Five spring Blue Jays questions

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:03 PM ET

DUNEDIN — It began in 1977 as Grant Field, a quaint little sandlot with chicken-wire backstops.

Over the years, it has been known as Dunedin Stadium, then Knology Park, then Dunedin Stadium again. Every year the Blue Jays would return, uncertain what their spring home would be called this time.

On this sunny spring morning, about 20 of the eventual 50-odd 2011 Blue Jays spring training candidates have come for a workout at ... wait for it ... Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? From sandlot to car lot.

The names change and so do the annual questions as spring training looms.

1. Can Adam Lind develop into the primary option at first base?

This will be the most intriguing story line of this spring training because, if successful, it will have a domino effect throughout the lineup, both on and off the field.

“We have Adam under control for six years,” said GM Alex Anthopoulos in January.

“If we can get Adam acclimated enough to be able to become an everyday first baseman — and that is a big, big if — it gives us roster flexibility that we’re going to have going forward to have that DH spot open and available for years to come.”

The early returns from his occasional appearances at first during games down the stretch in 2010 were not promising. He lacked the footwork and the instincts to be able to handle the job at the major-league level. That audition was unfair in that he had little preparation. This spring he and infield coach Brian Butterfield will become immersed in the project and after six weeks in Florida, we — and the Jays’ braintrust — will have a better idea if this is going to work.

There is, of course, a secondary consideration here. Not only does Lind have to master a defensive position he hasn’t played since his freshman year in college in 2003, but he has to rebound from a disappointing season at the plate.

In 2009, Lind had a breakout season, launching 35 home runs, driving in 114, with an on-base percentage of .370 and an OPS of .932. Last year, he hit just 23 home runs, drove in 72 and lost more than a 100 points of both his on-base and slugging percentages and 68 points off his batting average.

Granted, his second half was a big improvement over his first half, but if this first base experiment is to pay dividends, Lind has to be an offensive force all season to justify what will be, at best, borderline skills on defence.

2. Will J.P. Arencibia be ready as the No. 1 catcher by opening day?

After his spectacular 4-for-5, two-homer debut last August, Arencibia finished the season by going 1-for-30 the rest of the way. Given that Arencibia was used sparingly, nobody should read too much in that lack of offence. With the exception of 2009 when he was suffering health problems, he has hit at virtually every level and never better than last year when he was named the Pacific Coast League’s MVP, leading the minors in home runs.

The most concerning aspect of Arencibia’s first taste of the major leagues was his inexperience handling the pitchers. While there may be truth to Anthopoulos’ assertion that John Buck had been promised the No. 1 catching role and that the Jays were obligated to honor that promise, had Arencibia demonstrated the necessary aptitude, there’s little doubt he would have gotten more playing time.

In much the same fashion as Lind’s first-base experiment, Arencibia’s sporadic August-September audition was unfair to the player because he lacked familiarity with many of the pitchers he was asked to catch.

This spring he will get the chance to learn all about his pitching staff and become more comfortable with all the technical demands. New hire Don Wakamatsu will work exclusively with the catchers and with Arencibia in particular.

How quickly Arencibia is able to absorb all the nuances of the position will determine, along with his bat, how effective he’ll be. If he fails to impress, the Jays have the option to give more starts to Jose Molina, an accomplished receiver and one of the best there is at throwing out runners while Arencibia figures it out.

3. Who will emerge as the bullpen closer?

This was the area in which Anthopoulos was busiest this off-season. With closer Kevin Gregg and lefty set-up man Scott Downs moving on, the GM has assembled a reasonably impressive cast of replacements.

Indeed, the competition to decide who will get the ball in the ninth inning could involve as many as four or five candidates.

Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel, all newcomers, are, along with holdover Jason Frasor, the main candidates. All of them have closed before which begs the question how happy all of them could be in a bullpen where they are not the top dog.

Rauch was solid for Minnesota, taking over for the injured Joe Nathan last season and racking up 21 saves until Matt Capps was acquired at the deadline. Francisco, a right-hander who is death on left-handed hitters, saved 25 games for Texas two years ago. Dotel saved 22 games for three different teams last year and Frasor actually won the Jays’ closer role out of spring training last season, only to lose it to Gregg early on.

How the group dynamic evolves will require some careful handling by manager John Farrell, pitching coach Bruce Walton and rookie bullpen coach Pat Hentgen. The potential is there, however, for this to be a very good bullpen, especially when the Jays have a late lead.

4. Who will be the fourth and fifth starters in the rotation?

This will be an interesting process. With Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil’s names written in stone at the top of the rotation, there are at least a half-dozen candidates to step into the back end roles.

Given that he was the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay trade last year and that he has already amassed 430 innings in the minors (including 258 at the double-A level the past two years, it would be a huge upset if Kyle Drabek was not one of the two survivors.

For Drabek, it won’t be so much about actually making the team but about how dominant he can be.

Other candidates include Jesse Litsch, Marc Rzepczynski, Brad Mills, Scott Richmond, Robert Ray and Luis Perez. Dustin McGowan will be in camp but he’s still trying to come back from surgery. Promising arms like Henderson Alvarez, Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire will also be there, but only to get a taste of what it will take for them to eventually get there.

Of all the non-roster invitees, the most intriguing name that pops out as a possible rotation darkhorse is Zach Stewart. He was part of the Scott Rolen trade two years ago and really came of age in the second half of the 2010 season at double-A. He had been labelled early in his career as a bullpen prospect but has developed three quality pitches with command of all of them.

5. How will the team replace all that offence that was lost this off-season?

This is a question that speaks not only to those departed and those who replace them, but also to the evolving offensive philosophy of manager Farrell and GM Anthopoulos.

A year ago, the Jays were the runaway home run kings in baseball. From the first day to the last, they were a team of slow-footed thumpers which launched 257 homers, 46 more than the Boston Red Sox who were a distant second.

One hundred of those home runs have left the building since the end of the season, with the departures of Vernon Wells, John Buck, Lyle Overbay, Fred Lewis and others. Departed players also accounted for 351 of Toronto’s 755 runs last year.

The Jays can take some comfort in that Jose Bautista, he of the 54 home runs last year, is back, but is anyone seriously expecting him to duplicate his prodigious 2010 season? If he comes within 20 of that number, it will be an outstanding follow-up.

Both Farrell and Anthopoulos have expressed a desire to build an offence that is more balanced, relying not just on home runs but on-base percentage, speed and contact. It does not happen overnight.

Rajai Davis, who appears to be the new centre fielder, holding a place for Anthony Gose a couple of years down the line, is likely to take over the leadoff role and, if he gets 600 at-bats with an on-base percentage of .340, he might score 100 runs and steal 75 bases. That would be a good start toward a new offensive dynamic.

Behind him, however, is largely the same cast of characters. They certainly hope that Aaron Hill and Lind are the players of two years ago, and not of last year.

They expect some punch from Juan Rivera who is likely to take one outfield spot. They would be thrilled if Arencibia matches Buck’s 2010 output at catcher and everyone is waiting for a bust-out season from Travis Snider, who is expected to get the majority of innings in left field.

Then there is the enigmatic Edwin Encarnacion, a streaky basher who will likely get a lot of at-bats as the DH.

If the answer to this question remains unclear, join the club.


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