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Rebuilding Blue Jays have several holes to fill Add to ...

BASEBALL REPORTER

That the Toronto Blue Jays are ruminating over the possibility of having Lyle Overbay bat leadoff speak volumes about the fragile state of the franchise as it begins preparations for the 2010 baseball season.

The American League East outfit that stumbled to a 75-87 record in 2009 begins gathering here this weekend, for the official start of spring training - with the first workout for pitchers and catchers slated for Monday. The first full-squad workout will take place Feb. 26.

Cito Gaston, who turns 66 next month and is heading into his swan song as the Blue Jays manager before taking on an advisory role with the club, is likely embarking into his most challenging season of his career.

A couple weeks ago, at the team's annual state-of-the-franchise event for season-ticket holders in Toronto, Gaston predicted some wild and crazy things could be in store for a team that is in full-blown rebuilding mode.

His biggest task by far will be to try and construct a decent starting rotation in the absence of Roy Halladay, one of the game's premier pitchers, who was traded in December to the Philadelphia Phillies. Halladay's 2009 line - 239 innings, 17 wins, 2.79 earned-run average, nine complete games and 208 strikeouts - will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

The Jays are hoping either Ricky Romero or Shaun Marcum, who missed all of last season recovering from elbow surgery, can step up and claim the role as the No. 1 starter.

Hard-throwing Brandon Morrow, acquired in an off-season trade with the Seattle Mariners, and left-handed veteran Brian Tallet are also in the mix for rotation spots. After that, the race is wide open as the Blue Jays will look to fill openings with still-wet-behind-the-ears hurlers, including Marc Rzepczynski and Brett Cecil, who were rookies last year.

"We have a lot of candidates and we have a lot of flexibility with the roster in respect to options," said Alex Anthopoulos, who is entering his first season as the Blue Jays general manager. "I think that will probably be the most competitive part of spring training."

Gaston also has concerns with who will bat leadoff in place of Marco Scutaro, who left to join the Boston Red Sox via free agency. While it is expected the job will fall to Jose Bautista (likely the team's starting right fielder), the Blue Jays have not ruled out the possibility Overbay, a left-handed hitter and veteran first baseman, could handle the task.

That should provide plenty of fodder for Jays critics, noting Overbay's .265 batting average from a year ago, including a meagre .190 against left-handed pitching.

But in considering his leadoff credentials, the Blue Jays note that after Scutaro, Overbay's .372 on-base percentage was the best among the team's regulars. And with 74 walks, he also comes into camp with more free passes than any other returning player.

"Why not try him there?" one Blue Jays insider said. "At least he gets on base."

Gaston will also be challenged by a variety of other issues this spring right through to autumn, including:

Finding a reliable closer from the ranks, a list that includes both right-hander Jason Fraser and fragile lefty Scott Downs, who shared the duty for most of last season. The Blue Jays signed free-agent right-hander Kevin Gregg during the off-season and he is also in the mix;

How to best handle Travis Snider, who just turned 22 and is viewed as a cornerstone of the future. The left-handed hitter snacked nine home runs in his rookie campaign last season, but his confidence at the plate waned considerably as he struggled to hit off-speed pitches. Snider has been told he is not guaranteed a job with the big-league club and could start the year in the minors:

Trying to light a fire under Vernon Wells, the centre fielder who is entering his 12th season with the team. The 31-year-old had his third consecutive sub-par season in 2009, both at the plate and in the field, where he appeared a step slower chasing down fly balls.

THE HITTERS

While the starting pitching is a relative unknown, the Toronto Blue Jays are hoping their offence will be a constant.

General manager Anthopoulos knows it won't be easy, given he does not expect either Aaron Hill or Adam Lind to replicate the power show they put on in 2009, when they combined for 71 home runs and 220 runs batted in.

"We're expecting them both to be good players and both to be a big part of the lineup," Anthopoulos said. "Knowing what type of players they are, the numbers will take care of themselves. But to expect them to produce at the level they did probably wouldn't be fair."

Anthopoulos said Jays manager Gaston will have the ultimate say as to who bats where, but the rookie GM added that Bautista is the odds-on favourite to replace Scutaro in the leadoff spot.

Gaston has suggested he might want to slide Hill, who hit out of the two-hole all of last season, back down to third spot to give him more opportunities to drive in runs and insert Lind as the cleanup batter. But should Lind balk at the pressure of hitting cleanup, the Jays might wind up slotting Edwin Encarnacion there instead.

Anthopoulos said Encarnacion's eight home runs in only 154 at-bats with the Blue Jays last season, and the 26 homers the year before playing with the Cincinnati Reds, is a sign he has the power to handle the job. "It wouldn't surprise me to see him hit 25 this year," the GM said.

THE PITCHERS

The Blue Jays will have some 32 hurlers not named Roy Halladay fighting for 12 jobs this spring, including five in the starting rotation. Here is how things might look from a starter's perspective heading into the 2010 season:

1. Ricky Romero: The team's No. 1 draft pick in 2005, the quietly confident left-hander finally proved his worth last season, making the club out of spring training and going on to a surprising 13-9 record in his rookie campaign. Although he tired considerably as the year wore on, Romero still logged 178 innings and should be up for 200-plus this season.

2. Shaun Marcum: The wild card in the group, he's coming back after missing the entire 2009 campaign after ligament-replacement surgery. If he can return to the form he displayed in 2007, when he did not suffer a loss until his 11th start, ending with an 11-4 record and 3.91 ERA, it will make Halladay's absence that much easier to swallow.

3. Brian Tallet: The versatile lefty was invaluable last season, beginning as a solid middle-relief man before injuries required his move into the rotation, where he started 25 games. His veteran presence would be a calming influence on a young and inexperienced staff.

4. Brandon Morrow: The Blue Jays are really high on this right-hander, who was obtained in a trade with the Seattle Mariners for reliever Brandon League. A first-round pick in 2006, Brandon's fastball is consistently clocked in the high 90s, but control issues have stalled his development. "He reminds me a lot of [New York Yankees starter]A. J. Burnett in terms of the delivery and the stuff," Anthopoulos said when the team acquired Morrow.

5. Marc Rzepczynski: Known as Scrabble to some of his fans, injuries forced the fast-tracking of this lefty, who skipped all the way from Double-A into the majors last season. He more than held his own, going 2-4 in 11 starts before the Jays shut him down for the year. Along the way, Rzepczynski posted a 3.67 ERA, while striking out 60 in 611/3 innings.

***

PROJECTED LINEUP

Here is what the Toronto Blue Jays opening-day lineup could look like:

1. Jose Bautista, RF

2. Lyle Overbay, 1B

3. Aaron Hill, 2B

4. Adam Lind, DH

5. Vernon Wells, CF

6. Edwin Encarnacion, 3B

7. Travis Snider, LF

8. John Buck, C

9. Alex Gonzalez, SS

 

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