Bautista, Toronto aim high in always tough AL East
DUNEDIN, Fla.—The Toronto Blue Jays have assembled a team with the potential to become a division champion this year -- just about anywhere else except in the American League East.
Barring a serious slide by Boston, the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay, the Blue Jays seem destined to spend this September as they have the previous four, looking up at them from fourth place in arguably the toughest division in the league.
"We don't set out in November, December or any month in the offseason to think about finishing fourth," manager John Farrell told fans at Rogers Centre before spring training.
But even the addition of a second AL wild card may not be enough to return the Blue Jays to the postseason they've missed every year since 1993, the second of their two consecutive -- and only -- World Series championships.
Toronto's lineup essentially is the same as much of last year's, which finished anywhere from fifth (home runs and runs scored) to 10th (average) in just about every batting category.
Pitching was mostly near the middle of the pack, too. And beyond Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, the starting rotation has more questions than answers. The bullpen has three new arms who could have a big impact -- long reliever Darren Oliver from Texas, plus Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati's closer the past four seasons and now the setup man for the other addition, Sergio Santos, last year's White Sox closer.
Right fielder Jose Bautista remains the crown jewel in the batting order, shooting for a third successive major league home run title. Farrell bats him third rather than fourth, where sluggers usually reside.
"I think your best hitter should be in the three hole," Farrell said. "You want him coming to the plate in the first inning. It's going to give him a few more at-bats throughout the course of the season."
First baseman Adam Lind will bat fourth. Few expect him to duplicate his 2009 season of 35 homers and 114 runs batted in with a .305 average, but if he can improve on last year (26, 87, .251) it will be tougher to pitch around Bautista.
Ahead of Bautista are shortstop Yunel Escobar, again leading off, and second baseman Kelly Johnson, who split last year between Arizona and Toronto. He hit 21 home runs but his batting average fell from .284 in 2010 to .222.
"The way we construct a lineup, on-base percentage is the No. 1 criteria," Farrell said. "Kelly has that in his past." Look for Omar Vizquel, who turns 45 April 24, to be the utility middle infielder.
Edwin Encarnacion will be the principal designated hitter. Third baseman Brett Lawrie is the team's designated wunderkind who lit up Triple-A at Las Vegas in 2011 -- a .353 average, 18 home runs and 61 RBIs in 69 games -- and spent most of August and September with the Blue Jays, batting over .300 virtually the entire time.
Center fielder Colby Rasmus said he never really fit in with the St. Louis Cardinals before being traded last July to Toronto. "A comfortable Colby Rasmus, and a productive one, is sure going to make us a lot better team," Farrell said.
Hitting eighth, behind Rasmus, will be left fielder Eric Thames or Travis Snider. Thames finished the season there when Snider was sent to the minors. Catcher J.P. Arencibia hit 23 home runs as a rookie in 2011.
The left-handed Romero has established himself as the ace of the rotation, winning 13, 14 and 15 games in his three big league seasons.
"We have that confidence in him that he can match up with whoever is put out there by any other club," Farrell said.
Behind Romero and Morrow are Brett Cecil, who has dropped about 30 pounds as he tries to turn around last year's 4-11 season back to his 15-7 in 2010, highly rated prospect Henderson Alvarez, and Dustin McGowan, who missed virtually all of 2009-2011 due to shoulder surgeries. Kyle Drabek figures to start at Las Vegas and be the first callup if a spot in the rotation opens up.