Spring training questions: Toronto Blue Jays

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Just how many starting pitchers will the Jays go through with Roy Halladay gone?
Even with Halladay throwing 239 innings at the top of the rotation last year, the Blue Jays had 12 different pitchers make multiple starts. This year, they have Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum and Brandon Morrow likely assured rotation spots, with Mark Rzepczynski, Brett Cecil, Brian Tallet, David Purcey, Dustin McGowan and Dana Eveland also in the mix. In-season alternatives could include Jesse Litsch, Shawn Hill, Kyle Drabek, Scott Richmond, Robert Ray, Brad Mills, Zach Stewart and Reider Gonzalez. It’s a rotation that could be in constant flux unless the Jays catch some breaks.
2. Is Jose Bautista really going to open the season as the regular right fielder and leadoff hitter?
With plenty of outfielders available at bargain rates, it’s hard to believe the Jays haven’t added a potential regular to challenge Bautista and Travis Snider in the corners. They do have the option of going with Adam Lind in left and Snider in right, with Randy Ruiz occupying the DH role, but that’d leave them with maybe baseball worst defensive outfield and nothing close to resembling a leadoff man.
Of course, Bautista is far from an ideal option there. He posted a respectable .235/.349/.408 line in 336 at-bats last season, but that was all because he tore up lefties. He’s a career .227/.316/.366 hitter against righties, and he came in at .202/.331/.333 last year. As a platoon outfielder, Bautista is fine. But he’s someone who should be in the lineup 30-40 percent of the time.
3. Who will win the closer battle between Kevin Gregg, Jason Frasor and Scott Downs?
In the grand scheme of things, it hardly figures to matter; the Jays are a fourth- of fifth-place team and it’s quite possible that none of the three will still be around in 2011. Fantasy leaguers, though, may feel differently.
Manager Cito Gaston had made it pretty clear that he wasn’t very comfortable with either Frasor or Downs in the closer’s role, necessitating an offseason addition. Gregg was viewed as a proven alternative, even though he blew seven saves last season and nine in 2008. Frasor and Downs are superior pitchers, but both have more experience setting up than they do closing. Odds are that Gregg will be handed most of the save chances initially. Of course, that was also the case the last two years and he went on to lose the job both times.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.