Jays roster moves place a heavy load on young shoulders

With opening day less than a week away, chips are falling all around as teams whittle down the masses of players at their training camps and carve out a workable 25-man roster. Tuesday the Blue Jays announced several moves, making the final roster all but known.

Among the announcements, Josh Thole is sent back to the minors, leaving veterans Russell Martin and Dioner Navarro to split the catching duties. Martin will apparently catch RA Dickey. Both Danny Valencia and Justin Smoak make the team and will apparently split first base duties while Edwin Encarnacion , initially at least, will primarily DH (EE is of course only just getting back to regular action after missing much of spring with a bad back). Rookie Devon Travis will skip AAA altogether and be the regular second baseman while Steve Tolleson also makes the cut. Kevin Pillar is the left fielder – until Michael Saunders can play, whenever that is.

Drew Hutchison, of all people, is the 2015 Opening Day pitcher and both Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez will make the starting rotation. Twenty year-old sensations Miguel Castro and Rob Osuna will be going north with the team to join the bullpen which may have seven, or Lord help us, eight people. If it is 7 relievers, apparently Ryan Goins (who’s hit respectably this spring) will be the extra player.

So- thoughts on it all? It didn’t make much sense to have Josh Thole around just to catch one pitcher, and Navarro is a better hitter than him, so the move perhaps makes sense. But, Thole wasn’t bad as back-up catchers go so one has to think the Jays would have been better off trading Navarro, making him happy, to a team lacking in catching depth and obtaining a usable spare part and saving a good part of Navarro’s $5M salary. They’d still keep Thole around to catch Dickey and other pitchers once in awhile and could put the saved salary towards … oh, let’s say Jonathan Papelbon’s salary, with the rumour mill buzzing about the Jays doggedly scouting Papelbon and the Phillies all but listing Papelbon on e-bay to get rid of his contract.

Travis has apparently played good “D” at second this spring and has looked at home at the plate, hitting .351 with a .456 slugging percentage. I’d prefer to see a player who’d at least had a look-see at AAA play the position for Toronto, but on the upside, he is 24 and after last season, with Ryan Goins and Munenori Kawasaki being the main men at the position, he’s not likely to diminish the results the Jays have had there. One wonders what happens to Maicer Izturis, once again the forgotten man.

I like the idea of having both Valencia and Smoak around and thus having Encarnacion be able to spare his back by just hitting. Valencia seemingly is a better hitter than Smoak, but Smoak is a first baseman by trade and theoretically at least a better defensive player there. Smoak also is a switch-hitter and thus might hit right-handers better than rightie Valencia, but looking at last year’s numbers makes one question that . Smoak hit lefty and righty pitchers about the same (.276 On base against lefties, .275 against right-handers; .618 and .611 OPS respectively) which is to say not very well. Smoak did turn it up a notch or two in the last couple of weeks and when all is said and done, one has to imagine the Jays problems won’t revolve around difficulty scoring . Jose Bautista, after having a sore hamstring early in spring, is hitting up a storm with a very impressive .325 average and AL-high six home runs. Josh Donaldson is living up to the hype surrounding his arrival, hitting .326 with 5 home runs and an OPS topping 1.000. When Encarnacion is fully healthy again and has perhaps 30 more at bats under his belt, the team should have the most intimidating middle of the lineup in the AL. Which leaves us wondering about – the pitching.

Two things are certain. One, the Jays do have some real promise in the young arms coming through the system. Two, the 2015 team is going to have to rely heavily on them in order to have a shot this year, and few teams have made the playoffs, let alone won there, with three youngsters in the rotation and a bevy more in the bullpen. Drew Hutchison has been named the Opening Day starter, ahead of veterans RA Dickey (who won a cy Young three years ago) and Mark Buehrle (one win shy of joining Tim Hudson and CC Sabathia in the exclusive list of active pitchers with 200 wins), all the more indicative of the new direction Alex Anthopoulos has suddenly turned the team in. In the past, Toronto have usually looked for veteran, award-winners to have the honor of pitching the first game: Dave Stieb, Jack Morris, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay. This year they put that pressure on a 24 year-old with 43 career games played. Hutch showed flashes of brilliance in his two big league seasons, but isn’t in the same category as the likes of David Price, Jered Weaver or King Felix that he’ll be matched up against .

