12/26/11 10:00 AM EST
Blue Jays transitioning into contenders
By Gregor Chisholm / MLB.com
Toronto began the year with stopgap veterans like Juan Rivera, Corey Patterson, Jayson Nix and Jon Rauch on its 25-man roster. One by one, they were replaced with an influx of promising young players that will help form a core of talent within the organization for years to come.
The on-field results were about the same as they have been in recent years, as the Blue Jays once again finished a distant fourth place in the competitive American League East. But for the first time in years, there is a sense that success might be just around the corner.
A large component of that stems from the work general manager Alex Anthopoulos has done with the club's Minor League system. The rebuilding plan began in earnest following the 2009 season, and fans got a firsthand look at the fruits of the club's labor this year.
The emergence of J.P. Arencibia and Henderson Alvarez can be found near the top of that list, while the acquisition of Colby Rasmus gave the club a potential rising star with five-tool talent.
But of all the storylines that played out over the past 12 months, here were the five biggest.
5. Robert Alomar inducted into Hall of Fame
Alomar became the first player to enter the Hall of Fame wearing a Blue Jays cap during the induction ceremony in July. He was joined in the Hall by former Toronto GM Pat Gillick and Minnesota right-hander Bert Blyleven.
Alomar was honored with an on-field ceremony at Rogers Centre on July 31. Former teammates and coaches took part in the event that was watched by hundreds of thousands on television and a sellout crowd in Toronto.
The 12-time All-Star led the Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series championships in 1992-93. He has since rejoined the organization as a special assistant and will forever be remembered as one of the game's best second basemen of all time.
4. The return -- Roy Halladay comes back to Toronto
The former face of the Blue Jays' franchise made his return to Toronto on Canada Day weekend. A capacity crowd gave him a standing ovation from the moment he took the field until his warmup pitches were completed in the first inning.
It was a special moment that Blue Jays fans had been waiting almost two years for. Halladay's return was originally supposed to take place in 2010, but the G20 Summit in Toronto caused the Interleague series to be moved to Philadelphia.
Halladay's return featured a passing-of-the-torch moment when Jose Bautista hit a mammoth shot off Philadelphia's No. 1 starter. The crowd once again rose to its feet, and in a way, it felt it was Bautista's way of saying, "This is my team now."
3. The end of one era and the beginning of another -- John Farrell debuts as manager
Farrell had the unenviable task of replacing Cito Gaston as manager of the Blue Jays prior to the start of the year. Gaston had 12 years of experience and two World Series cchampionships on his resume before opting for retirement at the age of 66.
Farrell, on the other hand, entered the year having never managed a professional game. The former Major Leaguer instead had four years as a pitching coach in Boston under his belt and time as the director of player development in Cleveland.
It was the dawn of a new era for baseball in Toronto. Farrell was intent on fielding a more well-rounded club that didn't always rely on the long ball to score runs. He implemented a more aggressive approach on the basepaths, with an added emphasis on small ball.
The results were mixed because of Toronto's personnel on the field, but with a young core now in place, Farrell should now be able to play the style of baseball he so desperately craved for most of 2011.
2. The arrival -- Brett Lawrie makes his debut
Lawrie arrived at Spring Training in February as arguably the most hyped Blue Jays prospect since Carlos Delgado. Lawrie responded by hitting everything in sight and handling a transition to third base better than anyone expected.
The maturity displayed at the plate prompted Farrell to lobby internally for Lawrie to make the Opening Day roster, but the club ultimately decided to give him more seasoning in the Minor Leagues. That time with Triple-A Las Vegas helped the 21-year-old refine his skills in the infield and develop a more patient approach in the batter's box.
When Lawrie finally arrived in the big leagues on Aug. 5, he quickly proved he was up for the challenge. He proceeded to hit .293 with nine homers, 25 RBIs and four triples in 150 at-bats. Now the only question that remains is what will he do for an encore?
1. Answering the critics -- Bautista delivers again
Bautista faced more question marks heading into the 2011 than any other player in the Major Leagues. Everybody wanted to know whether Bautista would be able to duplicate his historic 2010 season or if he would end up being a one-year wonder.
It didn't take long for those questions to be answered. Bautista was head and shoulders above the rest of his competition during the first half of the season and appeared well on his way to winning his first Most Valuable Player Award.
Injuries to his neck and ankle eventually took their toll, but the Toronto slugger still managed to finish the year with some of the best numbers in franchise history. He hit .302 with 43 homers and 103 RBIs while leading the league in walks en route to his second consecutive AL Hank Aaron Award.
All of a sudden, that five-year $65 million contract Bautista signed in the spring is looking like one of baseball's best bargains.