Gaston faces challenges in skip's last year
Many questions to be answered with revamped squad
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- No one dared to take his locker. It sits empty, down the second aisle within the Blue Jays' clubhouse. The nameplate is blank and a chair is pushed neatly up against the blue stall ahead -- the one that used to belong to Roy Halladay.
Halladay is now a few miles south of the Blue Jays' Bobby Mattick Training Center, preparing in his legendary way to serve as the new ace of the Phillies. On Monday, the reality of Doc's absence hit Toronto, as the club held its first official workout of the spring for its pitchers and catchers.
"I'm pretty sure these guys are going to miss Doc, too -- just watching him pitch," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "Watching him go out there and be the surgeon that he was out there on the mound."
It is a new era for the Blue Jays' organization.
Now in the midst of a youth movement, especially on the mound, Toronto lacks a star franchise player like Halladay. There are promising prospects and talented pieces in place, but trading Halladay to Philadelphia over the winter marked a turning point in team history. Suddenly, reaching the postseason is likely a long-term goal for the Blue Jays.
Gaston, who will turn 66 in March, is entering his final season as the Blue Jays manager. Following this year, he will transition into an advisory role with the team. Until that point comes, though, Gaston has a challenging task ahead of him, beginning with the many competitions taking place during the coming Grapefruit League slate.
Before heading out to the practice fields for Monday's workout, Gaston spoke to the Blue Jays' cast of pitchers -- a young and relatively inexperienced group of arms. The race for rotation spots will provide one of the most interesting story lines in camp for Toronto, and as Gaston looked around the room and saw the youthful faces in front of him, the manager had a thought.
"I wonder if we have a couple Docs in this room," Gaston said. "You know? That sure would be nice somewhere down the line. You never know. Maybe this is a chance for them to do that."
With Halladay and his significant workload no longer in the picture, the Blue Jays' rotation is filled with lots of question marks and exactly zero pitchers who have ever notched even 180 innings in a single big league season. All five jobs are up for grabs and there are more than a dozen arms being considered for the Opening Day staff.
"It's going to be hard," Gaston admitted. "Who's my starter? Who's my No. 1? Who's my No. 2?"
Gaston does have a short list of favorites.
Asked for his list of leading rotation candidates on Monday, Gaston mentioned left-handers Ricky Romero and Brian Tallet, as well as right-handers Shaun Marcum and Brandon Morrow. Gaston once again noted how impressed he was last season with lefty Marc Rzepczynski, and the manager said things could get interesting if Dustin McGowan proves to be healthy.
One change this year is that the rotation -- under the circumstances -- may be more fluid than it was in the past. Halladay was on a strict schedule that had him starting every five days and the rest of the staff worked around that approach. Now, without a true ace, Toronto can be more flexible when it comes to giving starters an extra day off here and there, if needed.
"We had to keep him on his rotation, because that's the way Doc wanted it," Gaston said. "We don't really have to do it with these guys, so guys won't pitch as many innings."
Beyond determining how the rotation will shape up, and also deciding how the bullpen will look come Opening Day, Gaston said his biggest challenge right now is writing out a starting lineup. Toronto lost its leadoff man in shortstop Marco Scutaro, who signed with the Red Sox over the winter, and many other spots in the batting order are up in the air.
As things currently stand, Gaston said Jose Bautista appears to be the best choice to serve as the leadoff hitter. Behind him, the manager said second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind, who thrived last season as the second and third hitters, respectively, will likely wind up back in those slots. Gaston had considered moving Hill into the third spot and batting Lind cleanup.
Gaston is now having second thoughts about that change.
"Hill had a great year last year and Lind had a great year, so why mess with it?" Gaston said. "Just let somebody fill around the other spots. So, right now, I'm looking at those two guys second and third, even though I said I was going to try [something else] in Spring Training."
Gaston said he is leaning toward slotting Vernon Wells into the cleanup spot, even though the center fielder is coming off one of the worst offensive seasons of his career. That would likely mean first baseman Lyle Overbay would bat fifth and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion would bat seventh, leaving the final three slots for an outfielder, catcher John Buck and shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
"You don't want to tear down Vernon's confidence," said Gaston, explaining his reasoning for possibly batting Wells cleanup to open the year. "We need him to come back and be himself. It's all about trying to get the best out of people and trying to put them in a place where they're comfortable."
Gaston is a firm believer in that last sentiment.
In that regard, Gaston is extremely comfortable with the fact that he is going out on his own terms as the Blue Jays manager. Following this season, he believes it is best to step away from the daily grind of leading the ballclub, but Gaston is excited to still be included in the team's future in an advisory role.
"I feel good. I'm going to be around here for another four years," Gaston said. "We're just trying to get this organization back where it should go. If I was 10 years younger I might be a little bit saying, 'I don't want to go, I want to stay.'
"I just think it's going to take a while. So, maybe I can do something else on the other side that can help get our Minor Leagues back together, and get our big league club going in the right direction for this year, in my last year here as far as the manager. And, just teaching here."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.