Blue Jays create excitement, hope for 2011

Whoever succeeds Cito Gaston as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011 will have plenty of talent to work with after the team's surprising 85-win season.

Search for manager tops GM Anthopoulos's list of off-season priorities

A franchise-record 257 home runs, with 54 from the major league home-run leader, Jose Bautista. A 10-game improvement from a year ago. And 52 wins from a quartet of starting pitchers with an average age of 26.

What manager wouldn't want to inherit the up-and-coming Toronto Blue Jays?

Well, probably greybeards like Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella, to name a few.

Also, don't count on Bobby Cox returning for a second tour of duty with the Blue Jays. The 69-year-old will retire after leading the Atlanta Braves to the post-season for the 15th time in the past 19 years.

Jays hold ticket prices

The Toronto Blue Jays' 85 victories this season represent a 10-win improvement from a year ago, but fans won't be asked to pay more for tickets in 2011.

Single-game tickets will continue to range from $11 in the 500 level to $75 in the Club VIP section.

"We believe that we have made progress in 2010 and look forward to improving on this foundation in 2011," team president and CEO Paul Beeston said in a statement released by the Blue Jays. "We will continue to direct our efforts to improving the team and farm system with the goal of bringing a championship to Toronto."

Jason Diplock, vice-president of ticket sales and service for the Blue Jays, added there has been positive response from the club's season-ticket holders about the direction of the team and is encouraged "by the brisk response from fans that have placed deposits for 2011 season tickets."

So, whether it's Don Baylor, Bob Melvin, Eric Wedge, Ryne Sandberg, internal candidates Nick Leyva or Brian Butterfield, or none of the above, Cito Gaston's successor will have plenty of talent to work with.

"I don't know what sort of manager you need here," Gaston, who carries a 913-851 mark in 12 seasons with the Blue Jays into retirement, told reporters recently.

"I don't know what kind of team they're going to have here next year, because there's a lot of unanswered questions as far as free agency and adding some people."

Led by Bautista, who also drove in 124 runs to nearly double his previous career high of 63, the Blue Jays answered many questions about the offence entering this season.

Bounce-back season

Centre-fielder Vernon Wells had a strong bounce-back season with 31 homers — the most since he hit 32 in 2006 — and catcher John Buck, signed as a free agent last off-season, was a first-time all-star and established career bests in average (.281), runs scored (53), homers (20) and RBIs (66) to help Toronto finish fourth in the AL East with an 85-77 record.

"It was just a matter of learning how to play and win in this division," said Wells, referring to the Jays' 39-33 mark versus Tampa Bay, Boston, the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.

At 22, left-fielder Travis Snider offered hints of a potential breakout in 2011 with a .339 average in his final 13 starts.

However, several other players had off years, including designated hitter/outfielder Adam Lind, second baseman Aaron Hill and first baseman Lyle Overbay, an impending free agent.

The 27-year-old Lind experienced a 68-point drop in his batting average (.305 to .237) and a 83-point dip in on-base percentage (.370 to .287) while hitting just 23 home runs and 72 RBIs in 150 games. A year ago, Lind fashioned 35 homers and 114 RBIs in 150 contests.

Hill, 28, was unable to carry over his breakthrough season of 2009 when he put up 36 homers and 108 RBIs on the board. His average dwindled 81 points to .205, to go with 26 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Overbay, 33, recovered from a horrific start to reach 20 home runs for the second time in eight major league seasons, and added 67 RBIs while hitting .243.

On the pitching side, Toronto overcame injuries to starters Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch and Scott Richmond and introduced top prospect Kyle Drabek to fans in September.

Brett Cecil led the way with a team-high 15 pitching victories, followed by Ricky Romero (14), Shaun Marcum (13) and Brandon Morrow (10), who was shut down at the end of August to protect his arm after logging 143 1/3 innings.

Drabek, acquired in the Roy Halladay trade last December, went winless in three starts and posted a 4.97 ERA while striking out 12 batters in 17 innings.

Phenomenal pitching

"It starts with our pitching and ends with our homers," Lind said. "We pitched phenomenal from the beginning to the end and we had a bunch of clutch hits or homers, and that pretty much carried us the whole year."

Kevin Gregg, another free-agent signing, broke spring training as the team's closer and converted 37 of 43 save chances.

But the new manager might be in charge of a revamped bullpen when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in late February. Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and Gregg are expected to test the free-agent market.

Gaston believes it's critical for the Blue Jays to acquire some veteran relief pitchers to bolster the young starters.

"You're playing against good teams," he said, "and the [young starters] went out there and pitched their heart out [this season], and you've got to come in here and save a game, or keep a game in a tie. That's not going to be easy for kids to do that."

The challenges in front of first-year general manager Alex Anthopoulos might also prove to be stiffer in the coming months. Everything seemed to fall into place for J.P. Ricciardi's successor in 2010.

He got married, became a father and appears to have hit a home run with several acquisitions, including shortstop Yunel Escobar, left-fielder Fred Lewis, backup catcher Jose Molina and Morrow.

Anthopoulos could really make a name for himself if his first managerial hire led the Blue Jays to their first playoff appearance since the second of back-to-back World Series titles in 1993.

"I'd love to get it done sooner rather than later," said the 33-year-old Anthopoulos, whose search began with about 200 names. "I just don't want to rush. It's too critical a decision and a choice.

"I think we're in a much better position to do things behind the scenes quietly."

That approach has worked so far for the precocious GM.