2011 Blue Jays: Squad of spring chickens

“Shocked” might be too strong a word, but the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays certainly surprised the baseball world by winning 85 games in what is arguably the toughest division in the league. They managed to accomplish this feat without Roy Halladay in the pitching rotation, and with DH Adam Lind and 2B Aaron Hill having sub-par years in terms of plate production. The team’s major reason for overachieving? How about Homerun King José Bautista’s 54 long balls? How about Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero’s combined 352 strikeouts? How about a roster sporting three players named to the American League All-Star team: Bautista, CF Vernon Wells, and C John Buck?

The 2011 Jays, on the other hand, could be in tough to repeat or surpass the success they enjoyed last season. Two of those all-stars – Wells and Buck – are no longer with the team, nor is last year’s opening day starter Shawn Marcum, who was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers this off-season for prospect Brett Lawrie. The Jays’ starting rotation in 2011 will be one of the youngest in the league, if not the youngest, with Ricky Romero slated as the ace, followed by Morrow and Brett Cecil. After that, the four and five spots are question marks, with the unproven Jessie Litsch, Mark Rzepczynski and Kyle Drabek as the leading candidates to fill those jobs. Jays’ GM Alex Anthopolous is especially hoping for a breakout year from Drabek, considering he was the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay trade with the Phillies.

In the field and at the plate, the Jays’ roster sports even more youth. J.P. Arencibia will see his first full-year as everyday catcher after putting up good numbers at Triple-A but struggling at the major league level. Adam Lind is essentially an experiment at first base, Aaron Hill needs to bounce back from a terrible year at the plate, and Yunel Escobar has to overcome the rumours that followed him from Atlanta of his being a clubhouse pest and establish himself as a reliable shortstop, but on the field and off. With third base still an uncertainty, José Bautista might be forced to fill that role instead of assuming his preferred position in right field, giving young Travis Snider a chance to play every day. Snider, once considered a future all-star, has yet to prove he can stay healthy and handle the ups and downs of a long season.

The Jays are also relatively inexperienced on the bench. Former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell is about to embark on his first season as a big league manager, taking over from the much-loved Cito Gaston, who enjoys saint-like status in Toronto for guiding the team to back-to-back World Series championships in ’92 and ’93. That kind of success is a distant memory now for Jays’ fans. With the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays all eager to battle for the American League East title, and the Orioles sick of losing, all Toronto can do is have faith in their youth movement and hope for some pleasant surprises. They could be just a few short years away from competing.

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