Better schedule to start for Jays

Blue Jays reliever Francisco Cordero is pumped about playing in Toronto this season. (MIKE...

Blue Jays reliever Francisco Cordero is pumped about playing in Toronto this season. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters file photo)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:11 PM ET

DUNEDIN, FLA. - For the Blue Jays to make any noise in the American League East this season — or any season, for that matter — they need to get off to a faster start than has been customary.

For the early enthusiasm this team has for the 2012 season to survive they will need to fuel it with victories. Given that there is an extra wild card slot in the works this year, a 90-win season could take the Jays somewhere they haven’t been since 1993: the playoffs.

In 2011, the Blue Jays began the season with the hardest schedule in baseball. They played 23 of their first 43 games against playoff teams from the year previous and 29 of those 43 games were played against teams that finished with at least 88 wins in 2010.

This season, Toronto will play 11 of its first 43 games against 2011 playoff teams and 18 of their first 43 against teams that finished with at least 88 wins a year ago.

At least on the surface, that would appear to be an opportunity to get off to a decent start, as opposed to just surviving as they did last year. Toronto came through that 43-game stretch a year ago with a 22-21 record and by that time, they had settled into fourth place in the AL East, a position they held the rest of the way.

It isn’t unreasonable to think they might improve on that early record this year.

“It isn’t that there are any soft touches in your schedule in any given year, but last year was a particularly difficult start for us,” says manager John Farrell.

CORDERO’S FEELING THE LOVE

In a year when it was not a good thing to be a free agent closer (unless your name was Jonathan Papelbon or Heath Bell), Francisco Cordero has emerged from the process anything but bitter.

Cordero, whose 327 saves puts him second on the active career list behind Mariano Rivera, not only took a one-year deal, but he became a Blue Jay knowing full well his role would not be as a closer. He’s the set-up man to Sergio Santos, yet the smile hardly ever leaves his face.

“When I said yes to the Blue Jays,” said Cordero, “I thought it was a good decision. Now that I’m here, for sure it was a good decision. It was the right decision to make. From the front office, the coaches, players, clubhouse guys, everyone has been really nice to me. I got no regrets.

“Coming in my first day of spring training, everybody made me feel like I was here before. Everybody welcomed me, they opened their arms and say hi and embraced me and just made me feel at home.”

Coming off a year in which he was paid more than $12 million (the last year of a four-year, $46 million deal) and had 37 saves for Cincinnati, Cordero will be paid $4.5 million on his one-year deal here.

ALVAREZ’S REPERTOIRE TO INCLUDE SLIDER

Henderson Alvarez breezed through his first inning of the spring Monday against the Tigers in Lakeland using just two pitches, but his success going forward will depend on adding a third.

Alvarez threw 10 fastballs and five changeups in facing four first-inning batters during Detroit’s 4-2 win. He walked Miguel Cabrera and got two groundball outs plus one pop-up.

Alvarez was quite successful in his August-September audition last year, using just those two pitches while working on a slider. He continues to work on it and plans to break it out next start.

“I’ve been throwing them in the bullpen and they’re good right now,” he said. “Next time I pitch, I’m going to incorporate them into my pitches instead of just using fastball, changeup. I just didn’t use them today because I only had one inning.

“I feel better with my slider than I did last year. I went back to Venezuela and worked on it. It’s a pitch I’m going to need to get more people out. Pitching with just a fastball and changeup, you need to be on top of your game, and now with a slider that’s another pitch to put in the hitter’s mind. So I needed that pitch.”

Manager John Farrell wants to see the slider become a feature for Alvarez but knows that his heavy, sinking fastball will always be his money pitch.

“The development staff always raved about his throwing capability and it’s so important to be able to get outs with your fastball,” said Farrell. “You can’t hide at this level and you have to be able to get outs with your fastball, particularly in the strikezone and he’s capable of doing that with the heavy sink.

STEADY PROGRESS

Carlos Villanueva continues to work through his progression in recovering from a circulation problem in his pitching hand and is expected to appear in a game next weekend.

Villanueva pitched batting practice in Dunedin on Sunday and is now slated to pitch a simulated game at the minor league complex on Wednesday.

“No issues today, a day later, so he’s set for a simulated game on Wednesday and he’s making very positive strides to hopefully get back into a game sometime on the weekend,” said manager John Farrell.


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