February 2010

Rainy day in Dunedin

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The Blue Jays headed for cover today on a very rainy and cold (relatively speaking, of course) day at the club’s complex in Florida. The soaked fields were vacated and the pitchers and hitters took to the indoor cages for the day’s live “batting practice” sessions.

I use the quotation marks because there’s no swinging when the pitchers are working off a mound in the netted tunnels. They can track the movement of various pitches, but taking a hack in there today would have been dangerous.

Pitchers scheduled to work off the mound included Shaun Marcum, Scott Downs, Jesse Carlson, Marc Rzepczynski, Brandon Morrow, Jason Frasor, Daniel Farquhar, Casey Janssen, Robert Ray, Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo, Kyle Drabek, Brad Mills, Brian Tallet and Zach Jackson.

We caught up with Marcum in the clubhouse afterward and discussed his comeback from Tommy John surgery, the fact that he’s in the mix for the No. 1 starter’s job and what life is like sans Roy Halladay. Check bluejays.com later for more on Marcum and Romero’s bid for the Opening Day nod.

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Every Saturday from now until the end of camp, I plan on including my current predictions for the Opening Day roster. Two days into full-squad workouts, here is who I believe will be among the 25 players headed north:

PITCHERS – Starters: Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow, Brian Tallet, Marc Rzepczynski. Relievers: Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, Jesse Carlson, Casey Janssen, Jeremy Accardo

POS. PLAYERS: John Buck, Jose Molina, Lyle Overbay, Aaron Hill, Alex Gonzalez, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, Travis Snider, Vernon Wells, Jose Bautista, John McDonald, Joey Gathright, Randy Ruiz.

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EXCHANGE OF THE DAY:

Gregg: “How’d it go?”

Downs: “It went.”

Gregg: “Strike ‘em all out?”

Downs: “No. I gave up a homer to Lind.”

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TAKING A DAY: I will not be in camp covering the Blue Jays on Sunday. I am running the Tampa Marathon (my fourth career 26.2) in the morning and will be using the rest of the day to rest up. I’ll be back limping around camp on Monday. MLB.com reporter Anthony Dicomo will be filling in for me while I am gone.

For complete Blue Jays coverage this spring, make sure you’re reading bluejays.com and following me on Twitter at @MLBastian. You can also find spring photos on TwitPic.com.

~JB

Anthopoulos returns to camp

Anthopoulos2.jpgBack from the Dominican Republic, Blue Jays general manager was back in camp today with plenty other members of The Brass. Anthopoulos watched some batting practice and headed out to the fields to monitor the pitchers.

In between, AA took some time to chat with the media and he talked about visiting the Blue Jays’ new baseball academy in the D.R. and scouting some young players who will be eligible to be signed later this summer.

“Did you come back with any cigars?” one reporter asked. “Do you like Cubans?”

The group laughed and Anthopoulos knew the questions were less about whether he’d be firing one up with Jays president Paul Beeston and more about the other players he reportedly scouted while on the island. The Jays have been linked to Cuban first baseman Jose Julio Ruiz and might have interest in Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria.

“Without getting specific on players,” Anthopoulos replied, “we’re trying to be as aggressive as we can and really explore every player that’s out there — at least doing our homework and doing our due dilligence and making sure we’re scouting these players, evaluating them, getting to know them a little bit. And, obviously, finding what the price points are and if they line up with how we evaluate the player.

“That being said, are we going to see every international player? Probably not. But, that’s something that I just sat down with Marco [Paddy, director of Latin American operations] last week and we’re trying to devise a plan of, ‘How can we do our best to see as many of these players as we can?

“We’re trying to maybe be a little more aggressive and scout a little bit harder than we may have in the past.”

Highlights from the discussion with Anthopoulos:

