TORONTO -- When rumors began swirling over the winter that the Blue Jays were targeting free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, Marco Scutaro couldn't help but feel a little disheartened. Such a signing would once again block his chance to prove he could be an everyday player.

So, during Scutaro's frequent offseason trips to a baseball academy operated by the Cleveland Indians -- located just a short drive from his home in the small town of San Felipe, Venezuela -- he secretly hoped that Toronto's search for a new shortstop would fall short.

Scutaro wanted that job. It was his opportunity to shed the utility player label that has followed him throughout his career.

"I want to play every day," Scutaro said. "I was kind of hoping they wouldn't sign anybody. I wanted to play. On the other hand, you can't really do anything about it except wait. What are you going to do? You don't have control over those kinds of decisions.

"But, after they didn't sign anyone, I was looking forward to getting ready and trying to take advantage."

Furcal eventually signed a contract with the Dodgers, leaving Scutaro with the responsibility of stepping up as the leadoff hitter and regular shortstop for the Blue Jays. So far, Scutaro has exceeded all expectations, piling up offensive and defensive statistics that have made him one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball right now.

Any offseason chatter that claimed Toronto needed an upgrade at shortstop is gone. The fans that used to call for backup shortstop John McDonald -- one of the top defenders in the game at his position -- have been quieted, and the criticism that was rightly aimed at the poor production from the top spot of the Jays' order in recent years has been rendered moot.

"Outside of Derek Jeter," said Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, referring to the Yankees' long-time shortstop, "Scutaro is probably the best shortstop in the American League. Coming in, would we have thought that? No. But it's a byproduct of him having such a good year."

Two winters ago, Ricciardi acquired Scutaro from the Oakland A's for a pair of unheralded pitching prospects in Graham Godfrey and Kristian Bell. Toronto's interest in Scutaro stemmed from his versatility in the field and his ability to fill in as an emergency replacement in the event of an injury.

The Jays did not expect to use Scutaro as an everyday player. Why would they?

He had spent the previous four seasons with the A's as a super sub and that became how Scutaro was described. It was a label that Scutaro accepted -- it was how he best fit with Oakland, which had third baseman Eric Chavez, shortstop Bobby Crosby and second baseman Mark Ellis ahead of him on the depth chart -- but one he did not necessarily want.

"I always believed I could do my job every day and play every day," Scutaro said. "On the other hand, I felt that Oakland, they thought I was better for that team off the bench, in that role. I was on the bench and, if any of those three guys got hurt, I could go in and I could fill in and play every day.

"They always saw me as a utility guy. That's why I'm really happy for this opportunity, because, after five years as a utility guy, finally somebody gave me an opportunity to play."

Scutaro showed his potential in flashes as a regular fill-in for injured players last season for the Blue Jays. Finally, though, he is showing what he might have been doing all along as a regular part of a starting lineup.

Through the Blue Jays' first 64 games, the 33-year-old Scutaro has reached base via a hit, walk or hit-by-pitch 120 times, marking the best rate in the AL. Among all leadoff men, entering Sunday, Scutaro ranked first in walks (43) and runs scored (48), second in hits (76), doubles (19) and RBIs (29), and fourth in that group in extra-base hits (25).

"He's taken advantage of it," said Ricciardi, who then managed a slight laugh. "Maybe all the teams he played for -- us included -- should have given him an everyday job earlier."

Defensively, Scutaro led all Major League shortstops in total chances (279), assists (193) and double plays turned (45), entering Sunday. The one error that Scutaro committed came on May 21, when he gloved a grounder off the bat of Boston's Julio Lugo and threw high to first baseman Kevin Millar, pulling him off the base for a brief moment.

That lone miscue is debatable, though.

"It was actually a missed call," said Blue Jays bench coach Brian Butterfield, who doubles as the club's infield instructor. "He brought Millar up off the bag in Boston, but he came back down in time. The umpire [called Lugo safe], but the replay showed that Millar came back down on the bag. So, Marco should have no errors. He's been phenomenal.

