They will be picked by the majority of prognosticators to win the American League East, probably the AL, and probably the World Series.
On paper, the Blue Jays have the best team, with sluggers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and J.P. Arencibia, speed in Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio, and the intriguing Melky Cabrera.
They have the National League Cy Young winner, R.A. Dickey, on a starry pitching staff that also includes Josh Johnson, 200-inning eater Mark Buehrle, and holdovers Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, and J.A. Happ.
Now it’s all about living up to the hype.
“There are no superstars here,” said former Red Sox shortstop Luis Rivera, the Jays third base coach. “The superstars are in New York and Boston. These are baseball players.”
By Friday, the Jays were finally together after the World Baseball Classic had taken away Reyes, Encarnacion, Dickey, and Arencibia. Third baseman Brett Lawrie has been out with a rib injury but is working his way back. Closer Casey Janssen is all the way back after rehabbing from knee surgery.
“We’re excited for the season to start,” Bautista said. “There’s a lot of talent in this room, but we can’t just be the great team on paper, and everyone in here knows that. We’re not even thinking about how we look on paper. We have to do what each of us is capable of, and if we do that, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
How do you know if talent will come together?
Look at the Red Sox after they acquired Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. The team never worked. It had the September collapse in 2011 and then the dismal 2012 when so many players got hurt.
Toronto, too, has been cursed with injuries at times; last season, the Jays lost a majority of their starting rotation under John Farrell.
But there’s also a breath of fresh air in their room.
John Gibbons, who managed the team from 2004-08 and finished with a .500 record, is back, and he inherits only Romero and Adam Lind as players he once managed. His presence, however, has the holdovers from last year’s team more relaxed.
In 2012, some Blue Jays players thought the atmosphere under Farrell was a tad uptight. Lind accused Farrell of micromanaging, whereas Gibbons, according to Bautista (who was a huge Farrell booster), is completely different.
“It’s like night and day,” said Bautista. “Gibby approaches it like we’re veteran players and he basically wants us to show up and play our hardest on any given day. He understands what each player needs and how each player needs to get ready for the season.”
Farrell doesn’t understand where the “micromanaging” claim comes from, he said, because he always delegated responsibility to his coaches, as he has in Boston. But that was the perception.
Gibbons said he’s not running away from the expectations.
“We’re enjoying it,” he said. “We want to be known as a good team, but the tough part hasn’t started yet. We look like a good team but we haven’t done anything yet.
“We have a few guys who have been to the postseason, like Reyes and Buehrle and [Darren] Oliver, but not a lot of them. And I include myself.
“So we don’t know what to expect. But we like our team.”
Gibbons, who between his Toronto stints was a coach with the Royals and a minor league manager, feels the biggest challenge will be managing the new personalities. He’s certainly not going to be overwhelmed managing the game.
Last season, the Jays were often reckless on the basepaths, taking the big hitters like Bautista and Encarnacion out of RBI situations.
“As far as running the game, that hasn’t changed much,” said Gibbons. “Experience teaches you everything.
“Nothing has hit the fan yet, and who knows how people react to adversity? People who know me know me as an easygoing guy. Like everyone else, you get into the heat of the moment and you get revved up. These guys need to see and know you have a heartbeat.”
Bautista, who played only 92 games last year after injuring the sheath surrounding a tendon in his left wrist, has five homers in spring training. Even with the new acquisitions, he remains the heart and soul of the Jays. It’s Bautista’s team.
With the enhanced lineup, he should see more pitches to hit.
“I don’t know, we’ll see what happens once the season starts,” said Bautista. “The more baserunners we have, the less they will pitch around me and the more pitches I should get. When we hit Edwin behind me, he’s going to do what he can do. It could work out very well.”
Infielder Mark DeRosa, who has been on a few very good teams, including the 2010 world champion Giants, has been brought in as the veteran presence, someone who might get the rambunctious Lawrie to calm down and use his five-tool talents.