  • The Blue Jays have plenty of money to spend on international free agents, if it makes sense and if the value the club places on the player is in line with the asking price. The money set aside for such signings does not take away from the pool of funds available for the upcoming First-Year Player Draft.
  • In terms of his drafting philosophy, Anthopoulos said he wants to target high impact, high ceiling players. Whether they are college or high school stars does not matter. He is not opposed to taking risks and he said he’d rather have two picks reach the Majors as high-impact players than five who reach the Majors as average players.
  • Anthopoulos said that drafting approach means the Jays will continue to stick with the best-available player style. Toronto will not select players based on team needs. Anthopoulos is excited about the potential to “beef up” the farm system this year, when they have nine picks in the first three rounds.
  • Right now, Anthopoulos does not see Brett Wallace making the Opening Day roster. The Jays want him to receive regular at-bats and also to have lots of playing time at first base. Wallace is making the move to first from third. Along the same lines, Kyle Drabek might have a great spring, but the Jays don’t want to rush his development.
  • Anthopoulos does not see a scenario in which Brandon Morrow would wind up in the bullpen. That could change way down the road, but Morrow is a starter — whether with the Jays or in the Minors. That said, while nothing is guaranteed, Anthopoulos said he expects Morrow to make the rotation. He has a job to lose.
  • The news about Dustin McGowan continues to be good, but Anthopoulos is sticking with a “cautiously optimistic” approach. He cited Casey Janssen, who had no restictions last spring, but ran into a setback once he began pitching in games. McGowan’s biggest hurdles will come once he begins appearing in Grapefruit League contests.
  • Anthopoulos said Randy Ruiz will get a good look this spring and said that he and Brian Dopirak are essentially competing against one another for a spot on the Opening Day roster. That echoes what manager Cito Gaston said on Wednesday. Ruiz arrived in camp on Thursday looking significantly trimmer.

BIRD FEED: Beyond the arrival of Ruiz, Jose Bautista also showed up in camp on Thursday for the Blue Jays. Right now, Bautista looks like the favorite to win the right field job and to bat leadoff for the Jays. … The only notable no-show so far is shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Position players are not required to be in camp until Friday, when the first official full-squad workout is scheduled. … Gaston was not in camp with the Blue Jays on Thursday because his wife was admitted to a local hospital. She underwent an apendectomy. Gaston is expected to be back in camp on Friday.

QUOTABLE: “I think with him, it’s just too early to tell. We’re so early in the process. I mean, if we get to that point that we start talking about an innings cap, I think that’s great news for us. That’d be a great problem to have.” –Anthopoulos, asked if McGowan might face an innings limit this season

CLUBHOUSE CONFIDENTIAL: The daily workout sheet’s “Quote of the Day” for Thursday was, “A sense of humor is needed to be a successful manager (and a good bullpen). — Whitey Herzog”

PHOTO OF THE DAY:

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Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton, braving the Florida tundra

That’s it for today. I have to go pick up Mrs. MLBastian and MLBastian Jr. from the airport. Catch you from the yard tomorrow…

For complete Blue Jays coverage this spring, make sure you’re reading bluejays.com and following me on Twitter at @MLBastian. You can also find spring photos on TwitPic.com.

~JB

Wells, Hill stepping up early

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He was in the batting cage taking swings and he was in the outfield shagging flies. He was joking around and smiling and looked a bit trimmer, even if he said he actually reduced his offseason workload. Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells arrived to camp.

One question entering camp was, “Who would replace Doc Halladay as the clear team leader?”

Over the past few years, Wells has been a clubhouse leader — there is no question about that. But, he even admitted on Wednesday that he felt like the team was only “partly” his because Halladay obviously filled the leadership role. Now, as Wells arrives in camp as the longest-tenured Jay, things are different.

Hill6.jpgSince we’ve been down here, it’s been clear that Aaron Hill has been ready and willing to step up as a leader for this young group. Manager Cito Gaston said Hill is willing to be vocal, if needed, and he’s even had the younger guys in full uniform before it’s required. That, and Hill’s comments to the media have already shown his feelings on this group.

“I hope these guys know what kind of opportunity they have,” Hill told me on Thursday. “If I’m seeing it, I just hope that they see it. I love seeing guys really get after it and fight for it. I hate seeing young guys, or anybody, that just expects to be given something. You should always work for whatever it is — not just baseball.

“I want to see the edge, the fire in these guys’ eyes, to get out there and just kick some butt.”

Asked whether he or Hill were going to be the team’s leader, Wells smiled.

“I’ve got him on that one,” Wells said. “It’s weird. It’s one of the first times that I’ve felt like this is my team.”

The reality is that there is plenty of room for both Wells and Hill to become veteran voices in the room for the Jays, and that is a great thing for the ballclub. With so many young players, Toronto needs some guys to fill the lead-by-example void created by Doc’s departure.

Wells did have more to say…

Wells5.jpgOn general manager Alex Anthopoulos: “I think he’s been amazing. To come in and make the kind of changes he made in your first year as the GM is impressive. He’s got a direction that he wants to take this organization in and I think everybody is on board with it and everybody is looking forward to it. It’s an exciting time, even though there could be a step backwards at certain points.”

