Blue Jays head to camp with revamped bullpen
Santos, Cordero, Oliver additions have Toronto thinking playoffs
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays are set to begin Spring Training with a returning core of players, and the hope that another year of development will lead to bigger and better things in 2012.
Toronto enters the year with all nine starting position players and five starting pitchers still intact from a 2011 season during which the club went 81-81 and finished fourth in the American League East.
The bullpen, which previously was one of the club's most glaring weaknesses, has been bolstered by the arrivals of Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver. Those additions, plus the continued progression of its young core, have the Blue Jays thinking big.
"Every approach towards additions to our roster has the end goal in mind, and that is to contend," manager John Farrell said of his team's aspirations for the postseason. "We don't set out in November, December or any month during the offseason to think about finishing fourth.
"We feel like we return an offense that was fifth in the American League in runs scored. We feel like there is every opportunity in the rotation to improve the quality innings that were pitched a year ago. ... But that is still the one area that we have to make the greatest strides to -- add more wins to the total of 81 from a year ago."
That task will be left to a starting staff which features No. 1 starter and 2011 All-Star Ricky Romero. The key to any real success, though, likely can be tied to the results directly stemmed from fellow starters Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and Henderson Alvarez. The young trio has plenty of talent, but they've yet to put together a consistent full season in the big leagues.
The offense will once again be led by Jose Bautista, but the reigning AL Hank Aaron Award winner will need improved performances from Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind and Kelly Johnson to increase his team's run total.
There are plenty of question marks surrounding the still inexperienced Blue Jays and whether they can compete against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. The answers likely won't become known for several months, but Toronto enters the year knowing the talent is there -- and wondering whether the consistency will be as well.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, March 3, 1:05 p.m. ET
Away at Cleveland Indians, April 5, 3:05 p.m.
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Who will be the Blue Jays' starting left fielder?
The only real competition among position players will take place in left field, where Eric Thames and Travis Snider are set to compete for a spot.
Snider began the 2011 season as the undisputed left fielder of the future, but an inconsistent season led to a pair of demotions to Triple-A Las Vegas. Thames seized the opportunity by recording 12 homers in 95 games during his first season in the big leagues.
Thames now appears to enter Spring Training with a slight edge in the competition, but the final result likely won't be known until the end of camp. Farrell has promised to give both outfielders plenty of at-bats during the Grapefruit League season, and the loser of this race likely will begin the year in the Minor Leagues.
2. Who will win the final spot in the starting rotation?
The Blue Jays appear to have the first four spots in their starting rotation locked up. Romero will once again be the team's ace, and he'll be followed by Morrow, Cecil and Alvarez. The final slot will be given to either Dustin McGowan, Kyle Drabek or Aaron Laffey.
McGowan enters as the favorite to win the starting gig, but he needs to prove he is healthy enough to handle the workload. After a three-year absence because of multiple surgeries to his throwing shoulder, the veteran righty returned in September to make four starts and one relief appearance.
It remains to be seen how McGowan will respond to a full workload throughout the course of a long season, but if he shows enough glimpses of his former self during Spring Training, it should be enough to receive a starting nod. If McGowan falters, then expect Drabek to emerge following a disappointing rookie campaign that saw him post a 6.06 ERA in 78 2/3 innings.
3. Will Cecil be able to have a bounce-back season?
Cecil's future in Toronto's starting rotation seemed somewhat in doubt following an inconsistent 2011 season. The 25-year-old began the year as the Blue Jays' No. 3 starter, but a mysterious loss in velocity and lack of command led to his demotion after just four starts.
The Maryland native eventually made his return to the big leagues in June and put forth several impressive outings, but he was unable to find a consistent approach on the mound.
Toronto's inexperienced starting rotation -- and the lack of offseason additions -- means Cecil should once again find himself in the No. 3 spot. The southpaw reportedly has dropped a lot of weight this offseason and seems highly motivated to re-establish his long-term worth and prove he can be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.
81-81, fourth in the AL East
Projected batting order
1. SS Yunel Escobar:
.290 BA, .369 OBP, .413 SLG, 11 HR, 48 RBIs in 2011
2. 2B Kelly Johnson:
.222 BA, .304 OBP, .413 SLG, 7 HR, 21 RBIs in 2011
3. RF Jose Bautista:
.302 BA, .447 OBP, .608 SLG, 43 HR, 103 RBIs in 2011
4. 1B Adam Lind:
.251 BA, .295 OBP, .439 SLG, 26 HR, 87 RBIs in 2011
5. 3B Brett Lawrie:
.293 BA, .373 OBP, .580 SLG, 9 HR, 25 RBIs in 2011
6. CF Colby Rasmus:
.225 BA, .298 OBP, .391 SLG, 14 HR, 53 RBIs in 2011
7. DH Edwin Encarnacion:
.272 BA, .334 OBP, .453 SLG, 17 HR, 55 RBIs in 2011
8. LF Eric Thames:
.262 BA, .313 OBP, .456 SLG, 12 HR, 37 RBIs in 2011
9. C J.P. Arencibia:
.219 BA, .282 OBP, .438 SLG, 23 HR, 78 RBIs in 2011
1. Ricky Romero, 15-11, 2.92 ERA in 2011
2. Brandon Morrow, 11-11, 4.72 ERA in 2011
3. Brett Cecil, 4-11, 4.73 ERA in 2011
4. Henderson Alvarez, 1-3, 3.53 ERA in 2011
5. Dustin McGowan, 0-2, 6.43 ERA in 2011
RHP Santos: The righty was the Blue Jays' biggest acquisition in what was an otherwise quiet offseason. Santos, who was acquired from the White Sox for pitching prospect Nestor Molina, gives Toronto a legitimate closer to replace the departed Frank Francisco. The Blue Jays finished tied for the AL lead in blown saves last season, but they will be expecting a better conversion rate this year.
