DUNEDIN — Two full weeks of spring training have come and gone so that puts the Blue Jays one-third of the way along the road to Opening Day.
At this point, important personnel decisions are still a long way off but that doesn’t mean that a body of knowledge hasn’t started to accumulate about the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays. After 14 days, with 28 more to go, there is still a lot about this team we don’t know.
But, here is what we do know ….
1. Dunedin is on the clock. Toronto’s springtime home for the past 40 years could change next year when the deal between Dunedin and the Jays expires. Team president Mark Shapiro is still working to get a deal done so the club can consolidate its operations in one new, state-of-the-art training and rehab centre with facilities to handle spring training as well as in-season injury rehab and fitness operations. If, or when, negotiations fail, Shapiro says he will cast his net wide for a new warm-weather home for the team.
2. The fuse has been lit. The difference in attitude, outlook and determination in the Blue Jay clubhouse is palpable. After breaking through for their first playoff appearance in 22 years in 2015, there is no disguising the hunger for more. “I’m a big believer in clubhouse chemistry,” said Josh Donaldson. “When you have all 25 guys on the same page, it’s a lot more fun and you can start having success. It’s a special group of guys. Now you have guys who have been in the playoffs, coming in with higher expectations of themselves.”
5. Filling out the rotation. None of the candidates for the one remaining rotation slot has established himself as the man to beat. It’s too early for that, given that they’re all still in the early stages of building arm strength. Still, both Aaron Sanchez and Drew Hutchison came in heavier and stronger and after an outing or two, both appear still to have an edge over Jesse Chavez or Gavin Floyd. “I think that is something that will go down to the end, in fairness to all of them,” said Gibbons. “You want everybody to know where they stand so they can settle in if they’re moving to a bullpen role but we’ve got to give them all a real good look.”
6. Aaron Loup has a sore elbow. The flexor strain that has sidelined the lefty is going to make it difficult for him to make the Opening Day roster and has opened up possibilities for several pitchers, including Pat Venditte, Wade LeBlanc and Chad Girodo. While he is ambidextrous, Venditte is best pitching from the left side and he could well win a spot with that in mind. Girodo rocketed through three levels last year, from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Buffalo because of an ability to get lefties out. In 22.2 innings against lefthanded batters, he gave up zero runs and seven hits while fanning 29.
7. Michael Saunders is looking good. Having missed almost all of 2015 because of complications following surgery on his left knee, the left fielder had to face embarrassing questions when a three-team deal that would have sent him to the Angels in exchange for Reds outfielder Jay Bruce fell through. He handled that awkward situation with class. Endurance has been an issue with Saunders but he is looking fully healthy and moving well in the outfield and on the basepaths. He also cranked a couple of home runs on Saturday and it may turn out to be a lucky break that he wasn’t traded.
8. Prospect cupboard bare? Outfielder Anthony Alford and right-hander Conner Greene, the top position player and pitcher left in a farm system depleted by last year’s trades, are showing there is still some near-ready talent within the organization. Alford brings speed, defence and a solid bat that promises some power. Greene is long and lanky with a 96-mph fastball and a sunny disposition that turns into flinty-eyed aggression when he gets on the mound. He made his spring debut Saturday and struck out three of the four men he faced, walking the other. Either, or both, could get a late look this year and compete for a job next year.
9. Hitting is contagious. Well, at least talking about hitting is contagious. With Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Colabello leading the way, hardly a minute of down time goes by in the clubhouse without a group of players gathering to talk about and demonstrate hitting technique. “In all my years and all the places I’ve been, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says manager John Gibbons. “These guys aren’t talking about the Oscars or where they had dinner last night. They’re deep into hitting and sharing their information.”
10. High Performance Dept. The most obvious manifestation of the Jays’ new front office philosophy is the instituting of the High Performance program under the direction of Angus Mugford. It’s a player-centred program designed to provide all the resources possible — strength, medical, science, nutrition and injury rehab — under one umbrella. “It’s all about how to keep our players on the field and performing at the highest possible level,” said Shapiro. It’s a program that has been universally welcomed and accepted throughout the organization.