Bats should be source of strength for Blue Jays
Healthy Reyes, Bautista and continued production from Encarnacion key to success
TORONTO -- The wait is almost over, and baseball will officially make its return when the Blue Jays open Spring Training on Sunday morning in Dunedin, Fla.
In the final days leading up to camp, MLB.com will preview each aspect of the Blue Jays' roster. The first installment will take a look at this year's position players, with separate pieces coming soon on the starting rotation and bullpen.
Toronto's starting nine is almost identical to the one that began the 2013 campaign. Despite the lack of changes, it's an impressive group that should prove to be one of the better lineups in the league when healthy.
Here's a closer look at each position:
Catcher: The only major position-player addition to date occurred relatively early in the offseason, when free agent Dioner Navarro signed a two-year contract worth $8 million. Navarro is expected to hit for a significantly higher average and strike out less than his predecessor, J.P. Arencibia, but he will still need to prove he can handle a full workload. Josh Thole is expected to be the primary backup, while Erik Kratz and top prospect A.J. Jimenez will serve as the first lines of defence in the Minor Leagues.
First base: Edwin Encarnacion silenced any of his remaining critics last year by posting yet another impressive season in a Blue Jays uniform. He has become one of the elite sluggers in the game over the past two years, and that type of consistent production will be expected again in 2014. The big question will be the health of Encarnacion's left wrist, which has become a nagging issue -- yet it hasn't prevented him from appearing in at least 134 games in each of the past three seasons. Adam Lind will be the primary backup, and there's an outside chance Moises Sierra could see some time there this year as well. Dan Johnson and Andy LaRoche will provide depth in the Minors.
Second base: The Blue Jays were expected to upgrade the position this offseason, but the job is now Ryan Goins' to lose. The 25-year-old impressed Toronto's coaching staff with a strong September, and his above-average defense should be enough to make him the everyday guy. The big question is whether he'll be able to hit enough at the big league level, which is one reason Goins will be a top priority for new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer this spring. Veteran Maicer Izturis also will have a chance to compete for the job, but he will most likely start the year as a backup option.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes' first season in Toronto was derailed during the first couple of weeks of the campaign when he suffered a freak injury while attempting to steal second in Kansas City. He returned much earlier than expected, but it became clear over time that his left ankle never returned to 100 percent. The only real cure was supposed to be an extended period of time off, and Reyes got that this offseason. There's no reason to believe there will be any lingering effects heading into 2014. The artificial turf at Rogers Centre will always be a concern for Reyes, but the Blue Jays are hoping this is the year he can stay completely healthy. Izturis will see occasional starts at short when Reyes needs a day off, while fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki provides depth in the Minors.
Third base: The Blue Jays are still waiting for Brett Lawrie to showcase just how good he can at the big league level. He was one of the most talked about players in baseball during a limited run of 43 games during his rookie season in 2011, but the past two years have been a work in progress. Last season got off to a bad start when a left oblique injury sidelined Lawrie before the end of Spring Training, and an ensuing sprained ankle only made things worse. Despite the problems in the first half, Lawrie finished the year strong and could be in line for a breakout season at the plate. The sky is the limit for the 24-year-old, and no matter what he does at the plate, it's a guarantee that the native of British Columbia will be one of the top defenders in the game this year. Izturis will back up the hot corner as well, while LaRoche and Brent Morel are additional depth options.
Left field: Melky Cabrera will be entering this season with something to prove. He's now two years removed from a positive test for elevated levels of testosterone, but the biggest concern is a tumor that was removed from his spine last August. The tumor sent waves of pain through his lower back and legs, which essentially rendered Cabrera a shell of his former self on the field. The issue has since been resolved, and now it will be up to Cabrera to re-establish his value on the field. The Dominican native will be a free agent at the end of the year, and he will be eager to prove his worth with a strong campaign at the plate and in the field. Anthony Gose and Sierra are potential backup options, while the likes of Kevin Pillar and Ricardo Nanita wait in the wings with Triple-A Buffalo.
Center field: It's very possible that Colby Rasmus is entering his final Spring Training with the Blue Jays. The 27-year-old is set to hit free agency at the end of the year and should be in line for a lucrative multiyear contract. Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos prefers to avoid talking about contracts with the media, but if Rasmus has another strong season, it's going to be very hard for the Blue Jays to lock him up. Rasmus enjoyed a breakout season in 2013, and the hope is that progress will continue with a similar performance this year. Gose will be the primary backup, while Sierra, Pillar and Nanita are emergency options.
Right field: Jose Bautista probably won't ever reach the 50-homer plateau again, but there is still plenty of production left in his bat. The slugger is coming off a 2013 in which he posted an .856 OPS and was well on his way to another 30-homer/100-RBI season until a deep bone bruise caused him to miss the final month of the season. Bautista hasn't been able to finish each of the past two campaigns, and the Blue Jays will need him to be able to stay healthy if they are going to make a serious run in the American League East. Gose, Sierra, Pillar and Nanita are the backup options here as well.
Designated hitter: Almost everybody thought that Lind's days in Toronto were numbered, but a strong performance in 2013 helped change all of that. His numbers of .288 with 23 homers, 67 RBIs and an .854 OPS were enough to have the Blue Jays pick up his club option at the end of the year. That only provided Lind with some temporary relief, though, as there's another club option looming on his contract. Lind will need a repeat performance to ensure the money keeps rolling in. He's at his best when used in a platoon, but unlike in '13, there aren't any obvious candidates to fill that role. Sierra is an option, but he traditionally doesn't have very impressive numbers against lefties. Morel also is an option, but expect to see manager John Gibbons experimenting with his lineup quite a bit during Spring Training until someone emerges as the clear winner to pair with Lind.