On whether the Jays are rebuilding: “I think ‘retooling’ is a better word. We’ve got guys that are close. We’ve got some young arms that got some experience last year and it’s a period of getting to where we need to be. Whether that’s now or next year, we’re building toward something. We’re building toward an organization that can be strong for years instead of a year or two.”

On working out less over the winter: “I gave my old body a chance to reover over the offseason. I did some working out, but I think now it’s just a matter of gearing up for April. I think over the last couple of offseasons I’ve been gearing up for February and kind of wearing down.”

On suggestions that his defense has declined: “I don’t know. Apparently there’s mathematics that can go along with catching a fly ball or something. I don’t know. I just say ask the pitchers that are on the mound and ask the guys that are hitting in the box and they’ll answer that question for you.”

On his wrist problems: “The real pain didn’t really come until about three weeks in the offseason. Once the cortisone shots and the anti-inflammatories were out of my system, it hurt to turn a wheel. So I said, ‘I should probably get this looked at again. They went in and looked at it and said, ‘Let’s get it cleaned out.’ I saw the before and after images and it was pretty neat. I got to see the inside of my wrist and it looks normal again.

“There was just fraying and it was inflamed. It was pretty ugly. I don’t know. I learned some different things about the wrist and tendons and everything else that goes along in there. I’m a little smarter because of it and it’s taken the slice out of my golf swing, so that’s good.”

On the team’s expectations for 2010: “We’ve got guys that can play. I think it’s been lost obviously with what the Yankees have been able to do, what the Red Sox have been able to do, what the Rays have been able to do in our division. We’re not going to put any limitations or expectations on what we’re going to do. We’re going to go out and play hard and at the end of the day just look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘You know what? We did what we could to help this team win today,’ and move forward.”

On late-season clubhouse issues: “I think a lot of things kind of got blown out of proportion with that. It’s a family. Youre around guys for almost 200 days including Spring Training and you’re going to have issues regardless of who it is. You deal with them in-house and unfortunately this got out, but I don’t think it was any bigger than anything else that goes on in any other clubhouses.”

On losing Roy Halladay: “It’ll be different. It’ll be different playing in center field and every fifth day not seeing No. 32 on the mound. But, to be honest with you, those were boring days for me. I didn’t do much in the outfield. I’d yell at him sometimes, but he wouldn’t hear me.”

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GUESS THAT BLUE JAY:

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Which player is wearing these custom-made shoes?

ANSWER AT BOTTOM OF POST

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BIRD FEED: That picture right there is the precise moment when Gaston approached Adam Lind to discuss where the young designated hitter will hit in the batting order this season. Gaston has decided to keep Lind in the No. 3 spot. As the manager told reporters, he told Lind, “Why mess with it?” Gaston also talked to Hill about keeping the second baseman in the No. 2 hole for 2010. Gaston said, “Hill is a great kid. He said, ‘I’ll hit anywhere, even sixth if you want.” … Gaston said he will not play Wells or third baseman Edwin Encarnacion in a game until he is absolutely certain that are 100-percent recovered from the wrist surgeries they had over the winter. … Anthopoulos has been in the Dominican Republic this week scouting different players. The Jays watched Cuban first baseman Jose Julio Ruiz workout and the free agent is expected to make a decision about where to sign in the coming days. … Pitchers threw bullpen sessions on Wednesday and Gaston was impressed with what he saw from righty Dustin McGowan, who hasn’t pitched in a game since July 2008 due to health woes. If McGowan proves to be a legit contender for the rotation? “That’d be a great, great surprise for us,” Gaston said. … Gaston noted that Randy Ruiz (not in camp yet) and Brian Dopirak were definitely in the mix for a 1B/DH role with the Jays. If one made the team, they could be used as a DH on days when Lind played left field or at first base if Lyle Overbay needed a day off. Gaston said Ruiz and Dopirak’s chances of making the team would drastically improve if the Jays felt outfielder Travis Snider needed more time in the Minors to open the year. That would necessitate moving Lind back to LF regularly. … Gaston noted that Toronto will most likely open the year with 12 pitchers and 13 position players, which has become the common breakdown for MLB clubs these days.



