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Toronto Blue Jays Adam Lind greets teammates after hitting a fourth-inning two-run, home run off New York Yankees reliever David Phelps. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)
Toronto Blue Jays Adam Lind greets teammates after hitting a fourth-inning two-run, home run off New York Yankees reliever David Phelps. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Jeff Blair

Blue Jays defence still a work in progress Add to ...



It is true that Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells had exceeded their best-by dates with the Toronto Blue Jays well after they'd exceeded their best-buy dates. But going into Friday's opener, the defensive ramifications of their absence ought not to be dismissed.

That is less the case with Wells since his centre-field replacement, Rajai Davis, looks the part of somebody who can more than adequately fill in. That from no less an authority than Jose Bautista, a minor-league teammate of Davis's while both were working their way up through the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization and who has a vested interest in Davis's performance now that Bautista will be in right field.

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Bautista lauds Davis's range, but is also bullish on his decision-making.

"He's very quick with his catch and release and he makes good decisions when to throw the ball and hold the runner at first base," Bautista said Thursday. "That's huge in this division because you don't want to give up extra bases and take the double play out of order."

Defence was the first priority as the Blue Jays worked out for the first time this season at Rogers Centre. Gone is the Florida sunshine. Time to get used to the home ballpark's roof and the quirks of its artificial grass. That meant extra work tracking down pop-ups for the catchers and detailed work with Adam Lind, who is replacing the underrated defence of Overbay at first base, and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion.

The Blue Jays decided to move Bautista to right field while swallowing hard and crossing their fingers and putting Encarnacion at third just before leaving Florida, but it was a decision that had been the subject of internal discussions for weeks. General manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell and his coaching staff had agreed before spring training they'd meet halfway, determining that Bautista's on-field position was "the first priority," according to Farrell.

Encarnacion's hands were never an issue, but his throwing was a liability. He has become serviceable - which Farrell categorized as "major-league average" - at third in part because he shed 12 pounds.

Beyond that, however, it is also widely accepted that Brent Lawrie's eye-opening performance placed him on such a fast track at Triple-A Las Vegas that Bautista was inevitably going to be moved back to right at some point soon. It is, for Farrell, a matter of balance between defence and offence: Bautista's value is maximized in right, even though the guess here is the decision was not unanimous. The fact that New York Yankees third base coach Rob Thomson told a member of the coaching staff in an unguarded moment that Bautista's arm was a "game-changer" didn't hurt either.

Balance is something that Farrell believes Lind has rediscovered back at the position he played in college, instead of dealing with the downtime associated with his previous role as designated hitter.

"It's allowed him to be more in the flow of the game," said Farrell, who sees Lind's reclamation of his sweet, left-centre stroke as an outward sign of contentment.

After Thursday's workout and batting practice were finished, Lind and third base coach Brian Butterfield, who is also infield coach, put in extra work. The pair surveyed the area around first base with grounds-crew members and Butterfield stood in shallow left-centre and smacked a bucket of balls in the direction of Lind at first base - backspins, liners, the works. Half an hour before, Encarnacion, Butterfield and adviser Luis Rivera - a former major-league infielder who smoothed over any linguistic misunderstandings - had a detailed skull session, with Butterfield all hops and throwing and catching motions and Encarnacion nodding, tossing a ball in the air. Spring training is finished, but the work goes on toughening what could be the soft, white underbelly of the 2011 Blue Jays.

 

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