Blue Jays have positive approach this season

Blue Jays have positive approach this season

Blue Jays have positive approach this season
The new-look Blue Jays will put general manager Alex Anthopoulos' busy offseason to the test when Spring Training opens next week in Dunedin, Fla.

Expectations for the young squad are high following a 2010 season in which they won a surprising 85 games. First-time manager John Farrell is armed with a new offense and a revamped bullpen, as the club will try to narrow the gap between the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees in the powerful American League East.

Jose Bautista takes over the leadership role on the team following the departure of Vernon Wells. He will be expected to carry the burden on offense after hitting a Major League-leading 54 home runs last season. The 30-year-old is eligible for free agency at the end of the year, and his production will go a long way to determining his true value.

Adam Lind and Aaron Hill will attempt to get back to their 2009 form, which saw the pair win AL Silver Slugger Awards while combining to hit 71 home runs and 222 RBIs. If Hill and Lind are able to have bounce-back seasons, it should help offset the loss of center fielder Vernon Wells, catcher John Buck and first baseman Lyle Overbay.

On the starting staff, left-hander Ricky Romero likely will take over the No. 1 role after the offseason trade of Shaun Marcum. He will be joined by Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil, while top prospect Kyle Drabek will embark on what is expected to be his first full season in the Major Leagues.

In the bullpen, the Blue Jays take on a much different look compared to 2010. Gone are veterans Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs, but they have been replaced by a trio of pitchers who provide depth to the back end of the staff. Right-handers Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel will all be in the mix and should help the relief corps become one of the strengths of the team.

It's a more inexperienced squad than the one from 2010 that led the Major Leagues with 257 home runs. But it's also a club could once again become one of the surprise stories in the Major Leagues if the team reaches its potential.

Spring Training
Previews
Pitchers & Catchers

Spring Training links
Spring Training tickets
Travel packages
Spring Training schedule

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 14

Full squad reports

Feb. 19

First Spring Training game

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Detroit Tigers, Feb. 26, 1:05 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Minnesota Twins, April 1, 7:07 p.m. ET

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will win the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation?
The competition for the final spot in the Blue Jays' starting rotation is wide open. There appears to be three serious contenders for the role: Jesse Litsch, Marc Rzepczynski and rookie Zach Stewart.

Of the three, Litsch has the most experience, having gone 21-24 with a 4.10 ERA over his four-year career. He has missed the majority of the past two seasons because of a variety of injuries, but will be looking to secure his spot in 2011.

Rzepczynski entered the 2010 campaign as a favorite to win a starting role, but suffered an injury during Spring Training and was unable to get his season back on track. When the year was over, the 25-year-old played winter ball for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League. There, he regained some of his old form, going 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA over 31 innings of work.

Stewart has yet to make his Major League debut, but enjoyed a successful season in 2010 with Double-A New Hampshire. He arguably outpitched Drabek down the stretch, and a strong Spring Training could be enough to make the case that he is ready for the Major Leagues.

Also looking to enter the competition are Scott Richmond, Brad Mills and Jo-Jo Reyes. All three are considered long shots to win the job.

2. Who will be the closer?
Francisco enters Spring Training as the early favorite to win the job. The 31-year-old, who was acquired in an offseason trade for catcher Mike Napoli, recorded 25 saves with the Rangers in 2009. He has a dominating split-finger fastball, which helped limit left-handers to just a .205 batting average last season. His power arm should translate well to the back of the Blue Jays' bullpen.

Also in the mix will be fellow right-handers Rauch and Dotel. Last season, Rauch recorded 21 saves in Minnesota while filling in for the injured Joe Nathan, but eventually lost his job after the Twins made a midseason trade for Matt Capps. Dotel recorded a combined 22 saves with three different organizations in 2010, but struggled against left-handers, allowing them to hit .301 over 22 innings.

3. Will Jose Bautista be able to duplicate his 54 home run season from 2010?
Bautista was by far the Blue Jays' biggest surprise last year. The Dominican native entered the season having never hit more than 16 home runs, but he finished the 2010 campaign with a franchise-record 54.