Hayhurst.jpgGARFOOSE SIGHTING:
Blue Jays reliever Dirk Hayhurst, who has been banished to the disabled list with a bum right shoulder, emerged from the training room and showed off his upcoming book to reporters today. “The Bullpen Gospels” hits book stores on March 30 and is definitely worth a read. I read it over the offseason and enjoyed it. I wouldn’t keep mentioning it if I thought it wasn’t good. I swear.

QUOTEABLE: “I think they’re capable of doing it. Expected to do it? No, I wouldn’t put that on them. I think they’re going to get pitched differently. They’re certainly going to get a lot of respect.” Gaston, asked if Hill and Lind are expected to repeat last year’s performances

CLUBHOUSE CONFIDENTIAL: The daily workout schedule sheet once again include a “Quote of the Day” for players to ponder as they headed out to the fields for practice. Today’s quote: “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”

ANSWER: The shoes belong to none other than Adam Lind. He said they were made for him for the All-Star Game, which he had a chance to attend last year as a Final Vote candidate. Lind did not wind up winning the vote, but he received the cool kicks anyway.

For complete Blue Jays coverage this spring, make sure you’re reading bluejays.com and following me on Twitter at @MLBastian. You can also find spring photos on TwitPic.com.

~JB

Blue Jays get physical

The only thing missing from the Blue Jays’ clubhouse here at The Mattick today was a few tumbleweeds drifting through. Today was Physicals Day. With the medicals being held off-site, that meant few players made the trek to camp.

The official reporting date was Saturday and the first official workout is Monday. As a result, Sunday turns into an unofficial day off for the players. When I did my first walk-through this morning, every chair in the clubhouse was pushed neatly up against its corresponding locker. Not one had been moved.

Cue the crickets.

A few players did show up, though. Some coaches wandered through and John McDonald strolled in with Jeremy Reed and the pair played some catch. Jose Molina, Raul Chavez and John Buck made appearances.

And, Kevin Gregg showed up for the first time.

Gregg would love nothing more than to head north with the Blue Jays as the primary closer. That said, nothing is guaranteed and he knows he is competing against Scott Downs and Jason Frasor for the job. Gregg also knows that having three pitchers who can fill that role is only a good thing for the Jays.

“Whatever role we all end up in, you’re making that bullpen pretty deep,” Gregg said. “Looking at the starters and seeing these guys are pretty young, with what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished, it allows us to shorten the game. We’re not going to have to push those guys and try to get them into the seventh and eighth inning.

“When you’ve got three guys that can close the door at the back end, it really helps out the starters and their situation, too. It let’s everybody grow.”

If it were my decision, I’d say throw Frasor in the closer’s role and let him run with it, especially with how he pitched last year. But, if Gregg has a decent spring, I think the job is his. He has 84 career saves. Downs and Frasor combined have 48. If it’s an even match, I think experience will prevail in this race.

Then again, if the Jays want to float Downs or Frasor at the Trade Deadline, having one of them open as the closer could increase their potential market value. So maybe Frasor wins the job after all.

Who’s your closer?

For complete Blue Jays coverage this spring, make sure you’re reading bluejays.com and following me on Twitter at @MLBastian. You can also find spring photos on TwitPic.com.

~JB

Day 2: The Brass arrives

Beeston2.jpgYou could hear him coming from inside the media work room. His laugh booming from the hallway as he made his way to the door.

And as Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston burst through the door to head out to the ballfields, there in his lips, protruding from his wide grin, was his signature stogie.

Some things never change.

The Blue Jays brass arrived today. Beeston, general manager Alex Anthopoulos, assistant GM Tony Lacava and director of Minor League operations Charlie Wilson were all on hand to watch some players run through the day’s unofficial workout.

As Beeston watched from behind the bullpen, smoke puffed from his cigar and disappeared into the air above, while he chatted and laughed through his brief visit to camp.

One new Blue Jay sighting was speedy outfielder Joey Gathright, who is in camp on a Minor League contract with a shot at a spot on the Opening Day roster. Anthopoulos said one advantage Gathright has is the type of speed that the rest of the 40-man roster lacks.

Anthopoulos spoke at length about his desire to make speed and defense staples of the Blue Jays’ identity and culture going forward. Now, this does not mean the big league club is going to start running wild in 2010. Starting in the Minors, though, Anthopoulos wants to improve the organization’s emphasis on speed and he’s hired a roving baserunning coach in Rich Miller.

