Hope springs eternal

KEN FIDLIN

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

STARTING ROTATION

1. Roy Halladay: One of a handful of true aces in all of baseball, Halladay is not only a front-of-the-line pitcher, but he's also one of those rare individuals who makes the pitchers around him better, just because they get to learn what it takes to be the best by watching how dedicated he is in preparing himself every day he comes to the park.

Halladay has had trouble getting through an entire season injury free. Last year, he had no arm trouble but missed 20 days as a result of an appendectomy. Still, in 31 starts, Halladay went 16-7 and tossed 225 innings with a 3.71 earned-run average. It's interesting to note that his three worst outings of the year -- two immediately before the appendectomy and in his second start back -- accounted for 23 earned runs in 13 2/3 innings. Without those games, he was 16-5, with a 2.97 ERA.

2. A.J. Burnett: There aren't many more perplexing characters in baseball than Burnett. He is the proverbial "man with the golden arm" yet he can never seem to translate it into a performance that lasts over an entire season. The past two springs, Burnett has made strides toward becoming a more complete pitcher, relying more on his changeup and sinker rather than his 97-m.p.h. fastball and his knee-buckling curve. If he can stay healthy and carry that "pitch-to-contact" philosophy into the season, economizing on his number of pitches, especially early in games and get some easy outs with his change, Burnett may yet develop into the dominating pitcher that his talent says he should be.

3. Dustin McGowan: Endowed with perhaps the best pure "stuff" on this pitching staff, McGowan has never had the self-confidence or maybe the self-awareness to trust his own abilities. Just within the past year, he has started to realize his own potential and that has freed him up to be as good as he can be. As with most young pitchers, it has been a process of two steps forward and one step back, but McGowan is slowly developing into a guy more willing to attack the strike zone. "I think what has happened with Dusty in the past," pitching coach Brad Arnsberg said, "is that he gave hitters too much credit. Yeah, if you throw strikes, you're going to get some pitches, good pitches, that are hit and hit hard. But when you have the kind of action on the ball that this guy has, you have to have the confidence to come right back and throw that good pitch again."

4. Shaun Marcum: He does not have the overpowering stuff of the three pitchers listed above, but Marcum makes up for it with a bulldog competitive mentality. To be effective, he must have pinpoint control to avoid having that 89-m.p.h. fastball launched into the seats. His devastating changeup, one of the best in the league, is the great leveller and it serves to keep hitters honest. Marcum spent the winter working on strength and stamina to avoid wearing down later in the season, adding a few pounds of muscle to his 6-foot, 180-pound frame. After he was installed as a starter in May, Marcum pitched six innings or more in 15 of his first 18 starts. In his last seven starts, he pitched six innings only once.

5. Jesse Litsch: At the ripe old age of 21 and fresh out of double-A, Litsch arrived in the big leagues last May armed with a pitching philosophy that seems so obvious, yet takes so many pitchers years to figure out: Throw strikes.

Filling in for Halladay in the rotation when the ace was having his appendix out, Litsch pitched into the ninth inning against Baltimore in his debut, winning 2-1. He does not possess overpowering stuff, but he does have an effective sinker that, when he is on his game, comes in at the knees and darts down. Litsch also does something else so many other pitchers seem to resist: He works quickly. That, and the fact he induces a lot of ground balls, endears him to his defence, which doesn't get time to fall asleep.

BULLPEN

Ryan may not be with the Jays to start the season, but he is not far away from resuming his role as closer. Still, 11 months removed from reconstructive surgery on his left elbow, Ryan is ahead of schedule and should be back with the club soon. In the interim, Accardo will pick up where he left off last season, when he saved 30 games for the Jays. Even when Ryan comes back, look for Accardo to get some ninth-inning work when Ryan has worked the day before.

In the unfortunate absence of Janssen, it seems Brandon League may get a chance to try the setup role he thought he was getting last year, although Gibbons may have a higher comfort level with Scott Downs in that position early on. That 2007 plan went down the drain when League arrived in camp with an overdeveloped muscle in his upper back and had lost 10 m.p.h. off his fastball. With him back throwing 96 m.p.h. and with some nasty sink action, League is a bullpen force. If he's not up to the eighth-inning job, look for Brian Wolfe to get work in that area. He'll join lefty specialist Downs, veteran righty Jason Frasor and lefty Brian Tallet. The seventh man in the bullpen, destined for mop-up duty is either Rule-5 acquisition Randy Wells who has to be kept on the roster or offered back to his old team, the Cubs, or lefty Jesse Carlson.

