t the only impressive young arms expected to break camp with the Blue Jays. Right-hander Miguel Castro, 20, didn’t allow a run in his first five spring appearances, striking out eight and walking none while allowing three hits over nine innings. A hard thrower who stands an imposing 6-foot-5, Castro has put himself in position to jump from Class A, where he went 8-3 with a 2.68 ERA last season, all the way to the majors. “He looks like a seasoned vet out there, under control, very relaxed,” Gibbons said.

NEW GUYS, NEW FOCUS: Toronto strengthened its lineup over the winter by signing free agent catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract and acquiring All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson from Oakland. Slugger Jose Bautista has praised the newcomers for making a difference in the clubhouse with their winning pedigree and intense focus. “We need something along those lines here every now and then,” Bautista said. “It’s good to have guys to whom winning matters.”

BLOCKING THE PLATE: Adding Martin gave the Blue Jays a logjam at catcher, where incumbent Dioner Navarro is signed through 2015 and Josh Thole is Dickey’s knuckleball specialist. Martin has worked hard this spring to prove he can handle Dickey’s floater, which could mean Thole is ticketed for Triple-A. Or, Toronto may yet trade the switch-hitting Navarro to open room at DH for Edwin Encarnacion, who has been slowed this spring by a balky back and may not be able to handle regular duty at first base.


AP freelance writer Jeff Odom in Dunedin, Florida, contributed to this report.

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