ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The time for talking is over. It's put up or shut up time. A pivotal season, the Blue Jays' 38th in Major League Baseball, gets underway at Tropicana Field on Monday afternoon.
Last spring's eternal optimism has been replaced by this spring's eternal doubt. Jobs are on the line if 2014 takes on a pattern similar to 2013. That certainly goes for manager John Gibbons. The heat already is being turned up on general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
The players know it, including the ace knuckleballer for whom much was traded away over a year ago.
"Guys really know that this is a big year for us collectively," said R.A. Dickey, who will make his second consecutive opening day start for the Blue Jays. "We're kind of getting a mulligan this year. Last year a lot of things went wrong. This year we're pretty much all healthy, we're here, we've been here all spring, we've been able to do relationships with one another and now we're in a much different place than we were last year and it's a much more comfortable place."
While it's nice that a full season has bred greater familiarity, the degree to which teammates are comfortable around one another will only take them so far.
The Blue Jays go into the season with a starting rotation full of question marks on the heels of last year, when the club finished 29th out of 30 teams in starting staff ERA (4.81).
"That's the key to our success this year, that's the key to anyone's success is how well you pitch as far as giving you a chance," said manager John Gibbons. "We're ready to go. We've had a good spring all year."
All things being equal, namely health, you know what you'll get from Dickey and Mark Buehrle. The knuckleballer will be among the American League leaders in innings pitched, he was second last year with 224 2/3 innings despite pitching most of the first half with a strained muscle in his neck, and if Dickey's spring is any indication he could improve upon last year's numbers (14 wins, 4.21 ERA).
"I feel prepared. I feel confident, which is great," Dickey said after his final Grapefruit League start on March 26. "Last year I didn't feel very confident simply because I didn't feel as prepared. I'm really looking forward to getting started and being able to adjust my schedule this year in a way that really maximizes my preparedness has been great."
Buehrle, whose 12 wins and 203 2/3 innings in 2013 marked the 13th consecutive season he's achieved double-digit victories and more than 200 innings pitched, said of his changeup after an early March outing that it hadn't been that good in three years. Typically a slow starter, Buehrle's 4.32 career ERA in the month of April is his worst for any month of the season. The joke has been how good he feels.
"It's a joke but not a joke," explained Buehrle. "At times you go through your little stretches where you almost say, man, I wish I was giving up some hits and home runs to kind of get them out of the way for the season. But I feel good. I mean, obviously the results in spring training don't mean stuff but you still want to get people out no matter whether it's spring training or the regular season. I feel good and I think that's the biggest thing I'm taking out of this camp is I feel healthy, I'm ready to go and hopefully the results are there."
Throw Drew Hutchison and Brandon Morrow in the questionable category. Hutchison is there because he's 23 years old and likely to experience the normal ups and downs of any young pitcher, not to mention he has limited minor league innings under his belt following last summer's return from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. Still, Hutchison was the Jays' best pitcher this spring. He earned a starting job on merit and appears poised to resume a career halted by injury in June, 2012.
Morrow, entering the final guaranteed year of his contract (the Blue Jays hold a $10 million option for 2015), must prove he can not only remain healthy but that he can pitch effectively, consistently.
The Jays need Morrow to be his 2012 version (10-7, 2.96, 1.115 WHIP) save for the two and a half months lost to an oblique strain. Don't think the 29-year-old doesn't feel he has a point to prove.
"You definitely don't want to be labeled as somebody injury prone," said Morrow. "My goal is to go out there and make every start this year. I had a positive spring so I'm feeling good about it."
It's a wait-and-see, hold-your-breath approach with Dustin McGowan, who'll be closely monitored not only during his outings but in between starts. The 32-year-old is returning to the starting rotation on a full-time basis for the first time since 2008. Multiple shoulder surgeries and various other injuries later, McGowan's story is testament to his resolve but also a reflection of the Blue Jays' lack, at the moment, of quality starting pitching depth. Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin are on the way but aren't ready yet. Todd Redmond or J.A. Happ, once the issues with his wonky back get worked out, are the immediate fallback plans should McGowan falter. Anything the Jays get from McGowan has to be considered gravy given what he's been through.
CASEY JANSSEN TO DISABLED LIST
The Blue Jays have placed closer Casey Janssen on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 29, with what the club is calling a left abdominal/back strain.
Janssen, 32, made only three spring appearances, all in the last week, after dealing with pain and stiffness in the back of his pitching shoulder for most of camp.
Reached for comment, Janssen told TSN.ca he isn't worried about the state of his shoulder, which was surgically repaired more than a year ago.
"Shoulder is feeling good," said Janssen. "Maybe compensated for it but, no, shoulder is good to pitch."
Sergio Santos will replace Janssen as the club's closer for the time being.
Catcher Erik Kratz, who lost out to Josh Thole for the back-up job to Dioner Navarro, has been recalled from Triple-A Buffalo.
McGOWAN THROWS SIMULATED GAME
Dustin McGowan threw a 77-pitch simulated game at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Sunday.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, speaking on a Sunday afternoon conference call, said that as of this moment McGowan is on track to start the home opener on Friday against the Yankees.
McGowan describes himself as a "second day pain guy," meaning his shoulder is most uncomfortable following his second sleep after a start.
Regardless, at the moment the 32-year-old appears to have cleared all hurdles in his attempt to return to the starting rotation.