Spring Swing: Blue Jays aim for top, to heck with expanded playoffs

David Brown

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays are my last stop on the Grapefruit League tour. 'Duk will take it from here starting Monday with a visit to Lakeland and the Detroit Tigers.

Meanwhile, the Jays would seem to be a big benefactor from expanded playoffs (which Bud Selig tells us are still coming this season). In 2011, the Jays finished .500 and 10 games behind the wild-card spot. Overtaking the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays for a spot in the playoffs seems pretty fanciful. But a bigger playoffs means the Jays might only have to jump ahead of one. In a given season, it's very do-able. So adding another wild card is good, right?

Thanks, but no thanks (for the moment), says left-hander Ricky Romero.

"I think that, when you come into camp, you're worried about winning the division," Romero said. "Obviously it could be good that they've added that — so be it — but we're not thinking about a wild card spot. We're thinking about a division title. We understand that we play in a tough division, but this team's capable of doing some special things."

Romero is entering his fourth major league season, having compiled a 3.60 ERA and 493 strikeouts over 93 starts and 613 innings. He was an AL All-Star in 2011, but he was a rookie during Roy Halladay's final season in Toronto, so he's seen the Jays transformation under new GM Alex Anthopoulos from the inside. And he likes where the team is headed.

"People can assume whatever they want. People are always going to make their decisions, and that's fine with us," Romero said. "We know we're not 'The Pick,' or the easy pick for analysts, but that's fine. This team is young, has a lot to prove and everyone's healthy. You see a different determination in everyone's eyes."

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He won't be able to qualify for AL Rookie of the Year, but Canadian son Brett Lawrie ought to have one of the biggest impacts of any player entering his first full season. At age 21, Lawrie hit .293/.373/.580 with 21 extra-base hits in 171 plate appearances. Anybody putting up those numbers over a full season would be an MVP candidate. That would give the Jays two MVP candidates (the other being Bautista) and a much better shot at the playoffs.

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Jumping from 81 wins to say, 90, will require improvement of the pitching staff after Romero. They Jays and right-hander Brandon Morrow just agreed to a contract extension. Morrow's 4.72 ERA misleads a little; with 203 strikeouts in 179 innings, he actually pitched much better than that. It's after Morrow the Jays are questionable.

Henderson Alvarez did well in 10 starts as a 21-year-old, and Kyle Drabek was terrible in 14 starts. But both are talented and could show significant improvement with more experience. Drabek, compensation for Halladay, was so bad that the Jays will start to worry if he doesn't show some improvement this season.

All right, more to come from the Jays, including video with Colby Rasmus — speaking of guys who need to improve or else the Jays will start worrying. And watch out for mascots out of context!

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Spring Training has arrived! Follow Dave on Twitter — @AnswerDave and engage The Stew on Facebook for your fill of Grapefruit and Cactus!