The Toronto Blue Jays Of 2011: The Start of a New Era?

As Canada’s only Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays represent not only the dreams of fans in their home city, but the hopes of a nation. Though they play in the country’s biggest city, they’re viewed by millions from coast to coast, and even some American fans. They’ve had their ups and downs over the years, especially over the last fifteen years or so. Though a lot of us die-hard fans still remember the two consecutive World Championship glory years in 1992 and 1993, it’s been a while. However, it seems like the team is headed in the right direction under the control of new general manager, Alex Anthopoulos. Perhaps this is a start of a new Toronto Blue Jays dynasty? I sure hope so.

When Alex Anthopolous took over the role of general manager from J.P. Ricciardi, last year, many fans didn’t know what to think. Although Riccardi had made some very questionable moves, it was shocking to see such a young and first-time general manager step in. At age thirty, Anthopoulos has been in the game for a little while, but doesn’t have the long resume that some of the other general managers in the league possess.

Though over the course of the last year, or so, Anthopoulos has turned many disbelievers into supporters, taking the Jays’ minor league system from a dismal mid-twenties (out of thirty teams) ranking to an impressive ranking of fourth overall, coming into this season. All of this has been done by making intelligent trades to pick up draft picks and prospects, such as the Roy Halladay trade to the Phillies. He has also done an incredible job of gaining draft picks through the clever use of different tactics such as salary arbitration, where the team received draft pick compensation when some of their key free agents signed elsewhere during the last offseason. Quite impressive for a first-time general manager in his first year, don’t you think?

Last year, the team had a solid season overall, with a decent 85-77 record. It surprised a lot of people as the team’s depth and abilities were questioned going into the season. Their success was created through hard work, determination and a never say no attitude. They led the Major Leagues in home runs and found a new star player in former utility man, Jose Bautista, who led the Majors with 54 home runs. Additionally, 2010 also saw an impressive year from many of the Jays’ character players such as catcher John Buck, who hit a lot of homers himself.

Though, arguably the most impressive part of their team was their pitching. A young starting rotation that many didn’t know what to expect from blew everyone away, with ace Shaun Marcum having an impressive year that was overshadowed by youngsters Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil. A successful season in my eyes, though the team failed to make the playoffs yet again due to the fact that they play in the toughest division in baseball – the American League East. Unfortunately, it’s the division that plays host to the over-spending Yankees who have endless amounts of coin, and the Boston Red Sox, who are built on many of the same pay to win principles.

Coming into this 2011 campaign, the Blue Jays saw quite a turnover of players, with quite a few leaving and several new faces joining the roster. Gone are former franchise player (and all-star,) Vernon Wells, as well as reliever Scott Downs, last year’s ace Shaun Marcum, catcher John Buck and long-serving first-basemen, Lyle Overbay. In order to fill these major gaps, Anthopoulos brought in some new faces and looked to the team’s upcoming young stars to take over these important roles. Players such as Ricky Romero (the team’s new ace pitcher) and Adam Lind (the team’s new first-basemen who used to be their designated hitter/part-time outfielder,) have both been asked to take on much larger roles, along with rookie catching prospect, J.P. Arencibia. They’re complemented by a host of new additions to the roster, who give the team some extra depth and speed.

Rajai Davis is the most notable addition, as he takes over for Vernon Wells at center field. His speed gives the team a great new dynamic that they didn’t have before – speed on the base paths and in the outfield, which can get under the skin of opposing players. Speed also allows the Jays to not have to focus on home runs so much this year, with the ability to steal and play more aggressive baseball. New manager, John Farrell (a first timer himself though he spent years with the Boston Red Sox as a part of their coaching staff,) stresses a much more aggressive approach to the game, with speed used as an asset, so Davis is sure to fit in well.

Spring training was a mixed bag this year. The team struggled at the beginning of the pre-season, but progressed over its lengthy course, ending up with an above-.500 record. Young prospects such as Canadian third-baseman Brett Lawrie and pitcher Zach Stewart impressed management, but were assigned to the Jays’ farm team for some more time to improve their craft. Newcomer, Rajai Davis was one of the most impressive players during the spring, as he hit several lead-off home runs during the spring. His speed also helped the team out a lot. Though this spring once again saw injuries befall pitchers, with two of the three new closer candidates (Frank Francisco and Octavio DoTel) having to be put onto the injured reserve list to start the season. Much talked about starter Brandon Morrow also started the season on the IR list, though he’s expected back within a week or so and has started rehabilitation in Florida with the Dunedin Blue Jays. Luckily, the spring injury bug didn’t hit the team as hard as it has in the past.

With a patched together rotation and bullpen (due to the aforementioned injuries,) the team has started the season on a high note, going 4 and 1 thus far. Their season opening win was full of fireworks as they hit several home runs, including two from rookie J.P. Arencibia and one from Jose Bautista, taking the game from the Twins by a score of 13-3. They won the series after winning the next game, but lost the series finale in dramatic fashion, failing to bring in the tying run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th.

Though they didn’t let that get them down, winning two out of three against the Oakland Athletics, in their current series, with the final game being played this afternoon. Heck, they even won their last two games without Jose Bautista in the line-up as he’s taken a few days off to attend to a personal matter. In his absense, the team has not only shown a lot of determination and grit, but a lot of skill and character as well. To say that they’re fun to watch is an understatement, as you can never count them out. Oakland learned that the hard way as they lost Tuesday night’s game in the bottom of the 10th after leading by a score of five to nothing for half of the game.

With some new additions and a great core of young players, the Toronto Blue Jays are a team to look out for. Though they don’t have the highest payroll in the Major Leagues by any means, they play hard and possess a lot of great, young players. Stars Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero and Yunel Escobar lead the way as the team continues to develop. In my opinion, this is the best that the team has looked since they won the World Series two times in a row, when I was five and six years old. I still remember the night that Joe Carter (my favourite Blue Jay of all-time) hit the walk-off homer that won them one of those championships, and I look forward to seeing the Jays win another one in the near future. With some more smart management and an increase in spending opportunities, the Blue Jays will continue to improve under the intelligent eye of Alex Anthopoulos and new manager John Farrell. I’m extremely excited about just about everything surrounding this year’s team.

Let’s go, Blue Jays; play ball!