It may not feel like spring is on the way, but a definite sign of it is taking place in strange little corners of Florida and Arizona, where the teams of Major League Baseball have gathered to ready themselves for the upcoming season. The local nine begin their annual grim ritual march to mid-season irrelevance on March 31st in Tampa, and here we have all you need to know and watch for over the next eight glorious-ish months of Blue Jays baseball.
March and April
Optimism is in the air, even around a Jays team largely unchanged from last year’s 74-win, injury-filled disaster. Shapely veteran (round is a shape, right?) Dioner Navarro takes over for human strikeout J.P. Arencibia behind the plate. Would-have-been ace Josh Johnson’s spot has been turned over to a competition among younger, cheaper, and hopefully healthier pitchers from the club’s minor league system and its bullpen. Second baseman Ryan Goins, a defensive wizard who has struggled to hit in the minors, seems to have inexplicably been deemed good enough to be a big-league regular. Otherwise, the Jays are basically rolling with the status quo, plus crossed fingers for fewer health problems than they experienced last season. It could actually work, but fans are rightly confused by the team’s lack of visible improvement over the winter, after the Jays seemingly went “all in” the year before. None of this will stop the Friday-night home opener against the Yankees on April 4th from being the train wreck it always is, though.
May and June
During these two months, the season will really take shape. Manager/spirit animal John Gibbons will get at least the month of April to show he can magically will his players to win more games than they lose. If he doesn’t appear to be succeeding in that, fairly or unfairly, he will find his job in genuine peril come early May. The longer he sticks around, though, the better his chances are of getting help from the farm. Right-handed pitcher Marcus Stroman is the prospect to watch. He may already be among the club’s top four or five starters, but he’ll likely start the year in the minors, partly to delay his eventual free agency, and partly because he can be freely moved to and from the minor leagues, while some of the veterans also vying for the spot can’t be sent down without first allowing any other team to claim them. Historically, very few right-handed starters of Stroman’s small stature (he’s generously listed at 5’9”, but it’s accepted that he’s shorter) have had success in the majors, but a hard fastball, filthy slider, and improving changeup give him a legitimate chance to buck that trend.
July and August
Trade speculation heats up in July, with the (non-waiver) trade deadline taking place at the end of the month. This could be a pivotal time for the Jays. If they’re within striking distance of a playoff spot, everything the team has said suggests that—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—they’ll have the resources to add players and get better. If they’re struggling, though, things could get very interesting. With many quality players headed for free agency next winter (Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, Casey Janssen), and potentially over the following year or two as well, a mid-season exodus of veteran talent isn’t entirely out of the question.
September and October
There isn’t a whole lot of optimism that the Jays are going to be able to end their woeful playoff drought in 2014, and that could spell the end for the reign of general manager Alex Anthopoulos. He took a big risk with last year’s splashy moves, and may have taken an even bigger one by doubling down this winter. Insisting that his players are good enough, and that 2013 was undone by bad luck and bad health, could ultimately be his undoing. Without him, this organization could yet again be back to square one. That’s hardly a forgone conclusion, though, and it’ll be a fun ride nonetheless. There may not be a World Series in our future, but there will be sun, blue skies, green grass (or an almost-reasonable facsimile), and the crack of the bat. That’s pretty okay, too.
Andrew Stoeten is the editor of The Score’s Drunk Jays Fans blog.