Jays need starters to go deep

Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero stretches during practice at the club's spring training facility in...

Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero stretches during practice at the club's spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., Feb. 23, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:30 PM ET

DUNEDIN, FLA. - In the early days of spring training, no single aspect of the Blue Jays’ approach to the season has been stressed any more firmly than the notion that they must get more innings out of their starting pitchers.

Manager John Farrell revisited and expanded on that topic Sunday.

“There’s a greater emphasis on first-pitch strikes and on 1-1 counts,” Farrell said. “These are basics as far as pitching goes. But the more we emphasize it and the more we repeat it and make it that much more important in their focus and concentration, that should allow them to get some earlier outs in the count and stretch their pitch count over seven or eight innings.

“It’s a mindset that we’re trying to create. It doesn’t mean we’re expecting a guy to go nine innings right out of the chute. But there are games where a guy is maybe in the fourth inning and things aren’t going his way, that he’s got to find a way to get through to the sixth and possibly the seventh inning. We had too many games where, in the fifth inning, we were already going to the bullpen.

“I know there’s been a lot of (negative) talk about last year’s bullpen, but when you look at the first two, maybe two-and-a-half months, we were one of the top three or four bullpens in the American League. Through the combination of a lot of innings pitched, we asked a lot from that group and I think it caught up to us.

“We pitched the second-most innings by a bullpen of any team in the league last year. We’ve got to reverse that.”

Compounding the problem for the starters was some shoddy outfield defence. By his own estimate, Farrell ranked his outfield as “probably 30th” out of 30 teams in MLB “when you break out all the metrics.”

“It’s one of the primary reasons we traded for Colby Rasmus, a good defender and more of a complete player. Being able to keep Jose in right field from the start of the season is going to be a huge plus for us. Whoever ends up in left field, it should give us an improved outfield defence and that should go a long way toward helping eliminate those big innings.”

SCARY MOMENT

The Blue Jays pitching staff survived a mild scare Sunday and hopes to be able to put another one behind them today.

Young starter Henderson Alvarez, a prime candidate to be in the opening day rotation took an errant throw off his foot during warmups for the full-squad workout and was carted off on a utility truck to the trainers’ room.

“He got hit on the foot by a ball playing catch,” manager John Farrell said. “Luis Perez threw him a breaking ball he couldn’t handle, but he’s fine. Everything checked out. We got him off the field and checked out.”

On Saturday, reliever Carlos Villanueva underwent medical tests after feeling coldness in his pitching hand.

“We went through a number of tests,” Farrell said. “Everything turned out fine as far as the results went. He’s going to be re-examined Monday and we’ll have a further update at that time.”

HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR LAWRIE

Nobody created more of a buzz in Blue Jays land than Brett Lawrie in 2011. After six months of anticipation, when he burst onto the big-league scene in August he proved to be better than the hype.

He hit .293 with a .373 OBP and an OPS of .953, with nine homers and 25 RBI in 150 at-bats.

So, what should everybody expect with Lawrie in the lineup for a full season?

“To start to put numbers on it is premature,” manager John Farrell said. “The biggest thing, and it’s something we will monitor, is that when he doesn’t chase off-speed pitches out of the strike zone. He is as dangerous a hitter as there is in the American League. I know that’s a pretty strong statement, but in a short period of time we saw an explosive player. I think we’d all sign up today and take those 150 at-bats, spread them out of 600 and multiply everything times four.”

Farrell was speaking tongue-in-cheek, of course. Thirty-six homers, 100 RBIs, 32 doubles and 16 triples? Yeah, that would work. By the way, Lawrie has already had 16 triples in a season, in 135 games at double-A Huntsville two years ago.

“He’s a complete player, with an infectious attitude,” Farrell concluded. “He might rub some people the wrong way, but within our clubhouse we love the energy.”

DAVIS COULD BE KEY

Maybe Rajai Davis wasn’t everything the Jays hoped he would be when they signed him for two years and $5.75 million, but as a fourth outfielder and a guy who can cause big trouble on the bases, he could play a significant role in 2012.

As a regular, Davis was flawed by his inability to hit righthanded pitching. He hit just .221 with a .552 OPS against righties. But against lefthanders, he had an OPS of .830.

“Prior to him tearing that hamstring late in the year, he was very good against left-handed pitching and a disruptive force late in the game,” manager John Farrell said. “He took to that role. We had enough left-handed bats in the outfield that his at-bats against right-handers diminished a little bit, but he’s a valuable part of our club.”

Despite his limited playing time, he stole 34 bases, seventh in the AL behind six players who all had 200 more plate appearances.


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