It will take time to see the results in the Majors, but a lot of things the Jays are working on will require time and patience. That’s expected under the circumstances. Utilizing speed is only a good option is you have the right personnel in place. Obviously, Anthopoulos did not inherit a team of burners when he took over as the GM.

THE BROTHERS MOLINA: The Blue Jays signed veteran catcher Jose Molina to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract on Friday. You’ll remember his brother Bengie as the Jays catcher a few years back. Jose’s deal only guarantees him $400,000. He’ll earn another $400,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster. The contract also includes a club option for 2011 worth $1.2 million. Molina will complete with Raul Chavez for the backup role behind John Buck.

This move is about depth and it’s about adding another veteran catcher to help groom the pack of young pitchers and young catchers in camp. One thing Buck, Molina and Chavez all have in common is a reputation of being a good game-callers and mentors for young arms. In the short-term, that’s a good thing to have in place to help this young staff’s development.

MCGOWAN WATCH: Dustin McGowan is scheduled to throw his sixth bullpen session on Saturday. So far, all reports are that McGowan looks and feels great. So much so that the medical staff is trying not to get too excited. Doing that is asking for trouble. So, stay tuned. If McGowan can indeed be a realistic rotation candidate, that would be an interesting development this spring. Obviously, it’s still a long way before Opening Day.

~JB

 

And so it begins…

I strolled down the sidewalk alongside the Blue Jays’ spring complex, fresh notebook, new pen and empty digital recorder in tow, ready to begin another Spring Training. I said hello to the security guard, wandered up to the clubhouse door and gave the handle a tug.

Locked.

“Hey!” came a shout.

I looked over at the batting cage.

“No media this year!”

Aaron Hill, smiling and in a joking mood already. I was on the scene for two minutes and already was being given a hard time. Ahhh, it’s good to be back. I headed over to the cage to meet up with Toronto’s second baseman.

“What’s up, brother?” said Hill, never one to hide his inner Californian.

We chatted for a few minutes and the security guard — an elderly fellow who sets up camp in a folding chair outside the clubhouse doors each and every spring — came over to join us for a moment. He extended his hand and greeted Hill.

“It’s good to see you,” said the guard. “I wanted to congratulate you on last season. You really were great.”

Hill, always modest, smiled and said, “Thanks.”

“Personally, I thought he’d be better,” I said.

Hill laughed.

“Hey, there’s always room for improvement,” he replied, then motioning to the other hitters in the cage. “That’s what I’m trying to tell all these young guys.”

And, that was the main theme today on Day 1 of camp for me. Hill, who is still only 27 years old, has been thrust into a leadership role with these rebuilding Blue Jays. There are a lot of young players in camp, and roughly half of the Opening Day roster is up for grabs, and Hill is excited for the opportunity that exists for many players.

“It’s a good time to be a Blue Jay,” is something Hill is quick to say.

Maybe not in terms of playoff hopes or high win totals. But, it’s a good time to be a Blue Jay in the sense that there are so many available jobs and so many young players with a shot at earning them. It is something that Hill hopes they all take very seriously this spring, which obviously is lacking ace Roy Halladay for the first time in years.

“I hope these guys know what kind of opportunity they have,” Hill said. “If I’m seeing it, I just hope that they see it. I love seeing guys really get after it and fight for it. I hate seeing young guys, or anybody, that just expects to be given something. You should always work for whatever it is — not just baseball.

“I want to see the edge, the fire in these guys’ eyes, to get out there and just kick some butt.”

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  • Most of the pitchers and catchers are already in camp. The only notable pitcher I did not see today was newly-signed Kevin Gregg. Beyond Hill, I saw Adam Lind and Travis Snider in camp today. I asked Hill is John McDonald had been in camp yet. Hill laughed and rolled his eyes. “We still have that guy?” he joked. “What’d we sign him to, an eight-year deal?” Don’t worry, it’s all in good fun. Everyone loves Johnny Mac.
  • Chatted for a bit with new Blue Jays catcher John Buck, and he seems like he will be a good guy to have around. During bullpen sessions today, Buck caught Brandon Morrow and Toronto’s ’09 first-rounder Chad Jenkins. “They have some good arms here,” Buck said, eyes widening. “I mean, real legitimate arms with great secondary stuff.”
  • Shaun Marcum threw in the bullpen today, as did Jesse Litsch, who isn’t expected to be ready to return until at least June or July. Dustin McGowan threw off the mound yesterday. Talked to him and he said, as has been reported for a while now, that he’s feeling great. He’s done five mound sessions so far and is hoping to make the team.

