Other than the chills one gets from a playoff series or an exhilarating pennant chase, there’s very few days in Baseball (at least for me personally) that can match the feeling of Opening Day. To be exact, MLB officially opened for business with yesterday’s 3-game teaser, but I’m referring to the 12-game slate on today’s docket — the annual Monday schedule that diehards call in sick for.
In a sense, with Spring Training mimicking the grind of the regular season, opening day offers a playoff atmosphere in its own right. Not to mention it being the first chance one gets to sit back and let their Fantasy GM skills do the talking. By the way, if my boss calls to check up on me, let him know I might not be in tomorrow, either.
From a Blue Jays perspective, considering they’ve been on the brink of getting back to the World Series in back to back years, finding that extra gear of motivation shouldn’t be a problem. Throw in the fact that this team’s championship window has arguably shrunken to the size of the years Josh Donaldson has left on his contract, and that feeling is surely mutual among fans.
I have to admit, though, and it’s safe to assume that the rest of this fan base feels the same: Even with the ample time we’ve had to get used to the fact that Edwin Encarnacion won’t be a part of this club’s journey anymore, it’ll still feel like something’s missing in the early going, especially if the Jays stumble out of the gate.
Which brings up a few things that will either pave the way for success or throw a wrench into the program.
1. The Obvious:
A big step in the process of eventually forgetting about Encarnacion is just plain health. In particular, the usual injury concerns over the likes of Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis. You can also add Donaldson to that list considering his hard-nosed playing style tends to keep our fingers crossed, but whether or not the majority of that group can escape extended stints on the disabled list will play a major role in dictating which direction this team ultimately takes. And in the process, dictating the type of product we all root for.
2. The Rotation:
If there’s one aspect we should all have confidence in, it’s the starters. Though that doesn’t mean this unit isn’t without its wildcards. On one hand, judging by his MVP performance in the recent World Baseball Classic, there’s positive signs pointing to Marcus Stroman finally putting it all together and moving past his inconsistencies. On the other, despite last year’s production where he ranked first overall in ground ball percentage and the fact that his FIP ended up far lower than his ERA, it’s hard to go “all in” when in the last three seasons his HR/9 has gone in the wrong direction and his WHIP has fluctuated so dramatically.
(Stroman’s actual stats: GB% = 60.1, FIP and ERA = 3.71 vs. 4.37, WHIP = 1.17, 0.96, 1.29)
Perhaps the real key, however, is Francisco Liriano. Who by recent accounts, will provide a much steadier presence than R.A. Dickey ever did. Much like Stroman, Liriano is no stranger to turbulence, but his impressive run after being acquired from Pittsburgh (a 2.66 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 8 starts with an overall 9.5 K/9) suggests there’s still plenty left in the tank moving forward.
The bottom line is this rotation can (to an extent) cover up for the lack of offensive punch the Jays are sure to encounter. In fact, the aforementioned Stroman could even be a player that’s eventually dangled in trade talks if the season warrants an upgrade elsewhere. With numerous contract situations coming up for this organization, that could very well make sense for the right price.
Also, regarding Liriano: If there’s one thing that can help bridge the gap between a professional athlete and the average fan, it’s the comfort level between co-workers. A pitcher’s relationship with their catcher is often underrated. Case in point: Liriano reuniting with Russel Martin.
3. First Base:
One of the bigger storylines that’s sure to heat up as the season progresses is the timeline of Rowdy Tellez’s arrival. Actually, to be fair, that will only start to make serious noise if Justin Smoak (.700 career OPS) fails to hold is own in the batter’s box. So, as I was saying: One of the bigger storylines that’s sure to heat up as the season progresses is the timeline of Rowdy Tellez’s arrival.
And while Kendry Morales, a veteran switch-hitter that’s just two years removed from a .485 slugging percentage and one year from hitting 18 of his 30 home runs on the road, promises to be a more than serviceable option to fill the void Edwin took with him to Cleveland, his overall value takes a nosedive if asked to take the field for any extended period of time.
Tellez is only 22 years old but already has a full season of Double-AA ball under his belt. He also reminds me a young Morales, both in body type and approach. His opposite field homer over the weekend in Montreal may have woken up those who weren’t paying attention beforehand, but his desire to use that part of the field was already apparent.
Sure, Steve Pearce will receive his fair share of playing time, particularly when a lefty is on the mound, but if it doesn’t take long for Rowdy’s stay in Buffalo to resemble what he accomplished in New Hampshire, it stands to reason that the Jays will pull the trigger even before they have the chance to save a year of his service time.
(Tellez’s Double-AA stats: 438 AB, .297 AVG, .387 OBP, .530 Slugging, 23 HR, 81 RBI, 92/63 K/B ratio)
4. Left Field:
With the somewhat surprising release of Melvin Upton and the chances of signing Angel Pagan being anyone’s guess, we’ll need to get accustomed to Ezequiel Carrera getting most of the work with the possibility of newly signed Chris Coghlan eventually mixing in. However, what this situation could really be about is clearing a path for Dalton Pompey. One couldn’t help but be impressed by how he recently looked for Team Canada and considering the team’s biggest speed threat just received his walking papers, another opportunity for Pompey to show he belongs could happen sooner rather than later.
All in all, despite so many new faces in the bullpen coupled with Roberto Osuna starting the year on the 10-day DL, optimism should be spreading far and wide — at least for now.
Here’s to Marco “Big Game” Estrada punching in for work today. Enjoy!