The simple truth for the Toronto Blue Jays is this: Spring training has been and will be all about on-field damage control. Jobs and the very future of this core of players are at stake, so it's been one long emergency drill for what is an all but accepted pitching conflagration.
Spring is normally a time for optimism, but there's precious little of that particular commodity here. Instead, there is a sense of trepidation that was heightened on Wednesday, when free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana spurned the Blue Jays, and continued Friday, when the team quietly adjusted its rotation and signalled that Brandon Morrow was being fitted for the No. 5 spot.
True, it gives Morrow the home-opener start against the New York Yankees – that's one way to spin it – but this has been a stutter-step spring and his next start will be Tuesday, on his seventh day, at the Blue Jays' minor-league complex.
If that sounds like a kick in the behind, well, it is – just as general manager Alex Anthopoulos's observation that J.A. Happ's back injury had thrown his spot in the rotation into question delivered a reminder the leash is very short this spring.
Happ pitched at the minor-league complex Friday, and later said he had no comment on Anthopoulos's shot across the bow, other than he was "disappointed." Good; he should be.
Indeed, it is 23-year-old Drew Hutchison, 19 months removed from Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgery, who could very well start in the second game of the season in Tampa Bay behind opening day starter R.A. Dickey (the Jays want a hard-thrower to slot in between Dickey and Mark Buehrle).
Dickey is not a fast starter; his career earned-run average in the first month of the season is 4.85, and last season it was 4.50. Buehrle was 2-3 in 11 starts in the first two months, with an ERA of 5.64. Buehrle was 2-8 (5.10) against the American League East last season, Dickey gave up the second-most home runs at home of any AL pitcher (23) and there's the whole dome open/dome closed dilemma (a 6.67 ERA with the Rogers Centre open; 3.18 with it closed). Those are the sure things, folks.
"We could use some sunshine around this team," manager John Gibbons said quietly last Thursday. "It's do or die for this group. It was put together to win. Two bad years? I don't think you're going to look at it and say: 'Well, this is going to work' after that, know what I mean?"
Truth is, you can find a ray of optimism in the Blue Jays clubhouse. Or an ex-Ray.
Catcher Dioner Navarro held court Friday, and was quick to remind people that when he joined the Rays full-time in 2007, the team had just lost 101 games. They went 66-96 in his first year – then went to the World Series in 2008, losing in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I came up with a team that used to lose 100 games and, one year, we just decided we were going to establish something in spring training," Navarro said. "That's what we did, and the next year we went to the World Series. This team here … we have offence. We got names. We have a great staff and a great group of guys and we've got to be positive."
The Blue Jays lost 3-1 to the Boston Red Sox on Friday, but the story was 42/3 innings of four-hit ball pitched by Hutchison, who struck out seven and walked none. It was the second time Navarro had caught Hutchison and all he spoke about was "attack, attack, attack … strike one, strike one, strike one."
That will be music to the ears of Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker. So, too, would be Navarro talking about how the Blue Jays need to work on making routine plays.
This is part of the Blue Jays' April and May evacuation drill: If the starting pitching is going to be as bad as everybody thinks it is, then score a whack of runs, make the routine plays and if necessary hand it over to a very good bullpen. "We don't really have a shutdown starter," Gibbons said. "This isn't a shutdown staff. What we need them to do is keep us close."
The lineup should be okay, especially if Melky Cabrera's spring training renaissance holds form through a contract year and the combination of J.P. Arencibia's absence and the presence of new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer adds up to fewer strikeouts. Seitzer's mantra of hitting the ball up the middle or to the opposite field is hardly the revelatory thing some quarters make it out to be, but it can be effective if, as Gibbons noted, "[the hitters] listen to it."
Simply put: looking to put the ball in play up the middle allows a hitter to stay on the breaking ball longer. "And as an ex-catcher I can tell you: 90 per-cent of the game is pitched away," Gibbons said.
"We're not going to turn everybody into Punch and Judy hitters," he continued. "It's just that if they're going to pitch the ball out there, it makes sense to look out there. If you catch it early, you're still going to hook it into the seats. That's basically what Seitz talks about."
So the lineup could be good and the bullpen's an eight-handed beast, featuring all sorts of stuff and arm angles. The third part of disaster prevention is upgraded defence. "When we have the guys on the field who should be there, it's pretty darned good," Gibbons added with a shrug. "That was one of our Achilles heels last year. Yeah, the pitchers struggled, but we didn't help them out one bit. We actually caused a lot of it."
Designated hitter Adam Lind says the coaches have been more demanding this spring, especially during early-morning work when there is often a tendency to back into the day.
On March 4, before a night game in Clearwater, Fla., against the Philadelphia Phillies, shortstop Jose Reyes asked third base coach and infield instructor Luis Rivera if he could skip infield drills. Gibbons denied the request. "Tell him to do it for me," Gibbons said. Reyes complied.
Gaudi's Sagrada Familia will likely be finished before Ryan Goins stops being an offensive work in progress, but his defence at second base will be an upgrade over the ham-handed duo of Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis, and Gibbons is plumping for a big season from third baseman Brett Lawrie.
"Defensively, there's not a better third baseman in baseball," Gibbons said. "Your Machadas … Longorias … Beltres … they don't do anything defensive he can't do."
Navarro will make a difference in the manner in which the game is played. Good defence starts with the pitcher and catcher and Hutchison said Friday that Navarro "runs a good game."
He has soft hands, and every pitcher on the team will tell you he's more polished and subtle than Arencibia. But he's also a realist. "Once you let go of the ball in this game, it's up to destiny," Navarro said. "What we have to do is the routine. Do that, and we'll be fine."
There's your Ray of optimism.
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