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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow works against the San Francisco Giants during first inning interleague MLB baseball action in Toronto Friday, June 18, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow works against the San Francisco Giants during first inning interleague MLB baseball action in Toronto Friday, June 18, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

Jays refine strategy Add to ...

The Toronto Blue Jays made great developmental progress with their young starting staff during the first half of the season and they can only hope their position players make similar strides to close out 2010.

Brett Cecil leads the team with eight wins while fellow sophomore lefty Ricky Romero logged a team-high 116 1-3 innings. Brandon Morrow is beginning to resemble a future ace while Shaun Marcum's stint on the DL has been the only blip in his return from elbow surgery.

But while a pitching staff for years to come is starting to take shape, the lineup of the future has been slower in coming.

Veterans like Vernon Wells, John Buck, Jose Bautista and the now-traded Alex Gonzalez have put up big numbers while core players like Aaron Hill and Adam Lind have struggled badly. A wrist injury stalled Travis Snider's progress just as he was emerging from a slow start and none of the team's top hitting prospects has yet to break through.

That's why strengthening the team positionally is becoming a point of emphasis for general manager Alex Anthopoulos and his ever-busy staff.

"I think it's fair to say that's probably the area we feel right now we'd like to focus on a little bit more," he said. "I think young controllable starters have certainly been the backbone of this team and we need to continue to try and solidify and get more core players on the diamond."

Wednesday's trade of Gonzalez and two prospects to the Atlanta Braves for fellow shortstop Yunel Escobar and minor-league lefty Jo-Jo Reyes was a step in that direction.

Escobar joins Hill, Lind, Snider, Wells and, it is increasingly becoming apparent, Bautista as the only current position players who project into the mid- to long-term plans for the Blue Jays.

Catcher J.P. Arencibia and first baseman Brett Wallace are both in the midst of strong seasons with triple-A Las Vegas, but call ups do not appear imminent.

Escobar is the first addition to that group from outside the organization this season, although Bautista's emergence (he led the majors with 24 homers before Thursday's play) also added another piece.

More parts may arrive before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, as Anthopoulos has several strong chips to play with in relievers Scott Downs, Kevin Gregg (who has club options for next year or the next two seasons) and Jason Frasor, plus catcher Buck and first baseman Lyle Overbay, all potential free agents.

But anyone who thinks Anthopoulos will scorch the ground just to get rid of them hasn't been paying attention. It looks like all four players will qualify for draft pick compensation should they sign elsewhere, so only an asset of significance will pry them away since the Blue Jays are under no financial pressure to deal them.

Additionally, Anthopoulos doesn't want his young players to develop in a negative, losing culture, so he won't pick the team apart unless it's really worth it.

"Naturally the assumption is (the Gonzalez trade) is a precursor to a flurry of other moves and a look to move veteran players," said Anthopoulos. "We're not looking to shop any of our players, or move any of our players specifically.

"I try to keep in touch with teams and continue to have dialogue and it's more a process where we target players, we call teams about specific players."

That was how Escobar was brought into the fold, and his addition may test the good vibes that have existed in the clubhouse all year.

Given all the anonymous criticism of him from former teammates and shots against him by some media, it's clear people had their knives out for Escobar in Atlanta.

In Toronto, he'll have Bautista, on request from Anthopoulos, looking out for him and if he bounces back, his image could be quickly rehabilitated. That's kind of how things played out for Alex Rios, whom the Jays dumped last August but is now thriving with the White Sox.

Another thing playing in Escobar's favour is that the Blue Jays clubhouse has been a place for young players to thrive this season.

"I hate to bring up Doc (Roy Halladay) in kind of a not-so-good way," Cecil said. "But with him here it was a little bit tighter, as far as the pitching staff goes. Now, we have the biggest goofball on the team, Marcum, as our ace, which is awesome. I think that's kind of what we needed.

"Last year, if you'd lose a tough game, everybody seemed to come in, sit at their locker, walk silently to go eat, stuff like that. I mean, you don't want to sit here and laugh and giggle after you lose a game, but obviously you need it to be a little loose.

"Losses are a part of this game. Failure is a huge part of this game. I just think you can't have that tightness and tension walking around the clubhouse. I think it's got to be really loose."

Wells may be another strong influence on Escobar.

Though his leadership has often been maligned in some quarters over the years, the 31-year-old has always been an excellent manager of clubhouse personalities by bridging gaps between different groups.

This season, he's done a good job making the younger players feel welcome.

"I'm obviously the guy who's been around here the longest, I've seen a lot of different things in this game so it just allows me to be a person for guys to come talk to, no matter if it is on or off the field," said Wells.

"I think you try to be the same person towards everyone," he continued. "I've never looked at how many days guys have in the big-leagues, some people get caught up on service time and things like that, but we're all trying to do the same thing, get better at this level."

Cementing gains made in the first half, and pushing them forward in the second is what the Blue Jays must do to keep making that happen.

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