That’s all for today. Catch you guys from here tomorrow.

~JB

Blue Jays: 10 Spring Issues

JaysSpring.jpgIn less than 48 hours, I will have landed in Tampa (barring some travel disaster), hopped in my rental car and settled into my temporary home for Spring Training. I’ll unpack my suitcase, make sure the wireless and cable are working properly, maybe hit the gym and head out to buy some groceries.

Then, on Thursday, I’ll be off to the Bobby Mattick Training Center to begin reporting from camp. With Spring Training now upon us, it seems like an appropriate time to examine 10 key issues facing the Blue Jays during this preseason. I’ll include my early predictions, which might be totally different next week.

With that, here’s some food for thought until I arrive down south.

1. THE ROTATION: Roy Halladay is gone. That is the reality. With the man goes the innings, and the Jays are going to have to find a way to replace the 200+ frames that Doc provided each and every year. Five spots open. Candidates include: Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Marc Rzepczynski, Brandon Morrow, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, David Purcey, Dana Eveland, Brian Tallet, Casey Janssen, Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart, Reidier Gonzalez, Luis Perez, Brad Mills, Robert Ray. None listed have logged more than 178 innings in any one season.

My early favorites: Romero, Marcum, Morrow, Tallet, Rzepczynski.

2. THE BULLPEN: You think the rotation situation is a mess? How about race for bullpen spots. Arms in the mix for the seven jobs incluse Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Jesse Carlson, Shawn Camp, Jeremy Accardo, Zech Zinicola, Josh Roenicke, Brian Tallet, Casey Janssen, Merkin Valdez, Lance Broadway, Sean Henn, Zach Jackson, Willie Collazo, Dana Eveland, Steve Register, Dustin McGowan (I think I got them all). Within that, you have Gregg, Downs and Frasor vying for the closer’s job. Out of options? Tallet, McGowan, Camp, Valdez and Henn. Zinicola is a Rule 5 pick, so he’ll need to be offered back to Washington, if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.

My early favorites: Gregg (CL), Downs, Frasor, Camp, Carlson, Accardo, Zinicola

3. THE LINEUP: Like the rotation and the bullpen, the Blue Jays’ lineup is also a tough one to figure out right now. Losing shortstop Marco Scutaro to free agency left a gaping hole in the leadoff spot for Toronto. Adam Lind isn’t sure he wants to hit cleanup, perhaps creating a snag in manager Cito Gaston’s plans to bump Aaron Hill and Lind into the No. 3-4 holes. The uncertain status of the corner outfield spots only add to the confusion. It will take Gaston all spring to sort this one out.

Early Opening Day projection: 1. Jose Bautista, RF, 2. Aaron Hill, 2B, 3. Adam Lind, DH., 4. Vernon Wells, CF, 5. Lyle Overbay, 1B, 6. Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, 7. Travis Snider, LF, 8. John Buck, C, 9. Alex Gonzalez, SS.

4. THE INJURED: As if keeping track of the rotation and bullpen races wasn’t hard enough, new pitching coach Bruce Walton will be checking in daily with the Blue Jays’ medical team to monitor some of Toronto’s walking wounded. Jesse Litsch, who was the No. 2 starter at the start of the ’09 season, is out until around June or July after Tommy John surgery. Same goes for righty Shawn Hill, who was signed over the winter. Then, there’s Marcum (right elbow) and McGowan (right shoulder), who were rotation regulars in 2007-08 but missed all of last season. This week, righty Scott Richmond joined the group with a right shoulder issue and his status is unclear.

Prediction: Marcum has a decent spring and earns the No. 2 slot in the Opening Day rotation, McGowan opens the season on the disabled list to buy him more time, and also avoiding exposing him to waivers. Richmond also opens on the DL. Litsch and Hill are brought along slowly and might be considered for late-season outings. More likely, they’ll be kept away from the Majors in 2010, much like Marcum/McGowan were last year.

5. VERNON WELLS: With Halladay out of the picture, the Blue Jays need a veteran leader in the clubhouse. With his lofty salary, and a contract that will likely see him in a Jays uniform through 2014, Wells needs to step up and be that leader now more than ever. More to the point, Wells needs to show he can be the type of offensive threat the Jays felt he could be when they handed him that 7-year, $126 million contract after his impressive 2006 showing. Wells had surgery on his left wrist over the winter — perhaps explaining some of the hitting woes he went through last year. That’s what Toronto is hoping at least.