CATCHING

Switch-hitting Gregg Zaun figures to get the lion's share of at-bats, but Rod Barajas is a definite upgrade at the backup position. A year ago, the Jays started with lead-footed Jason Phillips in reserve behind Zaun and had to expose him more than they wanted to when Zaun was injured.

Zaun's broken right hand made a mess of his 2007 season, causing him to miss six weeks of action and when he did return he was never able to get back to the player he had been previously. Still, he hit 10 homers and drove in 52 runs in 331 at-bats and had an on-base percentage 99 points higher than his batting average of .242. Where he suffered most was defensively where base-stealers ran with abandon. He nailed just 13 of 86 would-be thieves last season for an average of about 15%, about 10% lower than his career average.

Zaun has returned healthy and strong this spring and figures, with the help of a pitching staff that has been alerted to its own deficiencies in holding runners, to be greatly improved in that area.

Barajas is a proven major-league catcher. Last year in Philadelphia, he got only 122 at-bats, hit .230 with four homers and 10 RBIs but had an on-base percentage of .352. He's an excellent receiver and threw out seven of 19 base-stealers for a .368 percentage.

INFIELD

After a year that went south on him early, even before a crippling hand injury made it even worse, first baseman Lyle Overbay has been one of the most relieved players in camp. The smooth stroke that made him the major-league leader in doubles over a four-year period, 2004-2007, has returned.

"When things are going as badly as they were at times last year, you begin to wonder if you'll ever hit again," Overbay said this spring. No doubts anymore. Heading into the last week of spring training, Overbay was hitting .375 with six doubles in 40 at-bats.

When the Jays traded Orlando Hudson to Arizona two years ago there were questions that they were putting too much pressure on largely untested Aaron Hill as their second baseman. Once again, no doubts linger. Hill is coming off his second outstanding season as Toronto's second baseman and has established himself as not only one of the best defenders at his position in the game, but has tied Robbie Alomar's Blue Jay record for home runs by a second baseman, with 17.

"I see Aaron as a top-of the-lineup guy in the near future, probably a No. 2 hitter," manager John Gibbons said. "We're probably going to leave him down in the eight-spot where he had good success for the time being but he won't be down there much longer."

In his pursuit of offence, the Jays shook things up this winter by signing free agent David Eckstein to be the regular shortstop. The Jays already had John McDonald under contract, but there have always been concerns about McDonald's ability to play every day.

Until he was sidetracked by a displaced fracture of the middle finger on his throwing hand, an injury compounded by a torn fingernail, Scott Rolen had been impressive in many ways during his first camp as Toronto's third baseman. With Rolen unavailable for the first couple of weeks, Marco Scutaro will put his super-sub skills to work at third base.

OUTFIELD

In a year when the Blue Jays fell far short of their collective abilities, nobody was disappointed in his own play more than was Vernon Wells. Even after we learned late in the season that Wells had a valid reason (a torn labrum in his left shoulder), he was reluctant to use it as an alibi. With the injury surgically repaired, Wells figures to have a bounce-back season while anchoring the Toronto outfield defence from his position in centre field.

Year-over-year, Wells' 2007 numbers were uniformly awful when compared with 2006. He dropped 140 slugging points, to .402 from .542. He dropped 53 on-base percentage points to .304 from .357. He lost 96 total bases, to 235 from 331, and he dropped 16 homers, to 16 from 32.

On Wells' left, as he faces the diamond, will once again be Alex Rios, who has just begun to scratch the surface of his enormous potential. The past two seasons he has had big first halfs, only to retreat in the second half.

At the all-star break last year, Rios had 17 homers and 53 RBIs but hit just seven homers and drove in just 32 the rest of the way. If he can overcome that inconsistent nature, he could become one of the premier offensive players in the league. He is already one of its best outfield defenders with one of the best arms in baseball.

Matt Stairs, hired on as a bench player prior to the 2007 season, has been such a revelation to Toronto management that he has been offered a chance at the lion's share of playing time in left field.

Stairs will share time with right-handed hitting Shannon Stewart in left.

DESIGNATED HITTER

Frank Thomas' career may be winding down but he feels like he still has a few good licks left before they throw open the doors of Cooperstown to him. He has suffered through a horrendous spring, which has become a bit of a pattern in his case. In the past two seasons, he has started slowly but, when the season has been in the books, The Big Hurt's numbers have stood out. Last year, he hit 26 homers and drove in 85 and was, all things considered, an important man for the offensively challenged Jays.

Thomas, as always, was among the team leaders in on-base percentage, at .377 and was remarkably consistent all season. He hit 14 homers before the all-star break and 12 more afterward. He begins the 19th season of his career with 513 homers, 1,674 RBIs and a batting average of .303.


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