Under The Bleachers: Why The 2014 Blue Jays Are Worth Watching

March 20th was supposedly the first day of spring, but how many winter-weary Canadians have suffered through snowfalls since then? No, spring doesn’t always follow the calendar, but the one thing that makes it feel truly spring-like in this country is baseball.

The Toronto Blue Jays’ inaugural season kicked off in a snowstorm in 1977, but there’s been no worry of snow on the field since the Jays made Rogers Centre—then the SkyDome—their nest in 1989. So, when we see the Jays first the first time at home on April 4—they open the season with four games in Tampa starting March 31—it’ll be on a bright green Astroturf lawn, no matter what.

Last year the Blue Jays were easily the most hyped team around, having added defending Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera (fresh off a 50-game PED-related suspension) and perfect-game pitcher Mark Buehrle, among others, in the offseason. Expectations weighed too heavily on some while injuries took others our of the fray, and a team expected to be a World Series contender sank to the bottom of the AL East standings.

This year, few have hung any kind of hopes on the Jays. Fans and critics may be right not to believe in this year’s roster—on paper it doesn’t look any better than last year’s—but that should suit this team just fine. Whether they win or lose, the 2014 Blue Jays are going to be a very interesting team to watch—here’s why:

The Starting Rotation Couldn’t Be Much Worse

Last season, injuries broke up the starting rotation while those left standing couldn’t make outs. This year R.A. Dickey should be more accustomed to the Rogers Centre after putting some new kinks into his knuckleball in the back half of last season, Brandon Morrow will hopefully fend off injuries with all the muscle he added in the offseason, and Mark Buehrle—well, nothing much ever changes for Mark Buehrle. Meanwhile, J.A. Happ, who’s had a terrible spring training, will start the season on the DL in favour of Dustin McGowan, a pitcher who would have been a top-of-the-rotation ace but hasn’t been on an opening day roster since 2008 due to constant injuries, and Drew Hutchison, a prospect returning from Tommy John surgery who’s carved up opposing batters all spring. If all five can pitch near their potential it’ll be a massive improvement over 2013.

Finally, a Catcher Who Lives Up to His Job Title

J.P. Arencibia was an occasional fan favourite for his home run swing, but his skills never matured in the major leagues. He almost never walked (less than four per cent of the time), struck out constantly on bad pitches (almost a third of his at-bats), couldn’t throw out baserunners and often couldn’t manage the one thing in his job title—catching the baseball. Even if social media hadn’t spelled out his demise in Toronto he’d probably still be out of a job right now. Enter Dioner Navarro, the Jays’ only free agent addition this offseason. Navarro hasn’t been an everyday catcher since backstopping the Rays in 2009, but hit .300 with 13 homeruns in just 89 games with the Cubs last year and is surely a defensive upgrade.

Sometimes It’s the Moves You Don’t Make

The second-best defensive shortstop in the American League wanted to join the Blue Jays and was even willing to convert to second base, but the Jays have told him they’re just fine, thank you. They’d rather give prospect Ryan Goins a shot after he showed some serious poise and range in a brief audition last year, making just one error in 262 innings. Goins still has lots of work to do at the plate, but they can afford to plug him in at the bottom of the batting order if he keeps flashing the leather in the field—and if he does find a way to start hitting, that’s just icing on the cake.

The Melk-man Cometh

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Melky Cabrera was being mentioned in the NL MVP debate—that time was around the All-Star break in 2012, when he was hitting a blistering .353/.391/.519 and winning All-Star MVP. Last year, though…ugh. Cabrera had a difficult time running the bases and playing any kind of defense in left field, and generally looked like he’d aged 20 years in a few months—while he still managed a respectable .279 batting average. Turned out it wasn’t some post-PED hangover, though, when doctors discovered a tumor on his spine that was sapping all the strength from his lower body. That tumor is long gone and Cabrera looks like a whole new Melk-Man, hitting .431 with 10 doubles in 65 at-bats this spring. Maybe he didn’t need PEDs after all.

Bash Brothers v. 2.0

Now that the Tigers broke up Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, sending Fielder to the Rangers for a very disgruntled Ian Kinsler, the Jays can say they have the best power duo in the AL, if not all of baseball. The past two years have been unkind to Jose Bautista, with wrist and hip problems shortening his seasons and likely shaving a few points off his average. Luckily the Jays had Edwin Encarnacion around to pick up the slack with 36 homeruns and 104 RBI last year and 42 homers and 110 RBI in 2012. Now Bautista looks as healthy as ever with five homeruns in 53 spring training at-bats, while Encarnacion’s three pre-season homers show he’s ready to go, too. Pitchers, be warned.

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