Bautista ready to lead new-look Jays
Perhaps no major leaguer has come as far over the past 12 months as Jose Bautista.
On opening day 2010 he was a virtual unknown, something of a journeyman who'd finally found his first full-time job, batting leadoff for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Fast forward through one incredible 54-homer campaign and he's baseball reigning long ball king, owner of a five-year, $65 million US contract and the new face of his team.
But after coming such a long way himself, how far can Bautista take the Blue Jays?
That's just one of several questions general manager Alex Anthopoulos will be asking this season, and the answers will determine how soon his talented but untested team can contend in the hyper-competitive American League East.
"It's going to be interesting. It's going to be fun to watch, but there's no question that there's a lot of things that will be answered," Anthopoulos said.
Bautista was an offensive force in 2010, smashing George Bell's club record of 47 homers and more than tripling his previous career high of 16, set in 2006. His .260 batting average, .378 on-base percentage, 124 RBIs, 109 runs and 100 walks were all career bests.
Anthopoulos concedes it was a risk to pay big bucks for Bautista before seeing a repeat performance, but said he's willing to tolerate a drop-off.
"He'll have down months," Anthopoulos said. "He might have a year where he doesn't perform all that well. But you're buying into this for the long term and you have reason to believe he's going to be great.
"Prince Fielder has hit 50 home runs before," Anthopoulos added. "He had 32 last year but he was still a very good, productive player."
Even with Bautista's booming bat contributing to a major league-high 257 homers, the Blue Jays went 85-77 last year and finished a distant fourth in baseball's toughest division. They haven't made the playoffs since 1993.
Toronto's changes start on the bench, where rookie manager John Farrell, plucked away from his job as Boston's pitching coach, took over from the retired Cito Gaston.
Farrell made three additions to his staff, bringing in former Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu as bench coach, naming former Blue Jays starter Pat Hentgen his bullpen coach and hiring a Boston acquaintance, AAA Pawtucket manager Tory Lovullo, as first base coach. Still, he retained three of Gaston's coaches: Brian Butterfield (third base), Bruce Walton (pitching) and Dwayne Murphy (hitting).
Besides Bautista, Anthopoulos and Farrell will have plenty of things to keep their eyes on. There's a rookie catcher behind the plate in J.P. Arencibia, last year's Pacific Coast League MVP.
A new position
At first base, young slugger Adam Lind is transitioning to a new position after playing mostly outfield and DH. On the mound, right-hander Kyle Drabek, the first prospect from the Roy Halladay trade to reach the majors, has made an opening-day roster for the first time.
"We don't have a long list of players that have had consistent performances for three or four years in a row," Anthopoulos said. "We do know that it's an incredibly talented group of players and the group we think is going to be part of winning a championship in Toronto. But again, they're young major league players and still need to establish themselves. Some of them are already starting but, from my standpoint, you need to do it for a few years before you're truly established."
The Blue Jays will hope for bounce-back years from Lind and second baseman Aaron Hill after both had big drops in production last season. They'll also hope outfielder Travis Snider, limited to 82 games because of injuries, can blossom into the hitter Toronto has been waiting for.
The starting five will be anchored by lefties Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil and right-hander Brandon Morrow, three youngsters who Anthopoulos says took "great strides" last season. Morrow will start the season on the disabled list, bumping Drabek up in the rotation.
While he admires Drabek's fire and work ethic, Anthopoulos says the son of former National League Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek is still learning the mental aspect of pitching.
"He's ultra-competitive and sometimes he needs to learn to channel his emotions a little bit and not let adversity on the mound impact him," Anthopoulos said.
With so much youth around the diamond, the Blue Jays also like Bautista as a team leader. He's become one of the most experienced veterans on the roster after a pair of off-season trades that sent right-hander Shaun Marcum, Toronto's opening-day starter in 2010, to Milwaukee and outfielder Vernon Wells, the highest-paid player in franchise history, to the Angels.
"We wholeheartedly believe in Jose Bautista as a person, more than anything else," Anthopoulos said when the contract was signed. "I've seen where [long-term] deals have gone awry, maybe because the bet on the person wasn't what was expected. If we can't bet on [Bautista], we can't bet on anybody."