BY DAVID SALITURO
While Toronto remains under winter weather, the Toronto Blue Jays will gather in Dunedin, Florida tomorrow for the start of spring training. There will be plenty of new as well as familiar faces with one goal: return to the playoffs after last season’s disappointing finish.
Here is a look at the events that shaped the Blue Jays offseason, and what the team can hope for in the future.
Losing a Legend
The Jays community was devastated on Nov. 7 by the death of former pitcher Roy Halladay. He died when the plane he was piloting crashed off the Florida Gulf Coast. Halladay was a first round draft pick by Toronto in 1995 and pitched for the team from 1998 to 2009. He left the Jays while ranked second all-time in franchise history in wins, strikeouts, and shutouts.
“He was always one guy you could always count on,” Jays manager John Gibbons said to Sportsnet. “He was just going to go out and do his job good, bad or ugly and most of the time it was good. He was really not only a great pitcher but a wonderful human being.”
The Blue Jays will retire Halladay’s #32 jersey on opening day March 29 and the team will wear a patch in his honour throughout the 2018 season.
The Blue Jays lost another familiar member of the community this off-season. Jerry Howarth announced today that he was retiring after serving as the Jays radio broadcaster for 36 years.
“I had every intention of continuing my career into the 2018 season but my health and stamina and continuing voice issues dictated otherwise,” Howarth said in a statement. “I am blessed and I am grateful. I thank everyone who has made this journey of mine so rewarding in every way.”
The 71-year-old Howarth came to Toronto in 1981. For 23 seasons he served alongside Tom Cheek as the radio voice of the Blue Jays before Cheek’s retirement in 2005. He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Coming off a disappointing season in 2017 that saw them finish 10 games under .500 and 17 games out of first place, Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins was busy adding to the roster this off-season. On Dec. 1 he acquired infielder Aledmys Diaz, a 2016 All-Star, from St. Louis. In January the team added more depth by trading for infielder Yangervis Solarte and outfielder Randal Grichuk. The 30-year-old Solarte played the last four seasons in San Diego, hitting 18 home runs and driving in 64 last season, while Grichuk is coming off a 22-homer season with the Cardinals.
Perhaps the biggest decision this off-season was a move the team did not make. With Josh Donaldson on the final year of his contract and eligible for free agency after next season, the third baseman was the target of several trade rumours. On Jan. 12 the Jays ended the speculation by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $23 million, the largest pre-arbitration settlement in league history.
“Elite players typically don’t have [comparisons],” Atkins said. “We didn’t, by any means, break the record, Josh did. Josh broke the record with his performance.”
The most important additions the Blue Jays will make this season, however, are players returning from injury. In 2017 the team ranked third in games spent on the disabled list. Pitcher Aaron Sanchez (blisters), second baseman Devon Travis (knee), and Donaldson (calf) were just some of
the notable players who missed significant time last season. With these players back healthy as the 2018 campaign approaches, the Jays hope to improve on last season’s record.
The team still has room for improvement. According to Spotrac.com, the Jays payroll for 2018 sits at $141 million, well below last season’s total of $165 million. This has been a difficult off-season to be a free agent. With spring training beginning more than 90 players remain without a job. These include all-stars like J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Jake Arrieta. The Players Association has even decided to conduct their own spring training for players that are still unemployed.
While it remains uncertain if the Jays are real contenders for any of the remaining free agents, they have made moves this off-season to bolster their roster. Despite their poor record last season, fan support for the team remained solid as they ranked first in the American League in attendance. Another sub-par campaign, however, will see the fanbase’s patience and goodwill tested.