The Toronto Blue Jays figure they have to be better than last year. If their lineup simply stays healthy, they will be. On the mound, they have R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle at the top of their rotation and hope they can fill out the bottom, either from within or with a trade. But the X-Factor guy for them, and maybe for the entire American League East, is Brandon Morrow.
If he’s healthy and can give the Jays a third 200-inning guy, it can go a long way to making their rotation more legitimate. Morrow made just 10 starts last year, going 2-3 with a 5.63 ERA, before his season was shut down in late May by an entrapped nerve in his forearm.
Morrow has pitched just 179 innings total over the last two years, as oblique trouble hounded him in 2012 after he started out 7-3. But this year is going to be different, Morrow told this corner at Thursday’s Bisons Hot Stove Luncheon.
He’s already thrown six bullpen sessions, several at full strength, and has done simulated innings where he makes some pitches and then sits down for a few minutes like he would in a game. The Blue Jays want to see the guy who averaged 191 strikeouts a year in 2010-11.
“I’ve put all those injury issues out of my mind,” said Morrow, a 29-year-old right-hander. “I’ve felt good enough where I can prepare myself the way I have in the past. That’s what I’m worried about. I don’t have to worry about the health issue and my arm.”
“Getting a guy like Brandon Morrow back is huge,” added General Manager Alex Anthopoulos. “I don’t know that he was ever right last year. He got a little bit banged up in spring training and to his credit he never wanted to go on the DL, we moved back starts, he wanted to keep battling.”
Morrow said the nerve trouble forced him to overcompensate when trying to throw and ultimately prevented him from coming back. Surgery wasn’t needed but a long period of rest and rehab was.
“Pain is something you deal with but I never found a release point,” he said. “I couldn’t locate. I still had pain and that’s when I knew it was time to get it taken care of.”
The Morrow injury was just one of many that conspired to ruin a 2013 season that the Blue Jays thought would end their 20-year playoff drought. Spring training was split by the World Baseball Classic and the Blue Jays’ slow start was something that could not overcome.
“It was a season where a lot of it you just have to throw in the garbage,” Morrow said. “Where you can learn from it is some of the ways we prepared for it but it was an unusual year and it was very tough because of the WBC.
“We come back with a strong roster, almost the same roster we had last year in spring training. And somehow we’ve gone from the favorites to the bottom of the barrel with basically the same roster. We’re confident with our personnel, that’s for sure.”
The Blue Jays need another starter and Anthopoulos said the market in trades and free agency gives the team opportunities but the price currently doesn’t make much sense.
There’s rumors they’re interested in the likes of Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana and there’s been plenty of talk of a trade with the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija. Masahiro Tanaka seems out of their price range.
Anthopoulos said he expects J.A. Happ to again be in the rotation and the Jays have lots of other options for No. 5. Drew Hutchison, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond might be the best internal bets for now while the Bisons groom the likes of Kyle Drabek, still on the road back from Tommy John surgery, and big prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin.
Everyone was talking about the Blue Jays last winter. Not so this time. Maybe that’s a better fit for their GM’s personality.
“I always prefer to be under the radar,” Anthopoulos said. “I don’t know if I’m ever comfortable being in the spotlight, whether it’s for myself or in the organization. Obviously it’s good for the organization where you’re talked about. Hopefully you’re talked about for having won and not for failing to meet expectations.”
On the former staff
It was good for Anthopoulos to publicly acknowledge and thank former Bisons manager Marty Brown during his remarks to the media here Thursday. It’s a relatively sensitive subject in these parts because of Brown’s popularity and the fact he decided not to return, largely since he felt the parent club didn’t give him a fair shake at a big-league job.
Anthopoulos admitted Brown’s departure was a surprise.
“He’s done so much in the game. He’s still young. He expressed to me he wanted to pursue other things,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s got tremendous resources and ties to the Pac Rim. He can do anything. He can scout, he can develop, he can coach and he’s got a lot of career remaining in front of him.”
The Blue Jays also took Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley to be their bullpen coach when ex-Cy Young winner Pat Hengten went on leave to take care of his ill father. Anthopoulos was bullish on that move.
“He’s got a way to connect with players. … At the big-league level, it’s not just knowledge but it’s how you connect with a player to convey that knowledge to them so they’re receptive to it,” Anthopoulos said. “At the big-league level, they can tune you out even if the knowledge is outstanding. ‘Steamer’ has a way, a dry sense of humor, the big league career, the presence that he brings. I think he’s going to be a great fit.”
• Infielder Jim Negrych, the St. Francis product who was a Triple-A All-Star in the first half for the Bisons last season, has signed with Philadelphia and could return here with Lehigh Valley.
Negrych, remember, was hitting .415 in mid-May and still at .332 through June but did not get a look from the Blue Jays. He slumped badly when the raw deal became clear, hitting just .203 in the last 42 games.
• Look for some sort of the joint announcement from the Bisons and city during the NHL Olympic break about improvements at Coca-Cola Field in the coming years. The team’s bucket list has long included replacing all the seats, cutting down some of the long rows down the lines and perhaps adding a party area or two. One could particularly go well in the mostly unused left field corner.
• New manager Gary Allenson prompted plenty of laughs at the luncheon when he pointed out the full ballroom represented bigger crowds than his team routinely played in front of in Ottawa in 2003.
Allenson recalled counting 25 fans during one frigid April afternoon – and seeing an usher at Lynx Stadium shooing a family of three out of the front row because they weren’t ticketed for it. Pretty good move by the International League to get out of Ottawa and get into Lehigh Valley.
Countdowns are on
With temperatures here slated to be in the single digits for a good chunk of time this week, ponder these numbers:
• MLB pitchers and catchers report to the Arizona camp on Feb. 6 and the Dodgers camp on Feb. 8 because they open the season in Australia on March 22-23. We’re just 23 days away from other teams starting to report.
• MLB full squads, other than the D-Backs and Dodgers, can report in 27 days.
• The MLB opener on this side of the Pacific is 70 days away, March 30, with the Dodgers at San Diego.
• The Bisons’ home and season opener is just 74 days away, April 3 vs. Rochester.