The Toronto Blue Jays will need improved performances across the board from their starters if they hope to contend this season. Last year, only Ricky Romero could be counted on to consistently pitch deep into games, averaging 7.03 innings per start. In 2011, Jays starters ranked ninth in the American League at 6.0 innings per outing. Brandon Morrow will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting. His rate of 10.19 strikeouts over nine innings was easily the best in the AL, and while his 179 1/3-innings pitched marked a career-high, Toronto is counting on at least 200 innings from its No. 2 man this year. Both have been lights out during the spring, with Romero not allowing an earned run in nine innings pitched in his first three appearances, while Morrow’s ERA is a miserly 0.86 through his first four outings. General manager Alex Anthopoulos is rolling the dice that Henderson Alvarez (10 major-league starts), Kyle Drabek (6.06 ERA in 2011) and Brett Cecil (slimmer but now velocity-challenged) will be able to tap into their potential.
Anthopoulos took pains to change the group that was saddled with 25 blown saves a year ago, resulting in 16 losses. Cut that mark in half and an 81-81 record transforms into 89-73, in the thick of the wild-card race. Manager John Farrell admits he mishandled the bullpen in his rookie year by not settling on a closer early on and defining set roles for the rest of the group. Sergio Santos was obtained in a trade and he will be the closer, looking to improve on the 30 saves he tallied last season with the Chicago White Sox. Francisco Cordero, who posted 37 saves with the Cincinnati Reds, was a free-agent addition brought in to be the eighth-inning setup man. That leaves Farrell with the likes of Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor to be called upon in the sixth or seventh; Luis Perez and Carlos Villanueva to handle long relief roles; newcomer Darren Oliver will function as a lefty specialist.
This group is considered solid, provided first baseman Adam Lind can shrug off recurring back issues, second baseman Kelly Johnson can revert to the form he displayed in 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Canadian Brett Lawrie, 22, can live up to the incredible buildup his first full season at third base is generating. The Blue Jays are sound at shortstop with the smooth presence of Yunel Escobar, who will bat leadoff. J.P. Arencibia will be behind the plate, looking to improve both defensively and on a .219 batting average, though he did hit 23 home runs in 2011. Lind, who will bat fourth and be expected to provide protection for slugger Jose Bautista, has experienced a recurrence of the back pain during spring training that landed him on the DL early last season. The Blue Jays don’t believe it is anywhere near as serious. Kelly, who hit .222 after joining the Jays late last season, has hit .318 through his first 16 spring training games, with a .388 on-base percentage – a good omen for the projected No. 2 hitter. Lawrie has picked right up where he left off last year, becoming just the fifth active player to hit at least nine home runs with 25 RBI in their first 35 career games. In spring training, Lawrie was hitting .567 through 12 games.
It has the potential to be potent, led by Bautista, the game’s most feared power hitters, lining up in right field. The 31-year-old has led the majors in home runs the last two years. Patience at the plate has been Bautista’s forte but over the second half of last season he was often victimized, chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Bautista hit .334 with 31 homers before the all-star break; .257 with just 12 dingers the rest of the way. Lining up in centre will be Colby Rasmus, who insists he has cleared his mind of all the ill will he gathered while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Rasmus hit just .173 in 35 games after being traded to Toronto last season. This spring, his .186 batting average through 16 games remains underwhelming. The only real battle among position players at camp was won by Eric Thames, who won the starter’s job in left over Travis Snider. Thames will have more pressure than any other player to produce in 2012, knowing Snider is just a phone call away in Triple-A.
Edwin Encarnacion will get most of his playing time at designated hitter, but his availability to also play both corner infield positions provides Farrell with options off the bench. That versatility will allow Toronto to carry two backup outfielders (Rajai Davis and newcomer Ben Francisco). Davis can be a game changer with his speed. Francisco will be useful as a defensive substitution late in games. Omar Vizquel showed in camp he still has defensive game at 44, and will provide backup at shortstop and second base. Jeff Mathis is considered an excellent defensive catcher to spell Arencibia.