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Blue Jays Opening Day outlook

Blue Jays Opening Day outlook

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TORONTO -- Spring Training was more about getting acclimated and making adjustments and less about wins and losses this year for Toronto.

With many new faces in camp, the Blue Jays wanted to use the preseason to get acquainted with one another and focus on the new roles facing a few players. This spring, Aaron Hill showed he has potential to be a solid second baseman, Eric Hinske has looked comfortable in right field and Shea Hillenbrand has been productive as the primary designated hitter.

The new additions of A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Bengie Molina, Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay have all mixed in well in the Toronto clubhouse, which has been a relaxed atmosphere all spring -- a result of having no position battles.

The team has also displayed a quiet confidence as it approached the season. The Blue Jays have finished in third place in the American League East in seven of the last eight years, but the winter dealings have many analysts thinking these Jays can contend with the Yankees and the Red Sox. With the talented group Toronto already had in place, that mindset might not be that farfetched.

The Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs since 1993, when they won the second of two consecutive World Series championships. The new cast in place could put an end to the 12-year postseason drought.

BATTING ORDER
1. Reed Johnson, LF:
Johnson, who bats right-handed, is coming off a spring in which he finished with nine hits in 31 at-bats (.291). Johnson displayed some pop last season, collecting 21 doubles, eight homers and six triples in 398 at-bats.

2. Alex Rios, RF:
Rios slides into the No. 2 hole on the heels of a strong Spring Training that yielded a .355 batting average and a .394 on-base percentage. The right-handed-swinging Rios showed progress in his second season in 2005, finishing at .262 with 10 homers, 59 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.

3. Vernon Wells, CF:
Wells is Toronto's soft-spoken leader in the field (two straight Gold Glove Awards) and at the plate (team-high 28 home runs and 97 RBIs in '05). With added protection in the heart of the order, Wells could have an even more productive year at the plate.

4. Troy Glaus, 3B:
Toronto is hoping Glaus can provide the power that the team has lacked since Carlos Delgado left town. Glaus, who won the World Series MVP with the Angels in 2002, will be a legitimate threat to hit 30-40 home runs and drive in 100 RBIs.

5. Lyle Overbay, 1B:
Overbay was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee and he brings solid defense at first base and a smooth swing to the lineup. The Jays love Overbay's ability to hit doubles and he should thrive on the fast FieldTurf at the Rogers Centre.

6. Shea Hillenbrand, DH:
Hillenbrand is entering this season a bit trimmer and with a revamped swing, which is designed to provide more power. He will be the primary DH, but he can also be a valuable asset at either first or third base if Glaus or Overbay needs a day off.

7. Bengie Molina, C:
Molina has two Gold Glove Awards under his belt and he's coming off his best offensive season. Toronto believes he and backup Gregg Zaun provide a talented catching tandem to lead a pitching staff that was the best in the division last year.

8. Aaron Hill, 2B:
Hill -- who split time between third base, shortstop and second base last year as a rookie -- takes over at second full-time this season after Gold Glove winner Orlando Hudson was traded to Arizona in the deal that brought Glaus to the Jays. Hill is more than adequate in the field and he has good offensive potential.

9. Russ Adams, SS:
Adams is entering his second full season as the starting shortstop. He needs to improve the throwing accuracy he displayed last year and he'll need to get on base more to be a successful table-setter in the big leagues.

ROTATION
1. Roy Halladay, RHP:
Halladay is fully recovered from the broken leg that ended his impressive 2005 campaign in July. This year, the right-hander will aim to pick up where he left off -- on pace to contend for a second American League Cy Young Award.

2. A.J. Burnett, RHP:
Burnett signed a five-year, $55 million deal with Toronto in December. The righty is reunited with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, who was his instructor in '02 with the Marlins, and Burnett is looking at his tenure with the Jays as a fresh start. If Burnett can finally reach his potential, he and Halladay will be a fearsome 1-2 punch.