“The team is hungry,” DeRosa said. “The guys have read about the expectations and I think they’re ready to capitalize on it. The best teams on paper don’t always win, but guys are up for the challenge.
“Definitely the names on the back of the jersey say we should be a good team if we stay healthy and come together as a unit. We have a nice blend.
“It comes down to our starting five. Those guys always set the tone for how your season is going to play out.”
Johnson, who came over in the mega-deal with the Marlins, has been throwing very well, seemingly over his shoulder issues. Dickey, the knuckleballer, will be hard-pressed to repeat his Cy Young season with the Mets, but the Jays expect him to be their ace.
Buehrle has pitched 200 or more innings 12 straight years. Morrow, the hard-throwing righty, no longer has huge pressure on him. Now he can relax. Romero, though, can’t find his mechanics and may stay in Florida, with Happ replacing him in the rotation.
The Jays appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the AL East, but bench coach DeMarlo Hale insisted, “Nobody is going to run away with this division.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Tony Pena got much-needed recognition for managing the Dominican Republic to the WBC title. The team fed off his energy and enthusiasm. The Yankees bench coach should get another shot in the big leagues soon.
2. Never understood why Vernon Wells didn’t have a great career, but his superb spring training may indicate that, at 34, he isn’t quite done. The Angels put him out there this offseason and were willing to assume most of the $40 million remaining on his deal. Nobody bit, but now you wonder whether a team (let’s say the Yankees) would be more willing to take the chance?
3. Toronto’s Mark DeRosa is often seen as the next Robin Ventura or Mike Matheny, destined to become a major league manager, but he wants to put that off. “I feel I can still help a team as a hitter,” DeRosa said. “I’ve had some injuries the past few years, but I’m healthy now and I feel I can contribute to a team as a player. Managing is something I’d like to consider down the road.”
4. It’s being hailed as a brilliant move by some in the legal community: Major League Baseball is suing the “source” where athletes got PEDs. MLB filed suit Friday in Florida, accusing six individuals connected to a South Florida anti-aging clinic of damaging the sport when they issued players performance-enhancing substances. “What this will do is create discovery so it will get people to have to testify and disclose what they know,” said a former player agent who is now a prominent attorney. “It’s a brilliant maneuver by MLB. This will get things out in the open, if they don’t win the case.”
5. Cody Ross won’t make Arizona’s Opening Day lineup because of a left calf strain he’s been nursing for three weeks.
6. Jason Bay has had an outstanding camp for the Mariners, hitting .342 and even playing some center field, but he’s in a fight for a roster spot with Casper Wells, who is out of options. Bay, 34, could be an interesting righthanded bat for another team if the Mariners stay with Wells.
7. The Dodgers have an outfield of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier, but how about having Cuban defector Yasiel Puig in your back pocket? Through Friday, Puig was 26 for 50 with 3 homers and 11 RBIs, and the Dodgers don’t have a spot for him.
Apropos of something
How would you rank the starting rotations in the AL East? I recently did this exercise for NESN, and here’s what I came up with:
1. Toronto. All we can go by is paper. And on it, they have the best. National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey heads a talented group, with Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle behind him. The acquisitions the Jays made allowed them to flip the front of their rotation from 2012 — Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow — to the back.
2. Tampa Bay. The loss of James Shields should hurt some, but the keys here are the 2-4 starters: Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb. Manager Joe Maddon thinks they’re ready to take the next step and become 200-inning pitchers and consistent winners. If they do, with David Price at the head of the class, shut the lights out on the AL East, because the Rays will win it.
3. Red Sox. They had the 25th-ranked rotation last season: 48-72 with an ERA over 5. Ryan Dempster and John Lackey are added this year. The optimism lies in the fact that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have pitched like top-of-the-rotation starters in spring training. The staff as a whole has been very good, a sign that they are responding to pitching coach Juan Nieves and manager John Farrell.
