DUNEDIN, Fla. ó Friday night the 2011 Blue Jays season opens before a filled house against the Minnesota Twins.
It will be the first of 162 contests in what promises to be an entertaining and hopefully a promising season of growth.
It is another building block for this team and the downtrodden and weary Toronto sports fan must hate that word by now ó building ó as it means steps are still to be taken and there will be no prize, such as a post-season, when the regular season comes to an end on Sept. 28.
Your sun-kissed yet weary correspondent has been tracking the Jays over the past 31/2 weeks and the following are his observations regarding a team that could match last yearís surprising win total of 85 on the high side and if things donít go as planned, could easily slip to the high 70s.
Given the turnover and the youth, itís hard to get a handle on this club.
But here goes.
John Farrell is the new boss man, taking over the reins from Cito Gaston.
It was somewhat of a gutsy move by Alex Anthopoulos. Farrell comes from the pitching side of the game as opposed to being a former position player.
The coach appears to be a decent, engaging guy and is almost as talkative as his garrulous GM. When Farrell and Anthopoulos get into a room together it would be interesting to see who could get a word in.
Farrell signed on with a team that is a collection of sluggers and through the spring has worked at expanding their range of attack. He would like his team to employ what speed they have and has had everybody running and taking the extra base through their spring training schedule.
It will be interesting to see how much of that continues when the games count for real.
However, Farrell isnít trying to take a lot of square pegs and pound them into round holes. He knows his offence is built on power, accepts that, embraces that. He would just like to see it become a little more diversified and show a little growth in other areas ó taking extra bases, hitting behind the runner, moving runners along, being able to hit and run ó so that in low-scoring games against tough pitchers they wonít be living and dying on the home run.
Through the spring, Farrell has delegated authority, which is a positive sign, and is surrounded with a quality and unified coaching staff ó another plus.
He has no real experience in running a game and doesnít pretend otherwise, but certainly leaves the impression that he is the guy running the show.
The Jays opened their camp with three set spots for lefties Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil plus right-hander Brandon Morrow and two open spots. When the music stopped, Morrow was put on the sidelines and will miss what his first start ó April 2 ó after he was put on the disabled list as a precautionary move because of tightness near his right elbow. Morrow has the stuff to become the Ďaceí of the staff and of the three has the highest ceiling. Even though his innings will be limited to 175-180, he could easily end the season with the most wins and certainly blow by his 10-win total of 2010.
Both Cecil and Romero struggled this spring ó Cecil not finding his velocity until his final start on Tuesday and Romero missing one start because of inflammation of the middle finger of his left hand. Both, though, were hit and hit hard in most of their starts.
It may be the case of the two having to make adjustments in what will be their third big-league season.
Due to Morrowís injury, the Jays will also open the season with Kyle Drabek, Jo-Jo Reyes and Jesse Litsch as part of the rotation through the first spin.
Of the three, Drabek has been the most impressive. He is attempting to temper his power pitching with the ability of being able to pitch to contact. He will be fun to watch.
Reyes, acquired from the Braves, is a lefty and has looked very sharp this spring and has not shown the wildness that blunted his career with the Braves.
Litsch is Litsch and has been inconsistent from one start to the next. When Morrow returns, he is the likely candidate to be shipped back to the minors.
Overall, it is a very young staff and will have stretches of inconsistency. However there is also plenty of potential.
The bullpen figured on being one of the teams strengths and it certainly has a lot of veteran depth.
In the off-season Anthopoulos seemed to be signing every veteran arm in sight, leading to guffaws from other clubs. But as the saying goes, you never have enough pitching, and even though the Jays will open with two of their relievers on the DL ó closer Frank Francisco and right-handed specialist Octavio Dotel ó the Jays are able to come north with a solid mix of relievers.
Big Jon Rauch, signed from Minnesota, will handle the closing duties with Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp back in the set-up roles. Also returning will be right-hander Casey Janssen and lefty David Purcey. Right-hander Carlos Villanueva, from Milwaukee, can fill a variety of roles, and rounding out the ípen is lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who will be matched up against dangerous left-handed hitters late in the game.