He credited a slight modification in his swing for the drastic increase, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to continue that success in 2011. Bautista will once again benefit from the friendly confines of Rogers Centre and likely will open the season as the club's No. 3 hitter. That's a big change from 2010, when he entered Spring Training as the Blue Jays' leadoff man and spent several weeks bouncing around the lineup before finding a regular spot in the order.

2010 record

85-77, fourth in the American League East

Projected batting order

1. CF Rajai Davis:
  .284 BA, .320 OBP, .377 SLG, 5 HR, 52 RBI in 2010
2. SS Yunel Escobar:
  .256 BA, .337 OBP, .318 SLG, 4 HR, 35 RBI in 2010
3. 3B Jose Bautista:
  .260 BA, .378 OBP, .617 SLG, 54 HR, 124 RBI in 2010
4. 1B Adam Lind:
  .237 BA, .287 OBP, .425 SLG, 23 HR, 72 RBI in 2010
5. 2B Aaron Hill:
  .205 BA, .271 OBP, .394 SLG, 26 HR, 68 RBI in 2010
6. LF Travis Snider:
  .255 BA, .304 OBP, .463 SLG, 14 HR, 32 RBI in 2010
7. DH Edwin Encarnacion:
  .244 BA, .305 OBP, .482 SLG, 21 HR, 51 RBI in 2010
8. RF Juan Rivera:
  .252 BA, .312 OBP, .409 SLG, 15 HR, 52 RBI in 2010
9. C J.P. Arencibia:
  .143 BA, .189 OBP, .343 SLG, 2 HR, 4 RBI in 2010

Projected rotation

1. LHP Ricky Romero, 14-9, 3.73 ERA in 2010
2. RHP Brandon Morrow, 10-7, 4.49 ERA in 2010
3. LHP Brett Cecil, 15-7, 4.22 ERA in 2010
4. RHP Kyle Drabek, 0-3, 4.76 ERA in 2010
5. RHP Jesse Litsch, 1-5, 5.79 ERA in 2010

Projected bullpen

Closer: Frank Francisco, 2/6 saves, 3.76 ERA in 2010
RH setup man: Jon Rauch, 3.12 ERA in 2010
LH setup man: David Purcey, 3.71 ERA in 2010

The new guys

CF Davis: Davis provides the Blue Jays with an element of speed the club hasn't had since Shannon Stewart. The 30-year-old, who has recorded 91 stolen bases over the past two seasons, will start every day in center field and will bat out of the leadoff spot. That should give Farrell another offensive weapon to use after the club finished last in the AL with 58 steals last season. Davis was acquired in November from Oakland for a pair of low-level prospects.

RF Rivera: Rivera suffered a disappointing year in 2010, but he is only one year removed from a season in which he hit 25 home runs and 88 RBIs. Rivera, who is set to make $5.5 million in the final year of his contract, was a throw-in by the Angels in the trade for Wells to help the club cut salary. Anthopoulos believes if he can get back to his 2009 form, though, he can come close to equaling the offensive value the club had in Wells.

RP Francisco: The 31-year-old will enter Spring Training as the early favorite to win the closer's job, as he has the most proven track record of any candidate. He has limited left-handed batters to just a .214 average over his six-year career, and gives the Blue Jays a potentially dominating right-hander to close out tight ballgames.

RP Rauch: The big righty joined the Blue Jays through free agency on a one-year contract with a club option for 2012. The 6-foot-11 right hander finished the 2010 season in Minnesota with a 3-1 record and a 3.12 ERA while striking out 46 over 57 2/3 innings. He'll have a chance to compete for the closer's job, but will settle into an eighth-inning role if he can't win the role.

RP Dotel: The 37-year-old Dotel signed a one-year contract with the Blue Jays in early January. He was expected to open the season as the club's closer, but that may not be the case following the recent additions of Francisco and Rauch. The Dominican native dominates right-handed batters. Last season, he held them to a .166 batting average over 42 innings, but he has also struggled notoriously in recent years against lefties.

