Wilner on Jays: Toronto excited for 2013

January 5, 2013, 10:08 PM

The Blue Jays kicked off their Winter Tour with kids and coaches clinics at Rogers Centre, and various members of the ballclub and staff will make their way across the country with stops in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton.

Several Blue Jays were available to the media on Saturday morning at the Dome, and I got a chance — with several other reporters — to stick a microphone in the faces of Jose Bautista, Brett Cecil and new bench coach DeMarlo Hale.

Bautista had very good news about the injured wrist that kept him on the shelf for almost the entire second half of the season. He says it’s completely healthy and that if the season were going on right now, he’d be playing. Bautista is hitting in the cage five times a week, though he still won’t face live pitching until Spring Training, and he’s not protecting the wrist with a brace, just his normal tape.

Bautista, like all his teammates who have been quoted over the past couple of months, is thrilled by the Blue Jays’ winter additions of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey. He said that this is the most excited he’s been going into a season since he checked into his first big-league camp.

Bautista added the team is so good now that no one has to be spectacular for them to be successful. If everyone just does what they’re supposed to do, that will be more than good enough for the Blue Jays to have a great season. At no point last season did Bautista think the Blue Jays were actually a bad team — and remember, they were leading the major leagues in runs scored at the end of July, then played basically the entire month of August with only Edwin Encarnacion, Yunel Escobar and a brutally struggling Kelly Johnson healthy.

Bautista referred to Cabrera as a “game-changer” with his speed and ability to make contact, and talked about how the Blue Jays are once again becoming an awfully big deal in the Dominican Republic, just as they used to be in the glory days.

The children of fans who went nuts over Alfredo Griffin and Damaso Garcia, Tony Fernandez and George Bell are going to go equally nuts over the top four hitters in the Blue Jays’ 2013 line-up — all Dominicans — Jose Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. It’s not unreasonable to expect all but Bautista to represent the Dominican Republic at the Word Baseball Classic; Bautista wants to play, but expects the Blue Jays to give the thumbs-down since he hasn’t played since having the wrist surgery.

As for Cecil, the now-reliever will come to Dunedin out of options, and is expected to make the team out of the bullpen. Not just because he would likely not make it through waivers if they tried to send him down, but also because he’s been able to dominate left-handed hitters at the big-league level even as he’s struggled overall. In 2012, Cecil held lefties to a .214/.281/.321 mark — an OPS against of .602 that was 42 points better than Darren Oliver’s. For his career, left-handed batters are hitting .232/.288/.369 against Cecil. And remember, he was drafted out of Maryland as a closer.

Cecil spoke very warmly about Oliver, saying that he was wonderful to deal with on and off the field and he learned a lot from watching how Oliver went about his work in the bullpen when Cecil was up for the final month of the season. Ever the good soldier, Cecil even added that although Oliver retiring would be a good thing for him, career-wise, he hopes that Oliver comes back to the Blue Jays for one more season.

Speaking of which, the story that has had the most tongues wagging in Blue Jays fandom the last few days is that Oliver is leaning towards retirement unless the Blue Jays add to the $3 million he’s due for pitching in 2013 or they trade him to Texas, so he can be closer to home.

Personally, I believe that if you sign a contract, you should be prepared to live up to it, and the deal that Oliver signed a year ago included a club option for 2013 that paid him $3 million. If he didn’t think it was fair, he shouldn’t have agreed to it – there were teams willing to give him a one-year contract. It’s a business, and Oliver has some leverage given that he had yet another great season and the Blue Jays don’t have any proven left-handed pitchers in their bullpen, so more power to him for asking, I guess. But expect the Blue Jays to call his bluff.

If Darren Oliver wants to pitch in the major leagues in 2013, it will be for the Blue Jays, and for $3 million.

I was left with a strong impression of Hale in getting to really talk to him for the first time. He seems to be all about getting the job done, and brings very good A.L. East experience from having coached in both Boston and Baltimore. Hale will run Spring Training, but says that while he’s the one who sets the schedule, it’ll be a collaborative effort — Chad Mottola will have input as to the hitters’ schedules, Pete Walker and Pat Hentgen the pitchers. Hale said that he’s there to bounce ideas off manager John Gibbons and be a sounding board for the skipper, adding that he’ll prepare for every game as though Gibbons isn’t there so that in case Gibby should miss a game (or get thrown out of one, or six) the team won’t miss a beat.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words here about the departure of Alan Ashby from our crew. He has left us to return to the Astros as part of their television broadcast. First of all, I don’t begrudge him one bit for leaving to go home — he has lived in Houston since the Blue Jays traded him there in 1979, and home has always been very important to him. I feel confident in saying that Houston would be the only place for which Alan would have left Toronto.

I feel extremely privileged to have gotten the chance to work with him and learn from him the past six seasons. We’ve been spoiled in Toronto with great radio broadcasters from the very first day of the Blue Jays’ existence, but never before had we had someone who combines both playing and broadcasting experience the way Alan does, and his experience on both fronts shone through in his work. He’s a true professional both on and off the air, and an exceptional human being to boot. I’ll miss him a ton but at least the Astros have moved to the American League, so we’re guaranteed to cross paths at least twice a season.

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