Itís a solid bunch that has shown it can do the job.
It was quite the switcheroo that the Jays pulled on Tuesday when they announced that Jose Bautista would not move to third this season but will play fulltime in right field here he is best suited.
Edwin Encarnacion, signed on to be the fulltime DH, will take over at third, despite the fact that history has shown him to be below average at that spot, especially with his throws.
The Jays claim the move was made because of Encarnacion arriving in camp having lost weight, is in great shape and has worked hard on his footwork. The real reason was the poor play of newly acquired Juan Rivera in right. Rivera has no speed, no range and a bad arm.
Encarnacionís problems with making accurate throws across the diamond may be magnified this season. Sure-handed Lyle Overbay is no longer on the other side to dig them out of the dirt. That job now falls to Adam Lind, who will be no Gold Glove candidate at the position. All the Jays want out of Lind is for him to catch the ball and make the routine plays.
On paper, the combination of Encarnacion at third and Lind at first, is a defensive liability.
Back at short will be the strong armed Yunel Escobar, who has shown this spring that he can still fall asleep on the routine, easy play. He is spectacular at times but defensively the Jays would like to see more focus and consistency.
Aaron Hill has only played the past week or so due to injuring his right quad early in camp. He has increased his range with each game, although he has yet to run full bore when breaking out of the box.
Offensively, the Jays are hoping that Encarnacion can have a productive season when given regular at-bats. A very streaky hitter, he had 21 home runs and 51 RBIs in 332 at-bats in 2010, which is about a half seasonís worth.
Escobar has been making solid contact all spring and Farrell is thrilled to have him bat in the two hole as he can hit-and-run and also hit for power.
The big question mark, of course, is what of Hill and Lind? Last season both fell off the cliff offensively ó Hill hit an embarrassing .205 ó and the Jays are counting heavily on the two players returning to the production they both achieved in 2009.
If Hill and Lind donít hit, the Jays are going nowhere.
Catching is also a question mark, at least half of it. Veteran Jose Molina is back and he will be back of the plate to guide both Reyes and Drabek.
Taking over for John Buck is rookie J.P. Arencibia. The right-handed hitter was asked to work on his footwork and game-calling this spring and he has come along nicely in both areas.
Although he has hit at every level that he has played, and hit for power, he has struggled at the plate this spring. However, the Jays say that there is no pressure on him to perform at the plate and they are committed to him on a long-term basis. Donít be surprised to see plenty of droughts.
The Jays defence upgraded tremendously when they put Bautista back in right. Although he isnít the speediest of outfielders, he gets good jumps, takes good routes and has a great arm.
Offensively the Jays arenít expecting another 54 homers and neither is Bautista. Both would take it but a more likely target is 35.
In centre, Rajai Davis takes over for Vernon Wells. Davis should be capable defensively and this spring worked very hard on developing a power swing to compliment his speed of foot and base stealing ability. His job, though, as the leadoff hitter is to get on base and once there, cause some mayhem. With Oakland last year he swiped 52 bases and should be able to top that figure with the Jays
In left field is Travis Snider and this should be a pivotal season for 23-year-old, former first-round pick. Sniderís career has been one of stops and starts and a lot of lengthy slumps and minor injuries.
The Jays havenít given up on him and both the organization and player are looking forward to what he can produce on an everyday basis. The potential for big things is still there. He has matured both as a person and as a player.
The Jays will have more ups and downs in 2011 than they showed the previous season. They likely will have to take a small step backwards as far as their win total but as long as it is the kids that hold their own or show improvement, it will be a solid step for the franchise going forward.
The big wild card to the season will open the year at triple-A Las Vegas ó Brett Lawrie.
Lawrie, of Langley, B.C., wowed everybody with his camp and the thinking is that he will be moved up to take over at third base at some point this season. Lawrie brings tremendous athleticism to the team, has explosiveness out of the box and plenty of speed and energy.
Once he arrives, the fun will really start.