Buehrle (who’s been brilliant this spring) and Dickey are still there in the rotation of course, along with surfer-dude rookie Daniel Norris, who’s looked good against major leaguers in March (six games, 3-0, 29 K with only 5 walks) and Aaron Sanchez, who still qualifies as a rookie despite a few relief appearances last summer. Sanchez, despite having a few innings under his belt, hasn’t fared as well as Norris this spring having a rough 5.16 ERA and only one more K than walk allowed in his six outings. Thankfully the team paid a few more dollars and filed the paperwork to keep Johan Santana an employee, one of the better off-season moves (as mentioned here last month), but he’s yet to pitch in a spring game , and I remind you, last pitched a full year back in 2010.

The bullpen is equally reliant on unknowns. Miguel Castro and Rob Osuna are both 20, have not pitched in AAA minor league competition, have shown themselves well this spring and made the team ahead of more experienced arms like Steve Delebar. Marco Estrada, mainly a starter in Milwaukee, gets put there to help Todd Redmond eat innings if the young kids get blown out of games early. Then there’s the closer, which the Jays have made Brett Cecil. Cecil has pitched twice in March but isn’t at full health yet and has no track record of being in that role.

One can hope the Jays pick up Jon Papelbon via trade, or perhaps sign Rafael Soriano who inexpiicably still is a free agent looking for a team, but more realistically if anyone is added it will probably be injury-prone Dustin McGowan, who’s never pitched in a regular game for anyone besides Toronto and was just released by LA.

Mark Fidrych. Doc Gooden. Sometimes kids seem to come out of nowhere and blow everyone away from the mound. Perhaps the Jays will have that type of luck this season, and if they do, they’ll win the division. Even if so, one has to wonder how the Jays can hope to succeed in October with so many kids who’ve never played beyond Labor Day before. Norris, for example, has never pitched more than 130 innings in one year. World Series ’14 hero Madison Bumgarner hurled some 270 last season (including the playoffs.)

We can hope for the best- the kids, especially the young pitchers, continue to impress and not become overwhelmed by facing big league hitters and perhaps , if the team is in good shape by mid-season, they add in a “rent a pitcher” (Johnny Cueto, is one of several who might be shuffled off his present roster before impending free agency) to get them to the promised land. But, alas, I still stand by my guess of a few weeks back. 81 wins, 81 losses.

***** *****

the experts at Yahoo sports are a wee bit more optimistic about our team’s chances. A panel of five of their staffers posted their predictions and one of the five picked Toronto to win the AL East, and on average they picked T.O. to win 86.

***** *****

While Toronto fans have to cringe at the prospect of seeing a team laden with young kids seemingly rushed to the majors , up the lakes a bit, Cubs fans suffer the opposite. Their team has demoted Kris Bryant, seemingly not only the franchise’s future but it’s here and now. They may have to defend their decision in court.

Bryant is 23, and widely named as the Best Prospect in all of baseball. He’s even appeared on the covers of national magazines naming the best players in the game already. Unlike some of the Toronto players I’ve mentioned, Bryant has worked his way through the minors in the usual way, smashing 43 homers with a .325 average in AAA last year. This spring, he’s been not only the best Chicago Cub, but the best player in spring training. All he did in 14 games was hit .425, lead the universe with 9 home runs and an absurd 1.652 OPS, while turning highlight reels in the field almost every game. his reward was being told to report to the Minors again by Chicago who claimed to be going all out to win this year, with superstar manager Joe Maddon and big money ace Jon Lester signed to a franchise record contract. They seem to think Mike Olt, once a Rangers prospect many moons ago, is a better bet to handle the hot corner. Olt has a JP Arencibianesque .159 career batting average.

This has, to be polite, annoyed a number of people, not the least of which is the Players Union which has threatened to sue the Cubs over the decision.

Bryant will be seen in Wrigley Field this season (barring some unexpected injury) of course. The Cubs are merely stalling his arrival in the majors to save money down the road– if they can keep him down in the minors for a month or six weeks, they’ll effectively delay his ability to file for arbitration and then free agency for a year. And doubtless piss him off so much he might well jump ship the day he’s able to.

I”m no lawyer, but I don’t think the Players Association have a real leg to stand on, even though Bryant clearly deserves to be on the team. However, Americans are a litigious lot and it seems to me that the fans might have a better case. It would be interesting seeing how the team would defend itself against a class action suit filed by season ticket holders who would claim they bought tickets hoping to see a winning team and believing the Cubs’ winter hype about going all out to win in 2015. To me, the Chicago Cubs are the sports’ epitome of the old adage “penny wise, pound foolish”… but can they win nonetheless?

I’ll give you some quick picks for the National League , and more, this weekend.

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