4. Yankees. They had the best rotation in the AL East last season, with a 71-50 mark and a 1.288 WHIP. So why fourth? You have to be somewhat concerned about age with Hiroki Kuroda (38) and Andy Pettitte (40). Will they hold up? Phil Hughes has been slowed by a bulging disk. Having said all that, their rotation is still their strong suit.
5. Orioles. Void of a true No. 1 or No. 2 starter, they have a bunch of 3-4-5’s, led by Jason Hammel. But it works for them. The starters pitch well enough to get to a superb bullpen, and they win games. The Orioles won 29 one-run games last season because the bullpen often saved the day. And they have Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman waiting.
Updates on 9
1. Bud Norris, RHP, Astros — Norris, 28, has drawn interest from at least six teams, according to a major league source, but so far the Astros are not motivated to move him. That may change before the trading deadline. The interested teams have included Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Minnesota, to name a few.
2. Erik Bedard, LHP, Astros — The Astros are pleased with the way Bedard has performed in camp. They expect the oft-injured lefthander to draw some interest from teams needing a veteran starter for depth, and they are hoping to build his value early in the season.
3. Lyle Overbay, 1B, Red Sox — He may not be in Boston’s plans, but he does fit a few teams, including the Yankees, who have had internal discussions about him. Their scouts are split on how effective he can be, but he seems a no-brainer for the Yankees, who can platoon him with Juan Rivera.
4. Nick Tepesch, RHP, Rangers — The Rangers took the cash from the Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal with Boston in 2010 and used it to sign Tepesch, a 14th-round pick in 2010, for $400,000, and he may make the team as a fifth starter, barring a trade for another starter. The No. 5 spot came open when lefthander Martin Perez fractured a bone in his left hand (hit by a batted ball). Lefthander Robbie Ross had a good shot at the job, but the Rangers see him as a better fit in the bullpen.
5. Clayton Mortensen, RHP, Red Sox — He is being eyed by several teams who know that he’s out of options, but he doesn’t appear to be a pitcher the Sox would deal, unless they were overwhelmed, according to a GM who has poked around about him. The Red Sox love his versatility and the fact that he can pitch multiple innings; he could be a more stable version of Alfredo Aceves. While scouts like Aceves’s ability, his makeup scares a few teams.
6. Welington Castillo, C, Cubs — Castillo, 25, has become the Cubs’ full-time catcher and will be the one who shapes the pitching staff. Manager Dale Sveum, pitching coach Chris Bosio, and top brass Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein are all on board with Castillo’s ability to be that building-block player. “He’s come a long way in a short period of time,” said Bosio. “He’s a very talented guy with the arm, block-ability and throw-ability. His knowledge and aptitude have become a lot better.”
7. John Danks, LHP, White Sox — The White Sox are looking around for another starter who can take Danks’s spot while he strengthens his shoulder after offseason surgery. Danks has been pounded for 27 hits and 20 earned runs over 11 innings, and his velocity is down. So they will put him on the disabled list to start the season and, for now, go with Dylan Axelrod (nephew of agent Barry Axelrod).
8. Aaron Harang, RHP, Chris Capuano, LHP, Ted Lilly, LHP, Dodgers — The feeling among scouts is that the Dodgers will eventually move at least one of the three. They haven’t pitched that well in spring training, but they have track records that indicate they can fill the fifth spot in a rotation. The Orioles, Brewers, Indians, White Sox, and Mets are among those who have had internal discussions about the trio.
9. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies — Big-time concern among Phillies personnel about Halladay’s reduced velocity and whether his workhorse ways have caught up with him. I remember a doctor who had seen Halladay’s shoulder medicals commenting on how many red flags he saw. But Halladay has found a way to defy the medicals for many years.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Of the 1,012 pitches that Joel Hanrahan threw last season, 613 were for strikes (61 percent). Of the 1,045 that Daniel Bard threw, 605 were for strikes (58 percent).” Also, “Of the 205 batters with at least 1,700 plate appearances over the last five seasons, Jonny Gomes’s .245 batting average ranks 187th.” . . . Happy birthday, Mike Brown (54) and Bruce Hurst (55).