TORONTO — While the Toronto Blue Jays appear to have a promising future, it’s hard to predict when this team will be ready to contend in the American League East.
The Jays won 85 games last season, a 10-game improvement on 2009. They led the major leagues with 257 home runs and relied on a young rotation that was able to overcome the departure of longtime ace Roy Halladay.
It was still only good enough for fourth place in the division behind the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Baltimore Orioles were last, but are hoping to build on their late-season resurgence after Buck Showalter was hired as manager.
This year, the Blue Jays have their own new manager in John Farrell, who spent the four previous seasons as Boston’s pitching coach. He takes over from Cito Gaston, who retired at the end of last season.
Toronto has been mired in a long post-season drought since winning a second straight World Series title back in 1993. There are several big questions marks with the 2011 season about to begin.
Among them: Will the young rotation continue to develop? Is Jose Bautista more than a one-year wonder? Can Aaron Hill and Adam Lind become useful hitters again? Is Lind a first baseman? Is J.P. Arencibia a full-time catcher? Will the team defence be good enough? Will Travis Snider have a breakthrough season? Who replaces Kevin Gregg’s 37 saves? Who replaces Scott Downs in the bullpen?
The Blue Jays’ home run total is a good bet to come down this season. Bautista led the major leagues with 54 homers last year but Vernon Wells (31 homers), Lyle Overbay (20) and John Buck (20) are gone.
While players such as speedy centre-fielder Rajai Davis were acquired in the off-season to create a more balanced offence, there should still be some pop in the lineup.
Bautista is back with a big new contract and even though they struggled last year, Lind and Hill still hit 23 and 26 homers respectively. A slimmed-down Edwin Encarnacion also returns — he hit 21 homers in limited playing time in 2010. Snider, who will be the regular left-fielder, can also go deep if he avoids injury. And while Davis stole 50 bases last year with Oakland, he showed this spring he can hit for extra bases under the guidance of hitting coach Dwayne Murphy.
The win total could also drop in 2011, something that might not be considered a setback for a rebuilding team that continues to acquire and break in young players.
Arencibia will be given his first chance as the regular catcher this season after an MVP campaign in the triple-A Pacific Coast League last season. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said the youngster will be given a full opportunity.
“With young players you know it’s going to take a little bit of time and you have to stick with them for a while,” Anthopoulos said. “You need to stick with them for a certain period of time but if you feel like they get to a point that they’re drowning you just get them out of here to clear their heads.”
Another rookie, right-hander Kyle Drabek, will open the season in the starting rotation after earning pitcher of the year honours in the double-A Eastern League in 2010. The rotation also got younger when Shaun Marcum was traded to Milwaukee for infielder Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C., who will start the season at triple-A Las Vegas despite an impressive spring.
Right-handed starter Brandon Morrow, who was having a superb spring after a promising 2010, opens the season on the disabled list due to mild inflammation in the flexor muscle of his right elbow. It‘s not considered serious and might cost him only one or two starts.
In the meantime, Drabek moves into Morrow’s No. 2 spot in the rotation behind left-hander Ricky Romero, who will start Friday‘s season opener (Rogers Sportsnet, 7 p.m.) against the visiting Minnesota Twins.
Left-hander Brett Cecil goes third in the rotation, ahead of left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes and right-hander Jesse Litsch. Reyes, who was acquired with shortstop Yunel Escobar in a trade last July with Atlanta, is another newcomer to the rotation. He has 41 career major-league appearances.
The revamped bullpen could see some changes early in the season once projected closer Frank Francisco (chest, biceps) and Octavio Dotel (hamstring) return. Right-hander Jon Rauch will serve as the closer while Francisco is out. Joining him in the bullpen are right-handers Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen, Carlos Villanueva and left-handers David Purcey and Marc Rzepczynski.
Corey Patterson will be the fourth outfielder and Mike McCoy will serve as a utility player. John McDonald will be the backup infielder while the experienced Jose Molina is expected to handle pitchers like Morrow, Drabek and Reyes.
Outfielder Scott Podsednik, who is signed to a minor-league contract, arrived at camp with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and is still out.
Escobar had an impressive spring training at the plate and plays reasonably well at shortstop. He also knows how to move runners from the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
The right side could be interesting as Hill comes back from a quadriceps injury that cost him a chunk of playing time during spring training. It could limit his range in the early part of the season, even though he was showing rapid improvement as the exhibition season came to a close.
Lind, who has been an outfielder and designated hitter, will get a shot at first base this season. He still needs to learn some of the nuances of the position but could be a good fit if he posts the numbers he put up in 2009. Encarnacion will play third base despite his inconsistent play at the position. He could also back up Lind at first.
Third base could become a focal point if Lawrie gets off to a strong start at Las Vegas. Only 21, Lawrie made a strong impression at spring training before being sent to the minor-league camp. He made a smooth transition to third base after playing second base last season at double-A for the Brewers.
“He’s going to be an outstanding player,” Murphy said. “I like his swing. I think he’s going to be an explosive, powerful hitter.”
One of the ongoing stories of the Blue Jays’ spring training was the quality of the organization’s prospects. Not all will be successful, but several players look like good bets to make an impact down the road.
Prospects like outfielder Eric Thames, first baseman David Cooper, catcher Brian Jeroloman and right-hander Zach Stewart might not be far from the majors. Speedy outfielder Anthony Gose, catcher Travis d’Arnaud, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria and right-handers Henderson Alvarez, Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire are farther away but give hope for the future.
“When you look at the guys who are the core young players on their way up, this organization is in a very good position,” Farrell said. “It’s a healthy one for sure.”