RHP Cordero: The veteran reliever was a surprise late addition to the Blue Jays' bullpen this offseason. Cordero was unable to find a closer's job on the open market, and he ended up settling for a one-year, $4.5 million contract to join Toronto as a setup man to Santos. The 36-year-old Cordero has seen a drop in velocity in recent seasons, but he has combated that with a new sinker and the continued use of his changeup, slider and curveball.
LHP Oliver: The journeyman southpaw filled a much-needed void when he signed a one-year contract valued at $4.5 million this offseason. Toronto had been searching for a reliable late-inning lefty since the club traded away Marc Rzepczynski in a multiteam deal last July to acquire Rasmus. The 41-year-old Oliver enjoyed a successful season in Texas last year and gives the Blue Jays another proven reliever, but it remains to be seen how much mileage is left in his arm.
C Jeff Mathis: The 28-year-old was acquired from the Angels during the offseason to replace former backup catcher Jose Molina. Mathis isn't much of a weapon in the batter's box -- as evidenced by his .194 career average -- but he remains one of the game's best defensive catchers. Mathis should be able to help mentor second-year backstop Arencibia, but his overall playing time will be relatively limited.
Prospects to watch
CF Anthony Gose: The speedy youngster is expected to make the jump to Triple-A Las Vegas following a full year with Double-A New Hampshire. He's still one season away from making a real impact in the Majors, but Gose could earn himself a September callup with another solid year of development. Gose possesses well-above-average range in center and blistering speed on the basepaths, but he needs to improve at the plate, where he hit .253 in 509 at-bats with the Fisher Cats in 2011.
C Travis d'Arnaud: The young backstop will join Gose on the Triple-A roster this season and will remain there for the duration of the year -- barring an injury to Arencibia. That will provide d'Arnaud with another year of development, but the 23-year-old's future remains bright, as MLB.com recently listed him as the organization's No. 1 prospect following an MVP season in the Eastern League.
RHP Drew Hutchison: The 21-year-old should begin the year with New Hampshire, but he has an outside chance of making a strong case for himself in Spring Training. Hutchison went a combined 14-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 149 1/3 innings last season split between three Minor League levels and should be ready for a callup if any of Toronto's starters get injured.
RHP Deck McGuire: Toronto's first-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft continued his ascension towards the Major Leagues in 2011. He advanced to New Hampshire, where he eventually went 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA in his first full season as a professional. McGuire projects to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter who has an ability to eat a lot of innings, and he could place himself into the starter's mix with the Blue Jays at some point this season.
On the rebound
CF Rasmus: The 25-year-old suffered through a tumultuous season in 2011 that raised plenty of questions about his future potential. Rasmus began the year in St. Louis, but he failed to live up to the lofty expectations following a season in which he posted 23 homers and 66 RBIs in 144 games. After eventually being traded to the Blue Jays, he proceeded to hit .173 in 35 games while dealing with a right wrist injury. Better things are expected for Rasmus in his first full season with the Blue Jays, and he could be in line for a bounce-back year similar to what Escobar enjoyed in 2011.
2B Johnson: The veteran second baseman was expected to depart for another organization during the offseason, but he finds himself back in Toronto after opting to accept arbitration. Johnson was unable to find a lucrative multiyear deal via free agency and will be looking to reestablish his value with the Blue Jays this season. Johnson came over from Arizona in an August trade for Aaron Hill and John McDonald, and he is just one year removed from hitting .284 with 26 home runs and 71 RBIs with the D-backs.
1B Lind: The 28-year-old made the transition from designated hitter to full-time first baseman in 2011. The change in position led to a more demanding workload on Lind's body, and the end result was a lingering back problem that caused a drop in production. Lind hit .312 with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs in the season's first three months, but he managed to hit .203 with 10 homers and 38 RBIs the rest of the way. The Indiana native vowed to return in '12 with improved core strength as a way to combat the injury woes, and the club is optimistic about a return to form.
LHP Cecil: After struggling with a lack of command and velocity in 2011, the southpaw was demoted before the season was even a month old. Cecil returned in June and posted a 3-9 record with a 4.30 ERA in his final 16 starts of the year. He will be looking to find his form from 2010, when he lead the Blue Jays with 15 wins.
RHP Francisco: Toronto's former closer got off to a slow start in 2011 thanks in part to a right shoulder injury in Spring Training. It wasn't until the second half of the year that he really settled in, and his struggles on the mound played a large role in the Blue Jays tying for the AL lead with 25 blown saves. He secured a two-year deal from the Mets in the offseason and will be replaced in Toronto's bullpen by Santos.
RHP Jon Rauch: The veteran's 2011 season was mired by a right knee injury and an emergency appendectomy that limited him to 52 innings. Rauch spent time as Toronto's closer, but he converted just 11 saves in 16 opportunities before being relegated to middle-relief duties. He will join Francisco in New York this season after signing a one-year deal with the Mets.
RHP Shawn Camp: The righty's potential return to the Blue Jays officially ended when the club signed Oliver and Cordero. Camp ended up signing a Major League deal with Seattle following a four-year tenure in Toronto in which he went 15-13 with a 3.63 ERA in 257 2/3 innings.
C Molina: The veteran backstop is known as a defensive-minded catcher, but he exceeded expectations at the plate in 2011 by hitting .281 and a .757 OPS in 55 games. That was enough to secure a one-year contract with Tampa Bay, where he is expected to be the starter for a team with aspirations of making the postseason. Molina's role as a backup catcher in Toronto will be replaced by Mathis, who will serve in a similar capacity.