Jeff Blair’s six Blue Jays storylines to watch in Spring Training:
THE BIRDS IN LEFT FIELD
The only clear-cut position battle is in left field. Eric Thames starts with an edge on Travis Snider because possession is nine-tenths of the law and Snider finished 2011 in the minor leagues disabled with left wrist issues after hitting Triple-A pitching. But since neither left-handed hitter walks much and both strike out too much, Snider can make a case by improving on his weakness against lefty pitching. His career major-league average against southpaws is .212 but it was .116 last season. Snider has had wrist issues for the past two seasons, which might explain why he fouled off almost a third of the fastballs with which he made contact. Know this: he is no longer a gilt-edged prospect, and is as likely to be traded as turn into an everyday left fielder for the Blue Jays.
Colby Rasmus and Kelly Johnson have more to answer for than any other position players, but neither of them will be counted upon to provide protection for Jose Bautista. That’s the responsibility of first baseman Adam Lind, who extra-worked himself into back problems last spring as he learned the finer points of a new position. That’s no excuse this spring, as Lind will attempt to stem a two-year shrinkage as an offensive force. Lind saw just 3.54 pitches per plate appearance in 2011. That’s 131st out of 145 major-leaguers with a minimum 500 plate appearances, and well off the 4.03 pitches he saw in his breakout 2009 campaign. Spring training’s a good time to get his approach back together.
BUILDING A BETTER BULLPEN
All the cool kids want to build their bullpens these days through cost-effective mixing and matching. A little bit of this and a little bit of that – lefties, righties, strikeout guys, funky arm angles. All of it. The Blue Jays traded for closer Sergio Santos but it’s anybody’s guess how Jason Frasor, Francisco Cordero, Casey Janssen and Darren Oliver will line up behind him. General manager Alex Anthopoulos, for what it’s worth, says right-hander Evan Crawford, promoted to the 40-man roster to avoid the Rule 5 draft, is one of his dark horses going into camp.
THE MEN ON THE MOUND
Established starters Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are going to be working on stuff – Romero’s going to work on a cut fastball that he hopes will expand his arsenal; Morrow says he wants to be meaner on the mound – but it is fellow returnees Dustin McGowan and Brett Cecil who will get the most scrutiny. McGowan gets to continue his recovery from a string of career-threatening injuries while the Blue Jays hope a little discipline at the dinner plate will help Cecil regain some of the velocity that disappeared last spring.
ALVAREZ vs. DRABEK
Henderson Alvarez blew past Kyle Drabek last season and will have to pitch his way off the team, but Drabek’s attitude will be monitored closely given the depth of pitching just below him in the minor leagues and his wobbly 2011 campaign when his command simply disappeared. You only get one chance to make a good first impression on a major-league manager, and Drabek wasted his shot last season. They say he rediscovered his mechanics at Triple-A Las Vegas; they say he was hitting 96 miles an hour and throwing his curve for strikes. We’ll see, soon.
This time there will be no quiet tug of war between manager John Farrell and Anthopoulos; Brett Lawrie will be the starting third baseman. The Langley, B.C., native is a linchpin of this organization both defensively, offensively – he’s an easy 20/20 guy – and in terms of marketing. Lawrie is a larger-than-life personality, and TV ratings jumped noticeably after he joined the team. Bill James projects .284, with 22 home runs, 75 runs batted in, 30 steals and an OBP of .832. It’s been a great ride so far – shame to ruin it with questions about a mediocre spring training, no?