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Jays' hot start portends future success

Jays' hot start portends success

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays were well aware that things weren't going to be easy in the American League East this year. During the Winter Meetings, well before the season began, manager Cito Gaston described the coming campaign more as a bridge to 2010 than anything else.

Then, the Blue Jays went and stormed out of the gates, enjoying one of the best starts in franchise history.

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It could now be called a tease, with Toronto having slipped back to fourth place in the division in the weeks following its torrid start. The club would rather view it as a glimpse of a possible future, where a strong offense and a talented pitching staff make the Jays contenders again.

Injuries have forced the Jays to throw a pile of inexperienced pitchers into the fire, and the results have been predictably inconsistent. In spurts, the young arms that have come and gone in the rotation have flashed plenty of potential, giving Toronto some hope for coming seasons.

With the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays leapfrogging over the Blue Jays in the division down the stretch in the first half, the season's second portion is more about looking ahead than trying to make a run at a playoff spot. That goal might have to wait until Toronto's fluctuating roster becomes more stable, and more experienced.

"This division is just going to get better," Gaston said. "It's just going to be a very interesting division to follow for a long time."

Club MVP: After suffering a serious concussion that cost him the majority of last season, second baseman Aaron Hill has fashioned one of the best comeback stories of the year. Hill, who earned the first All-Star selection of his career, has already set the franchise record for home runs in a season by a second baseman (20) and has been a catalyst for Toronto's offense.

Call him "Ace": Roy Halladay finished as the runner-up for the AL Cy Young Award last season and he's on his way to being a contender for the honor again this year. Even with two weeks spent on the disabled list in June, Doc is among the league leaders in wins (10), innings (123) and ERA (2.85). Halladay's name is the focus of trade rumors right now, but he's concentrating on leading Toronto's young rotation.

Greatest strength: The Jays' offense has the potential to carry the club. Early in the season, Toronto's lineup was pacing the league, helping the club to one of the best starts it had ever experienced. Through June and July, though, the offense as a whole began to lag. That didn't stop Hill, shortstop Marco Scutaro, third baseman Scott Rolen and left fielder Adam Lind from having stellar first-half showings.

Biggest problem: There have been three main dilemmas: injuries, inexperienced pitching and poor production from outfielders Alex Rios and Vernon Wells. Eight starters and two relievers have landed on the DL at some point already this season, forcing the club to cycle through a club-record 23 arms, including six rookie starters, in the first half. Rios and Wells opened the season as the Nos. 3-4 hitters, but were dropped to the sixth and seventh spots, respectively, due to their persistent struggles.

Biggest surprise: Rookie left-hander Ricky Romero. At the beginning of Spring Training, Romero was an afterthought in the race for the vacant rotation jobs. The lefty hung around and ultimately claimed the No. 4 spot on the staff to open the year. Since then, Romero -- selected sixth overall in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft -- has been one of the league's top rookies, going 7-3 with a 2.96 ERA in 12 starts.

Team needs: As is the case with many clubs, pitching is the Blue Jays' primary need. Behind Halladay, the rotation has been fluid and the pitchers who have chipped in have been inconsistent. That has created more strain on the bullpen and added pressure on the offense. Toronto could also use another power bat -- preferably from the left side -- in the middle of its lineup. Given the club's current standing, it seems unlikely that the Jays will add to its roster.

He said it: "It's pretty amazing, isn't it? The pitching staff just seems to drop like flies. I've never had teams like that. When you win, you don't have teams like that. You win because you have good players. You win because they execute and they play well. But you also win because they stay healthy. If you can stay healthy, you have a chance." --Gaston, on the team's many injuries

Mark your calendar: The Blue Jays open the second half with a nine-game homestand at Rogers Centre, where the team has gone 25-18. The first series after the All-Star break is a three-game set against the rival Red Sox (July 17-19). All eyes will be on the Jays while they're in Oakland on July 31 for the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Time will tell if a team can present the right blockbuster package to pry Halladay away from Toronto.

Fearless second-half prediction: Romero will continue to be a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating season, capturing the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

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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