TORONTO -- The Blue Jays were one of the league's biggest surprises in 2010, and there will be a lot of pressure on the club's young core to build on that success in the upcoming year.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has openly stated that, while he is trying to field a playoff-caliber ballclub as soon as possible, he will not attempt to make any quick fixes that could jeopardize the long-term future of his team. That means the Blue Jays will try to improve on their 85-win season by relying on the talent currently in place, rather than acquiring veterans who may provide immediate benefits but have a lower chance of success down the road.
The 2010 season was used to develop young starting pitchers, such as Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil. That progression is expected to take another step forward this year, as top prospect Kyle Drabek enters the fold and the club auditions a series of young hurlers for the final spot in the rotation. The Blue Jays will have one of the youngest starting staffs in the game, but it's also a group that has the potential to be among the best in the American League.
On offense, the Blue Jays will look for bounce-back seasons from 2009 Silver Slugger winners Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, while introducing J.P. Arencibia as the full-time catcher. New manager John Farrell would like to find creative ways to score runs, but this will still be a team that relies heavily on the long ball after belting a league-high 257 home runs in 2010.
There are lots of question marks surrounding this year's roster. We take a look at the most pressing uncertainties as part of our 2010 wrapup:
1. Can Jose Bautista replicate his 54 home run season from 2010?
Bautista was by far the Blue Jays' biggest surprise last year. The Dominican native entered the season having never hit more than 16 home runs, but he finished the 2010 campaign with a franchise-record 54. He credited a slight modification in his swing for the drastic increase, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to continue that success in 2011. Bautista will once again benefit from the friendly confines of Rogers Centre and likely will open the season as the club's No. 3 hitter. That's a big change from 2010, when he entered Spring Training as the Blue Jays' leadoff man and spent several weeks bouncing around the lineup before finding a regular batting position.
2. Who will replace Kevin Gregg as the team's closer?
The Blue Jays reportedly have signed right-hander Octavio Dotel to a one-year contract with a club option for 2012. The deal won't become official until the 37-year-old passes a physical, which will take place early in the New Year. If the Dotel signing gets the final approval, he will enter Spring Training as the favorite to take over for Gregg, who is a free agent and appears destined to sign with another organization. Dotel went 3-4 with a 4.08 ERA and 22 saves in 2010 with the Pirates, Dodgers and Rockies. The Dominican native also will receive competition for the closer's role from right-hander Jason Frasor, who has 36 career saves. It's a similiar situation to 2010, when Gregg eventually won the closing job over Frasor and veteran left-hander Scott Downs.
3. Will Lind be able to develop into the Blue Jays solution at first base?
Lind officially began his transition from designated hitter to first base in December. That's when the 27-year-old began working with roving infield coach Mike Mordecai and third-base coach Brian Butterfield during a five-day crash course on defensive mechanics. The sessions will continue in January, as the Blue Jays try to prepare Lind for an everyday role in the infield in 2011. The native of Alabama did appear in 11 games at first base last season, but it remains to be seen whether he is capable of filling the role on a regular basis. Anthopoulos is optimistic, though, because he feels Lind has the strong hands required to provide adequate defense. His footwork around the base remains a work in progress.
4. Who will be the Blue Jays' third baseman?
The Blue Jays currently have Bautista penciled in to be the club's Opening Day third baseman. But Anthopoulos hasn't ruled out adding a player to fill the position. That move would allow Bautista to play his preferred position in right field, where he feels he is better able to take advantage of his strong throwing arm. Bautista's versatility is a nice luxury for the team to have, because he is capable of providing plus defense at both positions. Farrell said he would like to have the situation resolved early in the New Year, so Bautista knows what role he will be filling prior to the start of Spring Training.
5. Will Arencibia establish himself as the club's No. 1 catcher?
Arencibia did his best to position himself as the catcher of the future by winning the MVP of the Pacific Coast League in 2010. He hit .301 with 32 home runs and 85 RBIs during his second season at Triple-A Las Vegas. The Blue Jays remain committed to giving Arencibia an extended look in 2011, which is why the club resisted the urge to find a veteran catcher to replace All-Star John Buck. Farrell said he expects Arencibia will suffer through some ups and downs on offense, as he makes his transition to the Major Leagues, but most important will be developing his defensive skills behind the plate.
6. Will the Blue Jays be able to match or exceed their win total from 2010?
The Blue Jays were one of the surprise stories in 2010, as they played above expectations en route to an 85-win campaign. During the offseason, the club lost the services of Shaun Marcum, Scott Downs and Buck, and Gregg, a free agent, is also expected to leave for another organization. It will now be up to the young core to ensure there isn't a setback in 2011. On the mound, a full season from Morrow (10-7, 4.49 ERA) and the expected presence of Drabek (14-9, 2.94 ERA at Double-A New Hampshire) should help offset the loss of Marcum. At the plate, the Blue Jays will need bounce-back seasons from Lind (.237, 23 home runs, 72 RBIs) and Hill (.205, 26 home runs, 68 RBIs), if the club hopes to improve on its sixth-ranked American League offense.
7. Who will be the Blue Jays No. 5 starter?
With Drabek likely penciled in as the team's No. 4 starter, there will be a long list of candidates trying to win the final spot in Toronto's rotation. The top options appear to be Marc Rzepczynski (4-4, 4.95), Jesse Litsch (1-5, 5.79) and Zach Stewart (8-3, 3.63 with Double-A New Hampshire). Last year, Rzepczynski was expected to contend for a starting job, but suffered an injury during Spring Training and was never able to get his season back on track. He put in some extra work during the offseason, though, and enjoyed a lot of success while playing for the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League. Litsch is trying to work his way back from a right hip injury, and Stewart will be trying to break into the Major Leagues for the first time. Regardless of who wins the job, expect all three to spend time on the Blue Jays pitching staff at some point next season.
8. What can the Blue Jays expect to get out of Hill?
Hill has a lot riding on the upcoming year. Anthopoulos has until the start of the season to pick up Hill's three option years for a total of $26 million. He seems unlikely to go that route, and instead, the club will have the option of selecting one or two option years at the end of 2011. For Toronto to guarantee Hill more money, he will have to regain his 2009 form, which saw him hit .286 with 36 home runs and 108 RBIs en route to a Silver Slugger Award. He is probably looking forward to a fresh start more than any other player on Toronto's roster.
9. How will Morrow, Romero and Cecil respond after an impressive 2010 season?
For the Blue Jays to succeed in 2011, they will have to see continued progression from their top three starters. After getting off to a slow start, Morrow went 7-3 with a 3.64 ERA and 119 strikeouts over his final 17 appearances. He was forced to end his season in early September because of an innings cap, but he is not expected to face any such limitations this year. Romero and Cecil will each be entering their second full seasons as Major League starters, and with the help of pitching coach Bruce Walton, the duo hopes to prove they belong among the top hurlers in the American League. Another year of seasoning should do the trio a lot of good, but they will also enter the season with a lot of pressure to build on the successful 2010 season.
10. Who will bat leadoff?
If Bautista starts the season as the everyday third baseman, that will open the door for outfielder Rajai Davis to become the everyday leadoff man. The 30-year-old, who was acquired during the offseason from the Athletics, stole 91 bases over the past two seasons and would bring some much-needed speed to the Blue Jays' lineup. His career on-base percentage of .330 is not exactly ideal for a leadoff hitter, but the Blue Jays lack other viable candidates for the role. If Davis opens the season as the club's fourth outfielder, the Blue Jays could be forced to use shortstop Yunel Escobar (.256, four home runs, 35 RBIs) in the top spot.