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New-look Blue Jays should be better

Bolstered bullpen could make them AL contenders

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The Toronto Blue Jays have a new look and plenty of optimism as they try yet again to crack the upper echelon in the tough American League East.

But while the bullpen appears to be deeper, there are still several question marks on a team that finished with a mediocre 81-81 record last season.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos made a decent off-season splash by landing closer Sergio Santos in a trade with the Chicago White Sox. However, the starting rotation remains thin and the offence has some work to do to improve on last season's middling numbers.

Slugger Jose Bautista is the team's anchor and has emerged as the face of the franchise after back-to-back career seasons. Ricky Romero showed last year that he's up for the task of serving as the rock of the rotation.

While a second wild-card team has been added in each league, Toronto still needs bounceback years from several players to hang with the likes of New York, Boston and Tampa in arguably the strongest division in the majors.

"I think the biggest thing is we have to worry about ourselves and no one else," Romero said in a recent interview. "It doesn't matter what division we're in, who we're playing, you've got to take that all out the window. Just go out there and play baseball.

"I think if we just go and do that I think this team is going to be just fine."

The Blue Jays have not reached the post-season since their last World Series victory in 1993. This year's squad will have a similar look to the Toronto teams from yesteryear when regular-season play begins April 5 at Cleveland.

A dash of old-school flavour has been added to the team's logo, lettering and uniforms. Players will wear blue hats and blue shoes for all games. White uniforms will be worn at home, light grey on the road and a royal blue alternate jersey is also in the mix.

There was a real sense of excitement in the clubhouse at spring training in Florida this year. The players looked solid in Grapefruit League action, winning more than 20 games, and are anxious to get results when the regular season begins.

"It's the best camaraderie that I've seen on any team that I've played on," Bautista said. "Everybody gets along with each other and we enjoy each other's company."

Manager John Farrell has a good foundation to work with for his second season as skipper. The team's youngsters look like the real deal and there is a solid veteran presence as well.

If Toronto's rotation can ease the load on the relievers this year, the Jays could make some significant progress.

"I think we're fortunate to have a number of guys in our bullpen where we're not going to be so reliant on one guy to bridge the gap to Santos," Farrell said.

Brandon Morrow has tremendous stuff but inconsistency has been an issue. Exciting prospect Henderson Alvarez will likely join him in the rotation.

A slimmed-down Brett Cecil won 15 games in 2010 but never found his rhythm last season and spent part of the year in triple-A. He's in a battle for the remaining spots with oft-injured veteran Dustin McGowan, youngster Kyle Drabek and left-hander Aaron Laffey.

A solid relief crew including Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver and setup man Francisco Cordero will be counted on to get the ball to Santos, who had 30 saves for the White Sox last year.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C., and catcher J.P. Arencibia are coming off solid rookie campaigns. They are two of the team's key building blocks going forward.

"The future's bright for us," Romero said. "I think we all see it around the room. It's a little bit of a mixture of older guys and a lot of young guys.

"You see the determination and the work that we're putting in. We're ready to take it to the next level."

While nothing is set in stone, shortstop Yunel Escobar will likely lead off ahead of second baseman Kelly Johnson. Bautista should bat in the No. 3 spot, followed by first baseman Adam Lind.

Centre-fielder Colby Rasmus was acquired last season from St. Louis but battled injuries and struggled. Edwin Encarnacion should fill the designated hitter role and Eric Thames will likely be the starting left-fielder after Travis Snider was optioned to triple-A.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 C7

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