"He's played better than any shortstop in baseball. All you have to do, if you're a numbers guy, is go look at the numbers and you'll see, total chances, he's right up there at the top. That means you've got to have ground-ball pitchers, you've got to have range and you also you know how to position yourself. He's got all three."

Scutaro is batting .298 with five home runs, 29 RBIs and a .397 on-base percentage. That is strong output for a leadoff hitter, but Scutaro's performance becomes even more impressive upon closer inspection. Consider that he has posted a .402 on-base percentage with two strikes and a .407 OBP with two outs and runners in scoring position.

"He's been amazing," said Blue Jays right fielder Alex Rios, one of Scutaro's closest friends on the team. "His offense has been great. His defense has been amazing also. He's doing a great job as the leadoff hitter. It's amazing. I don't think people were thinking that he was going to be doing this good. It's great for him."

Scutaro's success at the plate has been aided by a strong understanding of the strike zone.

Entering Sunday's game against the Marlins in Toronto, Scutaro had swung at only 10.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone -- the best percentage among all hitters in the game. When Scutaro has offered at a pitch, the shortstop has made contact 93.9 percent of the time, also representing the best figure in the Major Leagues.

"You guys got all kinds of stats," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said with a chuckle. "When guys are hitting well, they swing at strikes."

Scutaro has been doing that better than most.

"He's commanding the strike zone," Ricciardi said. "When you see a lot of pitches and you get deep in counts and you can trust yourself with two strikes, the end results are pretty good. Instead of getting up there and putting the first ball in play you see, I think it's important that, as the leadoff guy, you see a lot of pitches and you let everybody else kind of see what the pitcher has.

"He's just been everything you can possibly ask for in a leadoff guy."

Over the winter, Scutaro dedicated himself to becoming comfortable with a mechanical adjustment suggested by Gaston and hitting coach Gene Tenace last season. When they joined Toronto's coaching staff last June, it didn't take long for them to notice that Scutaro was changing his stance with two strikes.

Scutaro would widen his base and he often had positive results when doing so. Gaston asked Scutaro to try keeping his feet spread farther apart throughout his plate appearances.

"Last year, after four or five games of playing me, they saw me doing that," Scutaro said. "I always saw the ball better like that, but I never had a rhythm. I was always inconsistent with my mechanics. So, I started spreading out like they told me and trying to find a rhythm. Sometimes, I'd lose it really quick, because I wasn't used to it."

Scutaro worked on the altered style over the offseason while playing with Leones del Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he hit .333 with a .413 OBP and 20 walks in 33 games. By Spring Training, he was much more comfortable with the approach, and that has carried over into the regular season.

"He's a kid who will listen and try things," Gaston said. "It doesn't surprise me what he's doing. He's really dedicated. He works hard. He's got an idea up there about what he's doing."

Scutaro said he also tries to mix up his pitch selection.

In his first at-bat of a game, Scutaro might watch a handful of pitches to see how a pitcher is going after him. Later on, Scutaro said he might then decide to jump at the first pitch he receives. The idea is to avoid becoming predictable and to keep the pitcher guessing.

"If you always take the first pitch, they know that," Scutaro said. "They watch films and they're always going to throw a fastball for a strike on the first pitch. So, I want to let them know that I also like the first pitch, too.

"I'm just trying to be consistent and trying to get on base for the big guys and trying to take advantage of this opportunity."

The road to this point has been long and winding for Scutaro.

He is reminded of that every time he heads to Cleveland's baseball academy in Venezuela to begin his workouts over the winter. In 1994, the Indians were the first club to take a chance on Scutaro, signing him as an 18-year-old non-drafted free agent.

It only took 15 years for him to land a job as an everyday player in the big leagues.

"Sometimes, what you need is opportunity," Scutaro said. "There are a lot of guys like me in the Minor Leagues who never had an opportunity."