Many times over the past year, "poor clubhouse chemistry" was suggested as a reason the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays failed.
Not the case, multiple Blue Jays players told me in recent days.
As one veteran Blue Jay put it: "We just played bad."
The credible explanation I received from multiple parties went like this: The team was overhauled dramatically during the 2012-2013 offseason and tabbed by media soothsayers (like me) as favorites to win the American League. But the Jays’ talent was undermined by injuries and the disjointed spring training because of World Baseball Classic-related player absences.
Jose Reyes was injured in April, Josh Johnson underperformed, players who didn’t know one another faced immediate adversity, and the American League East is a brutal place to play from behind.
The end result: 74-88.
Team chemistry, according to right fielder Jose Bautista, "wasn’t a problem." But Bautista added: "Getting acquainted with teammates, and understanding what their capabilities are, certainly plays into how good a team can be. When everybody’s still getting acquainted with each other, there’s that unknown. We don’t have that now."
This spring has been less chaotic: fewer television trucks, lower expectations, and a better overall environment in which to prepare for the season.
"You can’t know a guy in two weeks, three weeks," Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie said. "You’ve got to play with him for a couple months. These guys are like your family. You see them more than you see your family. The more you see each other, you just start to bond. You start to click. The team starts to click. That’s the biggest thing: If all of us can stay healthy and stay together, and do what we do, then it’s all positive."
Bautista said: "We learned quickly last year not to pay attention to expectations, because that doesn’t lead to anything. That being said, I think we’re more focused on what’s going to make us a good team. Everybody’s kind of individually getting ready for the season and having that outlook, instead of everybody thinking we’re going to win."
Maybe we should give the Blue Jays a mulligan, with the following caveat: The "getting acquainted" explanation can’t apply again if 2014 looks suspiciously like 2013. Another slow start would hint at larger issues with roster construction and prompt real questions about where the organization should go from here. In that respect, the pressure on the Jays to perform is every bit as high as it was at this time last year.
Obviously, the addition of free-agent starter Ervin Santana would go a long way toward having a less turbulent April than the Jays endured last year. And I do get the sense that the Toronto players are paying close attention to the resources (read: dollars) that ownership will put forth in order to make that happen.
Tigers staying in-house — for now
Team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said in an email Sunday that the Detroit Tigers are "looking at our own personnel" and "will continue to evaluate" options for left field, with Andy Dirks potentially missing the first half because of back surgery.
So, for now, it appears nonroster invitees Ezequiel Carrera and Trevor Crowe will be given the chance to win a job as the left-handed half of a platoon with Rajai Davis. But neither Carrera nor Crowe is hitting especially well this spring, which could open the possibility of a trade.
For now, the ongoing leg injury issues of prospect Oscar Taveras are preventing the St. Louis Cardinals from becoming a viable trade partner. If Taveras had a full, healthy spring, he could have challenged veteran Jon Jay for a spot on the Opening Day roster, potentially making Jay expendable. (The acquisition of Peter Bourjos figures to take away many of the at-bats Jay used to get in center field.) But Taveras has played only two games this spring, and it doesn’t look like the Cardinals can count on him to stay in the lineup.
The Colorado Rockies are another team worth monitoring as it relates to the Tigers’ (potential) outfield need. The Rockies may not have room for outfielders Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson on their Opening Day roster. (Both are left-handed batters.) But one source with knowledge of the Rockies’ plans said the team is "not looking to move an outfielder" and has had "no discussions" about doing so.
Potential season-changer for the Yankees
Over several days at Grapefruit League games, Michael Pineda’s outing against the Tigers was the performance that impressed me most.
Pineda hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011, when he was an All-Star with the Seattle Mariners. He was traded to the Yankees after that season, only to undergo a shoulder surgery that idled his career for roughly two years. But he looked like his old self Friday night, striking out Miguel Cabrera — and three other Tigers — during two scoreless innings.
"Every time he steps on the mound since he’s been in the big leagues, he’s been getting awkward swings," said new Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who remembered facing Pineda (and his imposing 6-foot-7 frame) back in 2011. "I don’t think that was anything out of the ordinary. The thing I was impressed about was him pounding the zone with all of his pitches. He struck a guy out on an 0-2 slider. It was definitely encouraging."
I know we aren’t even midway through March. But a rotation of Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Pineda is playoff-caliber, provided Pineda remains healthy and Tanaka adjusts smoothly in his first season as a Yankee. Despite not throwing a meaningful pitch since September 2011, Pineda could become a pivotal figure — not just for the Yankees, but the entire AL East.
Changes to drug program remain possible
During a visit to the Cardinals’ spring camp in Jupiter, Fla., Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark said discussions with MLB remain ongoing about the possibility of changing the sport’s Joint Drug Agreement for 2014. (The JDA, unlike the collective bargaining agreement, is subject to an annual review.)
Clark said he’s received extensive feedback from players on JDA-related issues, including whether the union should be in favor of stiffer penalties than the current structure, which begins with a 50-game ban.
"We are addressing every area that we think needs to be addressed in order to have the most effective, most efficient program we can have," Clark said. "Players have been very vocal, which is tremendous. . . . There’s more beyond just penalties (under discussion). I know that’s gotten the headlines, but there’s more."
Clark gave a forceful answer when I asked about Anthony Bosch’s statement to "60 Minutes" that it was "almost a cakewalk" to beat MLB’s drug testing program while he was supplying performance-enhancing drugs to players as head of Biogenesis.
"The idea that he was actually right would suggest whether or not I’d be upset, but I know he’s not right," Clark said. "It’s interesting, when you have drug dealers in front of the camera, any number of different things they’d be willing to offer to validate their existence. . . . I don’t see anything that happened on ’60 Minutes,’ to be honest with you, as anything valid that I locked in on, simply because a lot of what he offered wasn’t accurate.
"Even putting aside the commentary that — I don’t even want to say his name at this point — offered on that ’60 Minutes’ show, rest assured where we ended up, or where we may end up over the course of conversations with the JDA had less to do with the urban legends that he offered."