Prospects to watch

SP Stewart: Stewart has a shot to make the Blue Jays' starting rotation out of Spring Training, but most likely will begin the season in the Minor Leagues. In 2010, the 24-year-old went 8-3 with a 3.63 ERA and 106 strikeouts over 26 starts for Double-A New Hampshire. He has been viewed as a potential future closer, but for now the club would like to develop him as a starter. Even if he doesn't make the team right away, Stewart has a very realistic shot of making his Major League debut in 2011 if a starter goes down with an injury.

3B Brett Lawrie: The Blue Jays acquired top prospect Lawrie from Milwaukee for last season's No. 1 starter Shaun Marcum. The native of British Columbia just turned 21 and is expected to begin the season with Triple-A Las Vegas. He is set to begin the transition to third base after spending the past two years as a second baseman in the Brewers' Minor League system. It's unlikely that he will make his debut in 2011, but that could change if Bautista suffers a serious injury.

SS Adeiny Hechavarria: Toronto signed the Cuban native to a four-year, $12 million contract in April of 2010. The 21-year-old got off to a slow start in his North American debut, but he eventually advanced to Double-A New Hampshire, where he hit .273 with three home runs and 34 RBIs. He is one of the best defensive infielders in the game, but will need to continue to improve at the plate before he can make an impact at the Major League level. He will remain in the Minor Leagues this season unless Escobar or Hill go down with an injury.

On the rebound

DH Encarnacion: Encarnacion was limited to just 96 games in 2010, in part because of a wrist injury and an unfortunate offseason incident involving a firecracker that exploded near his face. He still managed to produce 21 home runs in 332 at-bats, and the Blue Jays believe the transition from third base to DH will help him stay healthy. Anthopoulos stated earlier in the offseason that he thinks Encarnacion has the potential to become a 30 home-run hitter in the American League East.

LF Snider: Snider has been in the Major Leagues for three years, but he has yet to play a full season because of a variety of injuries. Last year, it was a bad wrist that limited him to 82 games. The native of Washington is still just 22 years old, and his future with the Blue Jays remains bright.

SP Litsch: Litsch has spent more time on the disabled list than in the Major Leagues over the past two years. In 2009, his season was cut short in April because of an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. In 2010, it was a right hip injury that required surgery and forced his season to end prematurely for the second consecutive year. This upcoming season may be his last chance to prove that he is a reliable candidate for a spot in Toronto's starting rotation.

Long gone

C John Buck: Buck only spent one season in Toronto, but it was the best of his career. The 30-year-old hit .281 with 20 home runs and 66 RBIs over 118 games. Those lofty numbers enabled him to receive a three-year, $18 million free-agent contract from the Florida Marlins. Toronto was never a serious contender to re-sign him because the club wanted to make room for Arencibia.

1B Lyle Overbay: Overbay's five-year tenure in Toronto came to an end in December when he signed a one-year contract with the Pirates. The Blue Jays didn't make an offer to keep the veteran infielder because they wanted to give Lind a shot to prove his worth at first base. There's little doubt that Toronto will miss Overbay's defense at first, where he is considered one of the best in the game.

CF Wells: The Blue Jays traded Wells and the remainder of his enormous contract -- four years and $86 million -- to the Angels in January for Napoli and Rivera. Wells spent the first 12 years of his career in Toronto and joined the franchise's all-time leaders in games played, hits, home runs and RBIs. He was the unofficial leader in the clubhouse, and his presence will be missed by a young and relatively inexperienced ballclub.

RP Gregg: The Blue Jays declined to pick up a pair of options on Gregg's contract at the end of the season, which allowed him to enter the free agent market. He eventually signed a two-year, $10 million contract with Baltimore, and he is expected to compete for their closer role. Last season in Toronto, he went 2-6 with a 3.51 ERA and 37 saves, but at times struggled with his control.

RP Downs: Downs established himself as one of the most reliable setup men in baseball during his six-year career in Toronto. The 34-year-old posted a 20-18 record and a 3.13 ERA during that time, and he held lefties to a .152 batting average in 2010. Downs, who was a Type A free agent, signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Angels during the offseason. Toronto will now lean on left-hander David Purcey to try and replace his innings.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.