Prediction: Wells improves on his performance last season and Gaston throws the center fielder back into the cleanup spot to open the year. Wells seems unlikely to return to the .300-30-100 form he showed a few years ago, but expecting him to perform better than he did in 2009 does not seem like a whole lot to ask.

6. THE OUTFIELD: Wells will be in center field. That is what we know. With Alex Rios now out of the picture, the Blue Jays do not have a clear backup in center, either. That is one reason Jose Bautista, especially with his late-season success and ability to man center, is in the driver’s seat to grab the starting job in right field. Travis Snider needs to earn a spot with a big spring, and veterans Joey Gathright and Jeremy Reed are also in the mix. Randy Ruiz spent some time playing left field during winter ball this year, but Gaston was hesitant to throw him out there last year. Adam Lind also has the ability to shift out of the DH role and into left, if needed.

Prediction: Bautista wins the Opening Day job in right and Snider follows suit in left, allowing the Jays to keep Lind in the DH role. One of Reed or Gathright make the Opening Day roster as a bench player. My money would be on Gathright, considering he has experience as a leadoff man.

7. TRAVIS SNIDER: This is an important spring for Snider. Last year, he went through the ups and downs that many young players go through. Admittedly, Snider got a little too caught up in his early success and had a hard time dealing with the slump that followed. He’s said all the right things this winter. He learned from his trip back to the Minors, got his head straight over the offseason and got into great shape back home in Washington state. Snider is hungry to prove he can still be the slugger Toronto hopes he can become. And, at 22, he still has plenty of time on his side.

Prediction: Snider opens the year lower in the lineup, much like Gaston did with him to begin last season. As the season goes on, Snider gains Gaston’s trust and is slowly inched up the lineup toward the heart of the order, where the young hitter hopes to be a mainstay for years to come.

8. FIRST BASE: Overbay enters camp as the starting first baseman for the Blue Jays, but he is also in the final year of his contract. Facing free agency next winter, Overbay is a prime candidate to be traded, especially with top first base prospect Brett Wallace knocking on the big league’s door. The Jays also have Ruiz and Brian Dopirak — two power standouts in the Minors — able to provide stopgap solutions.

Prediction: Overbay opens the season at first base, but is traded before the July 31 Deadline. Ruiz makes the team as a backup at first and at DH. Wallace begins the year in the Minors, but joins the Jays before the year is over. If needed, Dopirak can be promoted to hold down first base until Wallace is deemed ready.

9. THE MANAGER: Gaston enters camp in a unique situation. At the end of last year, a clubhouse rift between the players and Gaston was made public, creating questions about his status for this year. New GM Alex Anthopoulos reorganized the coaching staff, but retained Gaston, who has announced his plans to retire from managing after this season. Anthopoulos plans on using the entire season to search for the new skipper, and Gaston will move into an advising role with the organization beginning in 2011.

Early managerial favorite: Third-base coach Brian Butterfield. Butter is considered one of the top third-base coaches and infield instructors in the game. He’s energetic, passionate, gets along great with the other coaches and the players love him. Great things to keep in mind when a team is in the midst of a youth movement. Butterfield is very detail-oriented and worked as a bench coach under former manager John Gibbons and also Gaston, before being shifted back to third base duties for the upcoming year. If the Jays want to stay in-house, Butter appears to be the top choice.

10. THE PROSPECTS: The only “problem” with the Halladay trade was that the Blue Jays do not figure to have any of the players they acquired on the field come Opening Day. It will take time for fans to see the results of the deal in Toronto. That said, Anthopoulos acquired three prized prospects in Wallace, righty Kyle Drabek and catcher Travis d’Arnaud for Doc, after the Jays also netted a solid pitching prospect in Zach Stewart as part of the Scott Rolen trade with the Reds last July. With those two moves, the Jays’ farm system received a major upgrade.

Prediction: Wallace opens the year with Triple-A Las Vegas, Drabek heads to Double-A New Hampshire and d’Arnaud begins with Class A Dunedin. Due to rotation depth, the Jays send Stewart to Double-A as well to start the season. Wallace joins the Jays at some point in 2010, and one of Drabek/Stewart might be in line for a September callup. It will likely take a couple years before d’Arnaud debuts in the bigs.

Is that enough for you guys to chew on? More from Dunedin soon…

–JB 

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