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Jays ready to take the field in spring training and live up to expectations

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DUNEDIN, Fla. - It's time to play ball, and not a moment too soon.

Live batting practice, retrieving balls fired out of a machine and fielding drills can only keep your attention for so long.

"This get old," said Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "I mean you've got to do it, but four days of live BP, that kind of gets a little monotonous now.

"And they're ready to go. Fans want to see it, everybody wants to see it. Then you can see how the team's playing and go from there, what do we need to work on and that kind of thing."

The expectations are especially high around Toronto after ownership dug into its wallet to acquire pitchers R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson as well as position players Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes, among others.

The Jays have gone from 73-89, fourth in the American League East, to playoff and possibly World Series contenders. But there is still a ways to go before even opening day.

Saturday's spring debut against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., will be followed by 33 more Grapefruit League games before Dickey takes the mound at Rogers Centre against the Cleveland Indians on opening day April 2, the first of 162 regular-season games.

Baseball is very thorough, especially in a year when the pre-season has been extended due to the World Baseball Classic.

Like an NBA all-star coach dividing up minutes for his roster, Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker has a starting rotation mapped out for the entire spring schedule. He has his blueprint for relievers mapped ahead for 10-to-12 days.

"Everything's in pencil because throughout spring training some guys come up with a tired arm or need a day (off) here or there," Walker said.

Brandon Morrow opens Saturday, with one inning. He will be followed by Brad Lincoln, Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers, David Bush, Ramon Ortiz and Neil Wagner.

Some starters will begin with two innings work, although Walker says a 30-35 pitch count is more accurate. Their second start will also be two innings before they start to stretch out.

But Morrow's work will be done Saturday even if he needs just three pitches to end his inning. Walker consults his pitchers on spring workload and history has shown Morrow likes to build slowly.

"It worked last year for him and we're going to continue to use that model," Walker said. "Everybody's a little different. One thing we know is it's not cookie-cutter here. Everybody's not the same. Everybody responds differently. There's subtle differences.

"Obviously there's a certain number of innings we want to get them to at the end of spring training, that's our goal. How they get there, each of them is a little bit different."

The goal is 28-30 innings for starters by the end of spring training.

Morrow, who started the Jays' last game of the season, is looking forward to kicking off the new year. But he won't be using his whole arsenal as he gets his body in gear.

He held back the slider last year and plans to do the same, to avoid strain on his arm.

Instead he will throw his fastball, split-change and curveball. He'll save the slider until a week or so into March.

"I'm pretty confident in my slider. It will be there when I need it," said Morrow, taking a break from the USA Today crossword puzzle in front of his locker.

Bush doesn't plan to hold anything back, although he will adjust things depending on how he feels.

"Part of the point of spring training is to get a feel for all of your stuff by the end of it," he said. "I don't think initially you expect to go out there first day and feel everything, but I'll see what feels good and keep working on the other stuff."

The games also allow coaches to see their players perform. Walker says practice sessions only illustrate a player's health or who is feeling good about their game.

The Jays finished the 2012 spring season with a 24-7 record, best in the majors. But Gibbons, beginning his second stint at the team's helm, isn't too concerned about wins and losses.

"You'd like to win, you'd like to be playing good but the record, I don't think that means anything unless history says otherwise," he said. "Usually it's your better minor-league systems that win a lot of spring training games because the young guys are playing late.

"I just want to be playing good baseball, win or lose."

There are not too many roster questions to answer with the Jays this year.

Barring injuries, the starting rotation will be Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle, Johnson and Ricky Romero.

The bullpen will feature Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Darren Oliver, Delabar and likely Rogers, leaving two spots open. Lefties Aaron Loup, Brett Cecil and J.A. Happ are probably in contention for one of those with Jeremy Jeffress and Brad Lincoln are fighting for a right-hander's spot.

How the Jays want to configure the bullpen will make a difference. Loup, last year's team rookie of the year, is seen as a situational pitcher while Cecil and Happ, former starters, can provide long relief.

Newcomers Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio are competing at second base with Bonifacio able to play a number of infield positions.

"We'll see what makes us stronger," said Gibbons.

Janssen and Santos are both coming back from shoulder surgery, with Janssen taking a measured approach ahead of opening day. Romero had off-season elbow surgery but it is his knees that seem to be bothering him this time.

J.P. Arencibia is the No 1 catcher but Gibbons has to decide whether Dickey gets a personal catcher and if so who, with Henry Blanco and Josh Thole vying to be Arencibia's backup.

There will also be eyes on left-fielder Cabrera to see how he performs at the plate in the wake of a 50-game drug suspension that ended his stellar 2012 season prematurely with the Giants.

Gibbons, for one, is not concerned.

"He can flat out hit," he said.

In Reyes, Izturis, Bonifacio and Cabrera, Gibbons also has four switch-hitters.

Jays fans will be looking forward to seeing Reyes, the 2011 NL batting champion, lead off. The happy-go-lucky shortstop has 410 career steals under his belt.

They may also notice some quick games, with Dickey and Buehrle both fast workers on the mound.

NOTES — Thole will start Saturday against the Tigers, with Arencibia serving as the designated hitter. Other veterans making the trip are Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis, Adam Lind, and Canadian Brett Lawrie.

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