DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays are a week away from the start of the regular season, when they will officially begin defending their American League East championship.
In the days ahead, MLB.com will be previewing the upcoming season, and first up is an interview with Blue Jays manager John Gibbons as he talks Marcus Stroman, pitching depth, the bullpen, Michael Saunders and Ryan Goins:
MLB.com: It's official, Marcus Stroman is your Opening Day starter. He hasn't been around for a long time, but we've seen what he can do in some big pressure moments like he did last year in the postseason. Do you think this is the type of role that he can thrive in? What are your expectations for him?
Gibbons: I definitely think he can thrive in that. You look back, he was going to be our Opening Day guy last year until he had the knee injury. We were really asking a lot of him then, too, with basically a half-year in the big leagues. But we saw something different in him.
Let's be honest -- he's got a great arm, great stuff as they say in this game. But he's got that intangible -- and I think that drives him in pressure situations and big moments. Not everybody's like that. To see what he did after missing the whole year and coming in and pitching some big games for us last year and of course in the playoffs, it really kind of just confirms what we've all believed. It doesn't mean that it's going to be easy -- he's going to have some bumps in the road like everybody else. But in my mind, he's really the guy to do it.
MLB.com: At the end of last season, everybody knew the offense was going to be back this year. The big question mark was on the pitching side. Are you confident with the depth that you were able to put together over the offseason and going into Spring Training?
Gibbons: I really like the depth. I was nervous, I'll be honest with you, a few months ago. But the way things [are] set up, they did a good job. There are some good veteran players that have something left. As we break camp this year, I think we're in a much better position than when we broke camp last year, because we had so many young guys that we were kind of guessing on whether they'd make it or not. So I feel good about that. It's a team that's expected to do something, so veteran guys always come in handy.
MLB.com: The bullpen last year was something you guys struggled with early in the season. You were trying to figure out what was going on in the closer role. Was that one area that you can look at the start of this year and more than any other that you really improved and solidified?
Gibbons: I like the way it's set up now. We're not set yet on who's doing what, but we've got some real good arms down there. Last year we were running some young kids out there -- [Roberto] Osuna was one of them. We were really gambling. In his case that definitely worked out.
For the first few months of the season, that was really our Achilles' heel. We were scoring a ton of runs, but we were still having trouble in the middle innings, even late at times, closing out games. Until things kind of fell in place -- Osuna took over that role, [Brett] Cecil worked himself back into shape and got on a roll, even to the point where we put [Aaron] Sanchez down there, and it became a very, very good bullpen. Until that point, it was a battle.
MLB.com: A bit of a wild card in the lineup is Michael Saunders, who missed basically all of last season. It's been a couple years since we've seen what he can do. What have you seen from him this spring, and what type of year can he have?
Gibbons: He's played better than I thought he was going to after missing so much time. The big thing I'm looking at is the way he's running around. He's not hobbling at all. That was my big concern with the knee injury. When he came back last year, he was having a tough time running. That's in the back of your mind. But if you didn't know he got injured last year the way he did, you wouldn't even know it.
He's swinging the bat. His timing's good, he's playing good baseball, and I know he's excited. Even going into last year, he had a chance to play for his country's team. He got out of Seattle with new life, and then of course the freak injury...it was a disappointing year for him. But he's back, and he's going to get a shot to do his thing.
MLB.com: Last year, an overlooked guy at times was Ryan Goins. When Devon Travis went down with an injury, that could have been a real devastating blow to you guys. But Goins really seemed to solidify second base, and he seems to be doing it again this spring. What can he do for the team?
Gibbons: He's been tremendous. He really has. We always knew he can play defense. We always knew -- you guys saw it. He was one of the better fielders in baseball. He carried himself like that.
The big question was, what would he do offensively? He wasn't getting a whole lot of playing time. When you're a young guy, it's tough to hit in the big leagues, period, but when you're not getting playing time, it's really tough. When he didn't get those opportunities, he wasn't what he is.
When Devon went down, he got his chance, he was in there every day. He ran with it and turned out to be a solid hitter. We feel really good with him out there. Devon was of course a great loss. I think he's going to be a good hitter in the Major Leagues for a number of years once he comes back. But Ryan eliminated that, and it's his job now. He made some good adjustments with his swing during the offseason, and he's having a heck of a spring.
I expect him to have a big year. We don't need him to do a whole lot offensively. Just make the plays on defense, take away the hits like he normally does and we'll be fine out there.