Blue Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth is entering his 34th season in the booth and has called more than 5,000 games in his career. Last year, he received the Jack Graney Award from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame to honor his significant contributions to baseball. Howarth recently took some time to talk with MLB.com about what to expect from the Blue Jays in 2014.
MLB.com: There was a lot of talk this offseason about the Blue Jays possibly adding some starting pitching. Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, A.J. Burnett, those types of names were mentioned, but the team ended up staying with mostly the status quo. Do you think this club has enough starting pitching to compete in the American League East?
Howarth: Well, when you say the American League East, that's a very tough assignment because there you're looking for experienced pitchers. Five, six, seven years, they've been through that, and they know what it's like. Having said that, I know the Blue Jays are putting a lot of stock in young pitchers, and that's good, but right now, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle need some help, and it will be interesting to see where that help comes from. There are all kinds of possibilities but not a proven pitcher or two, especially with some of the names you just mentioned.
MLB.com: As you kind of touched on, there are some question marks with this rotation. Is there one that sticks out to you? Is there one particular pitcher that needs to step up and solidify the staff?
Howarth: Well, No. 1 what you'd love to see is Brandon Morrow have a good year. Now, Brandon is a terrific person, he already showed a couple of years ago what he can do when healthy, and that's what he has to do, stay healthy. If Brandon can stay healthy for 30 starts and maybe 175-180 innings, what a plus that would be. So, that's No. 1.
J.A. Happ has been a swingman, back and forth, bullpen and starting rotation, and they'd love to have some of that experience correlate into a starting position. After that, then you have young kids and you try to rely on those young kids. One of them is now 23, but he's coming off Tommy John surgery, Drew Hutchison. He has pitched very well here in the spring time, and because he has gone through the wars -- albeit briefly -- he might also be a strong candidate to help that rotation.
Dustin McGowan, they'd like to maybe see what he can do once stretched out, but he has had a history of injuries as well. Chad Jenkins I like a lot as well, but right now I think he is looking at a Triple-A assignment. But he's a good back-up option.
MLB.com: One thing that didn't do the pitching any favors last year was the defense. There were some issues at second base, obviously Melky Cabrera wasn't very healthy in left field. It seems to be a little bit of a different storyline during this year's Spring Training. Have you noticed a difference with the defense, and could that help the rotation?
Howarth: I really have, on a couple of accounts. No. 1, they're all together -- no World Baseball Classic. No. 2, for me, the most devastating injury was easily Jose Reyes. On April 12, he goes down with an ankle injury on a slide in Kansas City and missed the next 66 games. He's a four-time All-Star. In the offseason, he might have been the best acquired player that they had, and they didn't have him.
Then, with Ryan Goins, who plays second base like I've seen Roberto Alomar play it, if you put Reyes in the same lineup with Goins up the middle, you've got yourself defense. The old adage is you better be strong up the middle. Colby Rasmus can play center field, and I like Dioner Navarro, the veteran, behind the plate. But they need to stay healthy, especially with Reyes at short mentoring Goins, who I think can play every day.
MLB.com: The offense last year was quite strong, but it was very reliant on the home run. A healthy season from Jose Reyes and a return to health from Melky Cabrera at the top of the order, do you think that could give this offense a little bit of a different dynamic than what they had last year?
Howarth: I do, and I think now it gets back to Kevin Seitzer, the new hitting coach, and his approach. Middle-away -- Kevin played 12 years, and that was his approach. It worked for him; he was runner-up to Mark McGwire for rookie of the year. He can hit, he can coach, he can teach and he can communicate. If you look at the top of the order: Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, that's a fearsome foursome right there, and already you've been the byproduct of Kevin Seitzer's teaching.
Up the middle, the other way, if pitched inside, you can pull it. What the Blue Jays really have to do from last year, cut down on the number of strikeouts, improve the number of walks, grind out at-bats. And that's what Kevin teaches and what he's seen already from some of those headliners that we just talked about.
MLB.com: Arguably the biggest strength on the team last year was the bullpen. It's a notoriously tough position to predict from one year to the next, but there's a lot of depth down there. With the amount of quality arms down there, do you think it's possible they could have a bit of a repeat performance?
Howarth: We'll see. Casey Janssen has been repeating what he did last spring. He'll probably pitch in a couple of games and hopefully be ready to pitch on March 31; that's what he did last year, and he had a wonderful season. Sergio Santos is now back to where he was three years ago, and that's a steady, reliable closer with great stuff and command, fastball slider. Then, Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, they make it a real good five-man crew over the last seven, eight, nine innings to get the job done and hold some of those leads.
Then, after that, you can flush it out with some middle relief too, and there are a lot of candidates there. I think of Todd Redmond, I think of Dustin McGowan, I think of Esmil Rogers. But clearly, at the back end of the bullpen, when you have two closers like Janssen and Santos, that bodes well for a very good season if the Blue Jays can hold that lead with offense and that good defense that we talked about. But, again, the bottom line is how deep into the game can the starters go, and that's the biggest question facing the Blue Jays now and last year.
MLB.com: You touched on him earlier, Dioner Navarro. He's the one addition that the Blue Jays made this offseason. What do you think he can bring to help guide the pitching staff along?
Howarth: Ten years of experience, good rapport with players, he's someone that speaks the language and all languages, so you just like what he does behind the plate. What I've noticed, too, is that he has a wonderful rapport with the umpires, and that goes a long way towards helping pitchers as well. Navarro's a communicator, he's a hard-worker, he studies the game, he's a switch hitter, so that will favor him offensively as well. I like his makeup, I like the way he handles himself behind the plate; there's no substitute for experience, and he should really help the entire starting rotation and the bullpen.
MLB.com: Thanks a lot for joining us Jerry, I really appreciate you doing it.
Howarth: No problem, I'm happy to do it.
Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.