All eyes on trio acquired for Halladay
Blue Jays roster overhaul competition begins in Dunedin
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The road to a better future for the Blue Jays begins on the sun-splashed baseball diamonds of Spring Training. It could take a few seasons for things to fall into place, but the club's journey starts now.
Major League teams have made their treks to Arizona and Florida for the annual tune-up for the season ahead. For the Blue Jays, who are entering an important transitional period in team history, home for the better part of the next two months will be at the Bobby Mattick Training Center on Florida's Gulf Coast.
"I think this is just a chance for everyone to see the kind of talent we have and to watch us grow," said young left-hander Ricky Romero, who is in the running for the rotation's top spot this spring. "As everyone can see, we have young pitching talent, young hitting talent and I think that's special. It's a chance for people -- our fans -- to see us grow, and hopefully in the near future, we can do something special."
The biggest issue facing the Blue Jays this spring involves a player who will not be in camp with the American League East club. Over the winter, Toronto said farewell to its long-time ace, Roy Halladay, trading the pitcher to Philadelphia in a complex series of deals that added three prized prospects to the Jays' farm system.
The young, new trio -- pitcher Kyle Drabek, first baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis d'Arnaud -- will be among the non-roster players invited to join the Jays in camp. All eyes will be on the players acquired for Halladay, considering the roles they are expected to play in the long-term vision of new Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
Anthopoulos has reorganized the club's front office, making sweeping changes and many additions to the Blue Jays' scouting and player-development department. The thought process is that Toronto needs to strive to acquire young, talented players who can help form a solid core for the future. That means spending more time behind the scenes and upgrading the farm system before going after high-priced free agents.
"As time goes on, we'll have a better sense of what we have," Anthopoulos said this week. "There's a lot of young players and they're still growing and still developing and finding their way, and we're still finding out about them. Everyone's striving for the same thing, to be a championship team. But on top of that, on a grander scale, you're looking to be a championship organization with the way things are done at the top all the way to the bottom.
"Whether that's scouting, whether it's player development, whether it's the front office, you want to have a winning culture, a winning organization that does things the right way. I know we're going to be judged on the wins and losses, but for me, with where we want to be, it's a very large goal. But ultimately, I hope we look up 10 years from now or whatever it is and we're known as one of the best-run organizations in sports."
As for the immediate future, the biggest competition of the spring will take place on the mound.
Without Halladay to lead the way, ending his run of seven consecutive Opening Day starts for the Blue Jays, Toronto is left with a large group of starters vying for jobs. Romero and Shaun Marcum return as favorites for the No. 1 role, while Brandon Morrow -- acquired from Seattle in a winter trade -- and lefty Brian Tallet are top candidates for spots as well.
Behind that quartet of arms, the Jays will have a wide range of relatively young and inexperienced arms in the mix for rotation spots. Lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Brett Cecil -- rookies a year ago -- lead the pack. Dana Eveland, who was acquired from the A's this offseason, Dustin McGowan and David Purcey will be among the other pitchers also in the mix.
"There are really no set spots anywhere," Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill said. "Any one of these guys can walk off with a starting job at a young age and really prove that they can be a big leaguer, and maybe for a long time. That's what we're hoping to see and I hope that these guys realize the opportunity they have."
In the bullpen, Toronto will be holding a competition to determine who will serve as the club's primary closer. The Blue Jays signed free-agent right-hander Kevin Gregg over the offseason, giving the team three ninth-inning candidates. Left-hander Scott Downs and right-hander Jason Frasor will also be in the fight for that critical job.
The rest of the bullpen picture remains hazy as well. About a dozen pitchers will be competing for three or four vacancies. The list of possible relievers, in no particular order, includes Jeremy Accardo, Jesse Carlson, Shawn Camp, Merkin Valdez, Zech Zinicola, Casey Janssen, Josh Roenicke, Zach Jackson and possibly Tallet, and Eveland, among others.
Beyond losing Halladay over the winter, the Blue Jays also parted ways with a pair of free agents in catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Marco Scutaro. Toronto signed Alex Gonzalez to take over as the starter at short and added John Buck to assume the starting role behind the plate. The Jays signed catcher Jose Molina to compete for the backup job, and brought outfielders Joey Gathright and Jeremy Reed to camp on Minor League deals.
Among the returning players, the Jays are hoping that center fielder Vernon Wells, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and first baseman Lyle Overbay can bounce back from subpar seasons to help strengthen an uncertain lineup. Figuring out exactly how the batting order will be aligned is something that could take manager Cito Gaston all spring.
Gaston can at least hope to count on strong performances from Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind, who proved to be a powerful one-two punch for the Blue Jays in 2009. That pair of up-and-coming hitters -- combined with young talents such as Travis Snider, Wallace and the bevy of arms -- give Toronto hope that it is beginning to piece together a strong core for the future.
That is the focus for the Blue Jays right now.
"You lose Doc off your staff, we don't have a clear-cut No. 1," Blue Jays shortstop John McDonald said. "So to come in here and say we're as good as the Yankees and Red Sox in our own division, let alone the other teams outside our division, that would be a little unrealistic to say.
"We can go in confident and know that we can become better over the course of the year."
The path toward that future begins with this season's Spring Training.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.