Bautista optimistic about club in 2014

* With 2013 behind the Blue Jays, slugger Jose Bautista is confident in the team heading into the 2014 season…. 2014 Canadians in College Letters of Intent 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors 2015 Canadian draft list

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Adam Morissette: Juniors, Celebrate Canada Day … Robinson, Demi go deep …. Team Canada Juniors kick off spring

April Whitzman: Social buzz: Juniors and Jays

Sanchez wows Jrs …. Morgan, Jrs impresses Jays …. Alomar all in

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By Bob Elliott

DUNEDIN - Jose Bautista is seated at his locker at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Just as the Blue Jays' right fielder was a year ago.

And as he has been each spring since 2009 after he was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in August of 2008.

“Last year taught us a good lesson -- expectations are pretty much irrelevant,” said Bautista.

It’s the year after the Jays added Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to their rotation, shortstop Jose Reyes and acclaimed super utility man Emilio Bonifacio from the Florida Marlins, picked up R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole from the New York Mets, and signed free agents Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis.

The Blue Jays had the best talent in the American League East.

Scouts and general managers told us so.

And so did players, both with other teams and inside the same clubhouse in right field.

Then the Jays went out and won 74 games.

Now, Johnson has gone to the San Diego Padres, Bonifacio moved to the Kansas City Royals last season and is now in camp with the Chicago Cubs.

Dickey and Buehrle form two spots of the 2014 rotation, Izturis returns in a backup role, Thole is battling Erik Kratz to be Dickey’s personal catcher, and Cabrera is in better health and showing range in left field, even starting two games in centre.

How much has Cabrera improved?

“He hasn’t improved,” Bautista says sternly. “He’s healthy.”

Cabrera wasn’t last year, appearing in only 88 games due to bad legs, knees or hamstring issues at various times. Eventually, the main ailment was D) none of the above, and there was a much more serious reason for his limited mobility. A benign tumor was removed from his back. We’ve already seen him make three catches retreating to the fence that would have been over his head and off the wall a year ago.

“Defensively, we had a bad year,” Bautista said, “We didn’t have the infield we thought we were going to have.”

Injuries to Reyes and Brett Lawrie saw third baseman Lawrie start 107 games after injuring an oblique muscle diving for a ball in a tune up to the World Baseball Classic. Shortstop Reyes started only 92 games, damaging his ankle sliding into second base in Kansas City in the season’s 10th game.

The term backup infielder may have meant that with 29 other teams, but with the Jays it was closer to full-time.

Consider at second: Bonifacio made 49 starts, Izturis 47, Munenori Kawasaki 16, Mark DeRosa 15, and the Jays even started Lawrie out of position for six games before Ryan Goins showed normalcy at the position.

At third, Izturis started 33 times, DeRosa 16 and Andy LaRoche one. The Jays even flipped Edwin Encarnacion (nine starts) and Bautista (two) over to third.

And at short, Kawasaki had 51 starts and Izturis 16.

That 261 starts at three infield spots from guys who were not everyday major leaguers or people playing out of position.

Is that a lot? Well, in 2012 the Jays had 90 instances when second baseman Kelly Johnson, shortstop Yunel Escobar and Lawrie didn’t play with starts going to backups Adeiny Hechavarria, Omar Vizquel, Yan Gomes, Mike McCoy and Encarnacion, one game out of position.

J.P. Arencibia didn’t have his best defensive year,” said Bautista. “Not knowing what really happened to him, my take is his struggles with his offence affected his defence. He got to the point where he thought he had to be perfect.

“Melky got hurt, I got hurt, Edwin missed time.”

And so the 2014 season begins in 15 days, a short drive south in St. Petersburg. Of course, the Jays are taking the Tampa-Montreal-Tampa route to get there in order to play their two exhibition games at Olympic Stadium.

Dickey, Brandon Morrow and Buehrle are certain to be in the rotation.

Drew Hutchison has a lot of upside,” said Bautista, “I don’t mean he’s not going to be good, but he started 11 games in 2012, it’s his first full season. He could win 20. I don’t know how he’ll do.”

The Jays have the likes of Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek, Esmil Rogers, Ricky Romero and JA Happ for the fifth spot. Happ came into camp having a spot and after a bad outing in Fort Myers, general manager Alex Anthopoulos announced he had “two open spots in the rotation.”

“Ricky has thrown well, it looks like the ball is coming out of his hand the way it used to,” said Bautista. “We shouldn’t be as far back in innings pitched from our starters again like last year.”

After sitting 29th or last in innings pitched and ERA for most of the year, the Jays starters finished with 899 1/3 innings (basically an average 5 1/2 innings per outing), which was 28th in the majors, and their ERA was 4.81 for 29th, better than only the Minnesota Twins.

Top prospects Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez have opened the eyes wide of those seeing them for the first time.

“Calling either of them up this early would be a disservice to their careers,” said Bautista.

And the Jays bullpen has all-stars Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar, plus reliable Casey Janssen -- who has yet to throw a pitch in a game, although he was on schedule with his bullpen sessions before the games begin. Aaron Loup, Dustin McGowan, plus long men Redmond, Rogers or Happ to choose from.

“We’re going into this season with a lot of confidence,” Bautista said. “When they turn the lights on, we have to strap it on and execute.”

That may be a cliche, but as Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou used to ask, “you know what makes a statement into a cliche? Because it’s usually true.”

The Jays open with four games against the Tampa Bay Rays and then the New York Yankees come to Rogers Centre ... the lights go on ... the Jays have to execute.

They can’t afford a 2-5 start like a year ago when expectations were high.