Post-Halladay era ready to begin

The first steps toward a season of essentially throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks begins for the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday when pitchers and catchers report for their first official workout of the spring.

The first steps toward a season of essentially throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks begins for the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday when pitchers and catchers report for their first official workout of the spring.

The road back to contention will be a long one for the struggling franchise after new general manager Alex Anthopoulos set his sights on a rebuilding process that is likely to bring a lot more bad before it starts to deliver much good.

The Blue Jays may have bottomed out this winter after dealing away Roy Halladay for prospects following a 75-87 record in 2009, or they may still have some falling to do this summer until the full impact of their descent down the standings is felt.

Either way, a lot of players will be given an opportunity to join a new emerging core led by second baseman Aaron Hill, outfielders Adam Lind, Vernon Wells and Travis Snider, and pitchers Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow.

“I don’t know that it has a theme other than you’re always trying to be as competitive as you can be,” Anthopoulos said. “We’re also not going to lose sight that this is about the building blocks, getting this team better and making sure that there aren’t any short-sighted moves, and the players that need to play will get that time. We have a core now, and we need to build on it and add to it.”

That they do, and it starts with a pitching staff no longer covered by the security blanket Halladay provided. Marcum, who’s coming back from elbow surgery, and Romero, the sophomore who made a strong debut last year, are the new anchors and given their lack of track record, that’s cause for concern.

Morrow, the flame-throwing righty picked up from Seattle for reliever Brandon League, will be given the chance to start after yo-yoing between the Mariners rotation and bullpen, and remains a work in progress, although one with tremendous upside.

Behind them are a host of candidates, led by Mark Rzepczynski, Brett Cecil, Brian Tallet, Lance Broadway, Brad Mills, Robert Ray and David Purcey, plus prospects Zach Stewart, Luis Perez, Reidier Gonzalez and Kyle Drabek. Scott Richmond of North Vancouver, B.C., opens the season on the sidelines with shoulder soreness.

They’ll all be throwing to the well regarded glove of new catcher John Buck, and all eyes will be on that competition in Dunedin, Fla., in the coming weeks.

“Our starting rotation is so wide open in terms of competition, that’s probably the one area we’re going to look at more than any because we have a lot of talent,” said Anthopoulos. “Knowing the candidates and the talent we have, I’ll probably spend the most time evaluating the starters and there’s a pretty good battle for the bullpen, as well.”

Free agent addition Kevin Gregg comes to camp as the most likely candidate to step into the closer’s role vacated by B.J. Ryan’s release last year, and will compete with trade-bait relievers Jason Frasor and Scott Downs for the job. No one else is guaranteed a spot, although incumbents like Jesse Carlson and Shawn Camp will be tough to displace.

In the outfield, signs of a bounce-back from Wells will be looked for while Snider must play his way on to the roster after struggling all around as a rookie. What happens with him will help determine what happens with Lind, who is likely to be used primarily as a DH again in 2010 but can also play the outfield.

Camp invitees Joey Gathright and Jeremy Reed will compete with Snider and veteran Jose Bautista for the spots flanking Wells in the outfield and how that shakes out will have other influences on the roster.

Alex Gonzalez is the latest stop-gap shortstop signed by the Blue Jays to play alongside Hill and brings a great glove and sometimes reasonable bat with him. His defence should help out third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, whose struggles with the glove are well documented.

First baseman Lyle Overbay and his expiring contract return after he was nearly dealt away in the off-season and his defence should also help stabilize things for the pitchers.

At the helm once again will be manager Cito Gaston, who returns despite widespread player discontent towards him at the end of the 2009 season that blew up publicly on the final weekend in Baltimore.

A coaching staff shuffle that led to the retirement of hitting coach Gene Tenace and departure of pitching coach Brad Arnsberg is expected to ease the situation, as is Gaston’s imminent departure to the front office after the 2010 campaign.

That lack of continuity isn’t ideal for a team on the rebuild, although Anthopoulos isn’t too concerned about it.

“I don’t think so because I think our roster is changing,” he said. “Any time there is change, there’s going to be further change going forward, so until we get to the point where we’ve established ourselves as a perennial playoff contender, I don’t know that continuity right now, although you’d like to have it, I don’t know you can put the same emphasis on it knowing there’s going to be further changes to come.”

Some changes will come faster than others, particularly one to the way how the club’s minor-leaguers are handled. A plan for each prospect either already has been or will be drawn up, mapping out how the team wants to help develop each player.

There’s a belief in the organization that fast-tracking some prospects stunted their development, and a new emphasis on having players force the team’s hand before promotions are granted will be instituted.

“We’ll have a blueprint and a roadmap for each player,” said Anthopoulos. “We’ll go through what we anticipate for each player, what the thought process is, what each player needs to do, what improvements we’re going to look for when me move them up.”

The key thing is for them to arrive at next October with more pieces in place for 2011 than they have right now. If new young players aren’t added to the core by season’s end, the hard times expected for 2010 will have gone for naught.

“Throughout a season you’re going to have the good, the bad, the ugly,” said Anthopoulos. “You’re going to have guys who take a step forward, guys who take a step backward, guys who get hurt. Finding out more about some of the young players is certainly important, I think the draft is very important, especially with seven picks in the first two rounds, it’s going to be very important to jump-start the minor-leagues.

“But you’re always looking for improvements for what you believe are core players or maybe even players you may not have thought of as core pieces that step up.

“I know we have a lot of talent, and we believe in the players we have here.”

It’s going to take time. The building starts for real now.