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Blue Jays optimistic because of depth

Blue Jays optimistic because of depth

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Blue Jays optimistic because of depth
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Alex Anthopoulos might not have made the big splash many people were expecting during the offseason, but his returning core of young players has the Blue Jays general manager thinking big in 2012.

Toronto began its full-squad workouts on Saturday afternoon at the Bobby Mattick Training Center with a roster mostly intact from the end of last year and plenty of promise for the future.

Despite the lack of major additions, the overall look of this team is much different than the squad that began the 2011 campaign, and another wave of young talent is on the horizon and almost ready to take the next step.

"There's no doubt about it, this is probably the best I've felt about the talent we have in the organization top to bottom," Anthopoulos said on Saturday morning. "I just feel we're really starting to solidify, we did a lot of work drafting and developing and so on, that's going to continue, but at the same time, the big league roster just continues to get better and better and there's more talent there.

"I think we have a very competitive team and I told our players that today. I don't think there's anything wrong with any expectations at all. I think they all believe in themselves and I certainly do as well. This is the best the group has been since I've been the GM."

Toronto began last year with several spare parts on its Opening Day roster that were acquired to bide time for future moves and prospects in the Minor Leagues. Veterans Juan Rivera, Corey Patterson, and Jayson Nix headed north while the likes of Brett Lawrie and Eric Thames received more seasoning in Triple-A Las Vegas.

The veteran trio combined to hit just .233 with 16 home runs and 77 RBIs in 700 at-bats. The threesome has since departed, while Lawrie established himself as an everyday player, Thames is set to compete for the starting job in left field against Travis Snider and Colby Rasmus was acquired to boost production in center field.

Injuries are bound to happen every season and this year will be no different, but when those major ailments do occur, Toronto should be well-equipped to handle the burden. Outfielder Anthony Gose, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria and catcher Travis d'Arnaud are all set to begin the year in Las Vegas but will be ready for the next level if the need arises.

"I think you can probably say the same to every position on the field," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "The depth, particularly with the young players that are working their way up through the system ... whether they're original Draft choices or guys that we've signed, is a huge step forward from the group that was assembled a year ago.

"I think that can be said one through nine as far as the positions go. Whether or not that depth allows us to translate into more wins remains to be seen. But we would hope that the dropoff from our front-line guy to the guy that would be filling in would not be as drastic."

A similar stance can be taken with the starting rotation. A series of injuries and lack of organizational depth forced the Blue Jays to hand over 49 starts in 2011 to Jo-Jo Reyes, Carlos Villanueva, Jesse Litsch, Brad Mills and Luis Perez. Litsch (4.66 ERA) was the only starter to post an ERA below 5.15 out of that group.

This time around, the Blue Jays can turn to a multitude of top pitching prospects should the need arise. Drew Hutchison, Deck McGuire and Chad Jenkins won't break camp with the team but are nearing the stage where they will be considered if a spot opens up because of injury or prolonged struggles.

The same can be said for right-hander Kyle Drabek, who suffered through a disappointing rookie campaign but has overhauled his pitching mechanics during the offseason in the hope of finding the control and consistency required to regain his status as one of the top young pitchers in the game.

"The depth that we do have is all kids, but kids with talent and ceiling and upside," said Anthopoulos, whose team finished with an even 81-81 record last season. "From that standpoint, a year from now we could be talking about a rotation where we have too many guys, which is great. It really changes that fast with the guys we have that would end up on the five-man [rotation] and then the guys that are right behind them in [Double-A] New Hampshire.

"I just think if things are going to really develop, there is a lot of ceiling. In 2010, you look at the fifth-starter's spot, really we had a lot of bodies there, but you look at the four starters that we ran out there, they all had very good years, so I think we're capable of doing the same thing with maybe a little bit more than that."

The overall depth is not something a lot of organizations have the luxury of possessing. While the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Rangers have the type of payroll to fill in glaring holes, Toronto opted to take a different approach when Anthopoulos took over as general manager in the fall of 2009.

The Blue Jays stockpiled extra Draft picks through free-agent compensation and went over slot to fill its system with as much high-end talent as possible. Just over two years later, the fruits of labor are beginning to show and likely will be on full display before the season is out.

There's also increased flexibility on the Blue Jays' roster, which should give Farrell plenty of options when the year begins. Veteran outfielders Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco are slated for the bench, while Edwin Encarnacion has the ability to play first, third and possibly even left field.

The versatility those righties provide could allow Farrell to shake things up with his four lefties in the starting lineup when a tough southpaw takes the mound for the opposing team.

"The fact that we started last season with a lot of right-handed bats was something we wanted to balance out," Anthopoulos said. "Now we have a lot of left-handed bats, so we have a nice blend. Having the right-handed bats coming off the bench, John has some other options and it adds to that depth."

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.

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