3. Ted Lilly, LHP:
Lilly struggled in 2005, but his season was riddled with various injuries. This year, he pitched through his first injury-free Spring Training with Toronto and is hoping to regain the form that allowed him to post consecutive 12-win seasons and earned him a spot on the AL All-Star team in '04.

4. Josh Towers, RHP:
When Halladay and Lilly went down with injuries last year, Towers was one of the main reasons Toronto didn't collapse. The righty used his finesse approach to set career highs in wins (13), innings (208 1/3) and strikeouts (112). If Towers can repeat that performance, Toronto will be more than happy.

5. Gustavo Chacin, LHP:
Chacin was one of Toronto's biggest surprises last year. The southpaw won two Rookie of the Month awards -- the first time a pitcher accomplished that feat -- and finished with 13 wins. It'll be interesting to see how Chacin fares in his second season in the Majors, but the Jays are hoping he can manage similar results.

BULLPEN
Toronto's bullpen led the division in ERA last season, and that was without new closer B.J. Ryan, who posted a 2.35 ERA across his last two seasons with Baltimore. Ryan should bring a level of consistency to the ninth inning that Toronto has lacked for some time.

Ryan inked a five-year, $47 million deal with the Blue Jays this past winter and was selected to his first All-Star team in '05. The 6-foot-6 left-hander had more saves (36) last year than Toronto had as a whole (35).

The setup duties won't be limited to just one pitcher. Toronto manager John Gibbons prefers to play the hot hand in any given game. His setup pitchers will primarily be right-handers Justin Speier and Jason Frasor, who both have experience as closers.

Left-hander Scott Schoeneweis, who made a team-high 80 appearances last year, will mostly be used as a situational pitcher. Righty Vinnie Chulk, who had a 3.88 ERA in 62 games in his second big-league season, will be a middle reliever. Right-hander Pete Walker and left-hander Scott Downs will fill the long relief roles and can help out the starting rotation, if needed.

OPENING DELAYED
Burnett had scar tissue from his 2003 Tommy John surgery break off in his elbow in a start on March 18 and he left the game due to the discomfort. His rehabilitation has been slow and steady, but he should be ready to pitch for Toronto some time in early-to-mid April. Burnett will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list, but he'll be eligible to come off the DL on April 8 -- making him available to possibly pitch in the second week.

Having scar tissue break off is a normal aftereffect of elbow ligament replacement surgery and it's not something that is expected to happen again in the next few years, if at all. Some players who undergo the procedure never have scar tissue break off, but if it does happen, the elbow usually grows stronger afterwards.

Zaun will begin the year on the DL due to a pulled right calf muscle he suffered during Spring Training. He has been able to throw and hit without any issues, but running has been a problem. The injury shouldn't keep Zaun on the shelf for too long, though.

BURNING QUESTION
How will Toronto handle the right field platoon of Rios and Hinske this season? Both players had productive springs after learning they'd be in competition for playing time in right.

Rios didn't lose a beat during Spring Training, even after receiving limited at-bats for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He is a talented defensive player, has good speed on the bases and he retooled his swing so he can continue to improve pulling the ball, which helps him generate more power. The Blue Jays still believe Rios can become an offensive weapon, but if he's only going to be in the lineup against left-handed pitchers -- his part of the platoon -- he might not get enough consistent at-bats to develop steadily.

Hinske, who is slated to be in the lineup against right-handed pitchers, hit lefties well in March, too -- trying to show the club that he can handle the full-time job. The risky part of having Hinske platoon in right is less about offense, though. Hinske has been a corner infielder for the last four seasons and hasn't played outfield since Double-A. So far, he's made a relatively smooth transition.

ON THE RECORD
"I think they all know the expectations. The last few years that I've been here, you came in just hoping you would improve on the previous year. ... This year, we made some key additions, and you add that to what we did last year, and there's some optimism." -- Gibbons

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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