DUNEDIN, Fla. -- This is why all predictions, about everything, are the dopiest thing in sports.
Roll the clock back to last spring training. Nearly everybody was picking those Toronto Blue Jays to win the AL East. Remember?
Now ride that time machine back to this spring training. And nearly everybody is picking the Blue Jays to finish last in the AL East.
OK, makes sense . . . except for one minor detail: It’s practically the same team.
The first baseman is the same (Edwin Encarnacion). The shortstop is the same (Jose Reyes). The third baseman is the same (Brett Lawrie). The DH is the same (Adam Lind). The whole outfield is the same (Jose Bautista/Colby Rasmus/Melky Cabrera).
The Opening Day starter is the same (R.A. Dickey). Three of the other four starters are the same (Brandon Morrow/Mark Buehrle/J.A. Happ). The closer is the same (Casey Janssen). And virtually his entire set-up crew is the same (Brett Cecil/Steve Delabar/Sergio Santos/Aaron Loup).
But “same” doesn’t quite describe them -- because most of them are a lot healthier now.
So what happens, wondered GM Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday, if this year’s edition of the Blue Jays can just eliminate the “Murphy’s Law component” that turned last year into probably the most disappointing season in franchise history?
“Sometimes you sit there and say, ‘We won 74 games, when everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,’” the GM said. “So this year, what happens if we just have a little bit of luck?
“I can understand the skepticism about our team, absolutely, coming off the year we’re coming off,” Anthopoulos went on. “But I just don’t think it’s a stretch to expect improvement out of a lot of these guys this year, simply because the floor was so low.”
So think this through, all right? IS it possible that, when all of us geniuses in the predictions business picked this team to win last year, we had the right pick, but just the wrong season?
Uh, maybe. So let’s take a look at three big areas where everything went wrong last season and assess how likely it is to go right this season.
This team really was a calamity waiting to happen last year. Reyes wrecked his ankle sliding into second base. Bautista hurt his hip stepping on home plate. Lawrie injured his oblique diving for a ground ball in the World Baseball Classic.
Melky Cabrera had a tumor in his back that took months to diagnose. Happ got hit in the head by a line drive. Brandon Morrow had a freak nerve issue in his forearm.
“So I think the way I see it,” said Dickey on Wednesday, “is that we did NOT have this team last year, simply by way of injury. We were playing with a different team.”
Only three position players on the roster (Encarnacion, Lind and the ex-catcher, J.P. Arencibia) played in even 120 games. Three-fifths of the rotation (Happ, Morrow and Josh Johnson) wound up missing a combined 55 starts. The projected every-day lineup wound up playing exactly THREE games together.
So yeah, it’s true that every team has injuries. And yeah, it’s true that every team is supposed to build all the depth it can assemble to weather its injuries. But no team could have survived the health issues the Blue Jays had last season. Period.
If their health luck is better and they actually get their real lineup on the field, with better defense at second base (in slick rookie Ryan Goins) and better offense at catcher (largely from Dioner Navarro), this team has a chance to lead the league in runs scored and be way better defensively.
Everybody loves to blame the World Baseball Classic for, well, just about everything. But no team was hurt more by the WBC last spring than the Blue Jays.
At a time when they needed to make their new pieces fit together, the WBC ripped them apart -- subtracting seven key players (Reyes, Encarnacion, Lawrie, Cabrera, Dickey, Arencibia and pitcher Esmil Rogers). And to add to the pain (literally), Lawrie got hurt and wasn’t 100 percent until midseason.
“I honestly believe the WBC really hurt us,” said manager John Gibbons. “The WBC took our third baseman, our shortstop, our first baseman and our catcher. Dickey was gone. And I think -- well, this year we’ll find out if I’m accurate or not -- that when you lose that many guys so quickly, when you’re trying to bring it all together as a team, I think that hurts.
“There’s just something about bringing together a bunch of new faces. . . . It was a new mix, with high expectations. And I just think it would have served us much better to have our team together for that whole month. Now obviously, that’s not the reason we ended up finishing the way we did. But I don’t think it helped coming out of the gates. Let’s put it that way.”
Yeah, it’s true they had six months after the WBC ended to fit the pieces together. But they then started the season by losing five of their first seven and 21 of their first 31, and their season was already history. In May.
There’s no WBC this year. So there are no WBC excuses, either.
Want to guess the first word that came to Dickey’s mind when the conversation turned to the Blue Jays’ 2013 rotation? Yep, it certainly wasn’t “dominating.” The word instead was “painful.”
“It was painful, is what it was,” he said. “In the AL East, you have to have guys who can take the ball every fifth day. Instead, we lost three-fifths of our rotation pretty quick. And it was tough to survive that.”
Here’s a stat that tells it all: This team wound up having 30 games started last year by pitchers with ERAs over 6.00. Now here’s another stat for you: This crew only had three games started by pitchers with ERAs under 4.15 (all by emergency starter Chad Jenkins, who never threw a pitch beyond the fifth inning).
That’s a testament to how bad Josh Johnson (2-8, 6.20) was, to how bad their health luck was and their total lack of depth at Triple-A, where by mid-summer they were running a no-prospect, all-veteran-retread rotation out there. But it was still a formula for disaster.
“We didn’t go into the season expecting to have the 29th-best rotation in baseball,” Anthopoulos said, “or to have a starters’ ERA that was 29th out of 30 teams. We didn’t expect Brandon Morrow to win two games. We didn’t expect Josh Johnson to struggle the way he did and then be out for the rest of the year. As it turned out, R.A. and Mark Buehrle were the only guys who took the ball the entire time, and even R.A. wasn’t fully healthy until the second half.”
So is there reason to expect this group to be better? If the Blue Jays had signed or traded for an impact starter, there would be more reason for optimism. But suppose Morrow -- who went 10-7, 2.96, with a 143 ERA-Plus in 2012 -- pitches a whole season.
Suppose 23-year-old left-hander Drew Hutchinson picks up where he left off in his last seven starts before blowing out his elbow in 2012 (4-2, 3.41, with a .217 opponent average).
Suppose their 2012 No. 1 pick, Marcus Stroman, lives up to his Sonny Gray comparisons and makes an impact in the second half.
“At least we’ve got some fallback plans now that we really didn’t have a lot of last year,” Gibbons said. “So when guys were beat up, we were scrambling. And you know what? With some of these young guys, that’s how careers are made. Why can’t some rookie come up out of nowhere and win 10 games for us? It happens other places. Why can’t it happen here?”
Well, it could happen here. It’s possible it could happen here. Unfortunately, the Blue Jays probably need for it to happen here -- or something like it -- to have a rotation that ranks in the top half of the sport.
But still, there’s actually a lot more reason for optimism about this rotation than the outside world seems to have comprehended, whether they sign Ervin Santana or not. (And we’d bet heavily on NOT.)
“I don’t need to try to convince people that we’re better,” said Gibbons. “I just have, in the back of my mind and in my heart, that we’re a much better team. How good, we’ll find out. But we did so much talking last year about how good we were, and we didn’t get the results. So you get tired of talking about it. And it’s time to stop talking about it, and let’s go show somebody how good we are.”