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Blue Jays’ Home Launch

The team prepares for its Rogers Centre opener—and a season filled with uncertainty.

Jose Bautista at bat during the 2011 season. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/keith_watson/6377982859/"}Keith Watson{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The Toronto Blue Jays—coming off stealing two extra-inning games from the Indians in Cleveland—make their home debut tonight at the Rogers Centre against the Boston Red Sox. The Jays had the best spring training record in all of baseball, but now we’re stuck with the realities and what-ifs of another typical regular season: the team is poised on the cusp of optimism even while it seems destined to succumb to inevitable growing pains.

For manager John Farrell, beginning his second campaign at the helm, low expectations may be beneficial. True, the addition of a second wild-card spot alleviates some of the burden of competing in a perennially stacked AL East, but any credible chance of a play-off run would require a lot of favourable breaks. What follows is a blueprint of how our Toronto Blue Jays will need to perform should they expect to be contenders.

STARTING ROTATION

Ricky Romero, coming off an All-Star season as the staff’s ace, must be able to repeat that performance and, if possible, develop into the 20-game winner that he certainly appears capable of becoming. More importantly, though, Brandon Morrow will be tasked with filling the role of Romero’s right-hand man, and logging solid innings free of the home runs, walks, and difficulties pitching with runners on base that have plagued previous seasons. Of the remaining three starters, it would certainly help matters if at least one of them were to blossom unexpectedly. The most likely candidate would seem to be Kyle Drabek, the son of Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. The yonger Drabek was dealt to Toronto (along with a couple other players) in exchange for the venerable Roy Halladay. Drabek’s rookie season last year was largely a disappointment.

BULLPEN

Closers were an Achilles’ heel in 2011, so, for this year, general manager Alex Anthopoulos saw fit to obtain not just one, but two. Francisco Cordero will mostly handle eighth-inning duties, with Sergio Santos shutting things down in the ninth. This is a bullpen that blew 25 saves last year, so some improvement is obviously required. Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen are two others who will have key roles in holding onto those precious leads.

INFIELD

The Jays’ infield features two burgeoning stars in catcher J. P. Arencibia and third baseman Brett Lawrie. Arencibia hit 23 home runs last year—the most ever by a Blue Jays catcher—but this year, he’ll be expected to raise a piddling .219 batting average. Lawrie, a BC native, played in just 43 games at the end of 2011, and will be anxious to prove he can sustain his level of production over a longer period. Shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson are still considered reclamation projects of sorts, while first baseman Adam Lind is an oft-injured former All-Star who will be looking to regain his previous form. Also of note is the durability of utility infielder Omar Vizquel, who will turn 45 in days, making him the oldest shortstop in MLB history whenever he next takes the field.

OUTFIELD

José Bautista is arguably the best player in baseball right now, though his numbers did taper off during the latter half of last season. Even so, his presence is good for the Jays. Over in left field, after a tightly contested battle during spring training, Eric Thames narrowly edged out Travis Snider for the job. If Thames falters, Snider could easily be called upon to provide a solid back-up plan. In centre field, Colby Rasmus has yet to live up to his much-touted potential, and may give way on occasion to Rajai Davis’ electrifying presence on the base-paths.

DESIGNATED HITTER

The spot is Edwin Encarnacion’s to lose, so the streaky hitter (and frustrated fans) will continue to hope for a little more consistency than he has shown throughout his career.

CONCLUSIONS?

Overall, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this is a squad capable of winning 90 games, which would put them in the thick of a wild-card hunt. The major sources of doubt are the team’s extremely untested starting rotation and its handful of players that have yet to deliver on their full potential, and who will have to do so nearly simultaneously to make the Jays into a success. The one fact that no one contests is that, unlike previous incarnations of the Jays, this year’s “team unit” does not lack for confidence and camaraderie. Whether that will translate to immediate success—or if it may still be a few years away yet—remains to be seen.

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