SPORTS

Bautista feels Blue Jays have a better roster now, thinks team is a contender

01/16/2015 05:09 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista spent part of the off-season in Mexico, went to the Dominican Republic for the New Year's holiday and was home in Tampa for the last two weeks to begin training for the 2015 season.

He kept the shorts and sunscreen at home for his latest trip, a venture north to his summer stomping grounds for the Blue Jays' annual Winter Tour.

It was a different look for Bautista on Friday as he sported a thick, hooded winter jacket during a media availability at Rogers Centre. The different look of the team he anchors was one of the main topics of conversation.

"We're not that far away," Bautista said. "We were very close last season. At the (trade) deadline, two games out of first place. You're talking about minimal changes that can have a great effect and we've had some great moves so far already that can make us better. I truly feel like we have a contender.

"I felt that way two years ago, last year and again this year. I feel like we have a better roster now than we did a few years ago."

After a disappointing third-place finish in the American League East last season, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos quickly went to work.

Canadian catcher Russell Martin was signed to a lucrative long-term deal and third baseman Josh Donaldson, pitcher Marco Estrada and Canadian outfielder Michael Saunders were acquired via trade. Pitcher J.A. Happ and infielders Adam Lind and Canadian Brett Lawrie were shipped out.

There is more work to be done. The bullpen needs to be shored up and the team could use an upgrade at second base.

But the upgrades have been significant. Martin gives the team a big defensive boost behind the plate and Donaldson is considered one of the best third basemen in the major leagues.

"The way I hope that they impact the team is by doing what they've done in the past with other clubs and doing it here," Bautista said. "Just by doing that, it will be a huge influence I believe on wins and losses at the end of the season."

Toronto played a solid first half last season but faded after the all-star break, winding up with a mediocre 83-79 record. Bautista again posted big numbers with 35 homers and 103 RBIs but the team was essentially out of the playoff hunt in early September.

There are some exciting young players on the roster but the team's core is built to win now.

Bautista, for one, is 34 and entering the last guaranteed year of his contract. However, those factors — along with the team's long post-season drought — are not something that affects his preparation.

"There's no urgency on my end in any aspect," Bautista said. "The thing that I'm focused on is figuring out how to help to win more games and winning more games and making it to the playoffs. Because we have such a good core and such a good team, I don't feel any sense of urgency."

Joining Bautista for the Winter Tour kickoff were Canadian outfielder Dalton Pompey and pitchers R.A. Dickey, Todd Redmond and Aaron Loup. Other players are tabbed to participate in events next week in Calgary, Banff and Vancouver.

Dickey, the 40-year-old knuckleballer, also felt that the off-season moves will help the team.

"It's nice to look on paper and see some names there throughout the lineup that you know are going to be special players," he said. "It's comforting is what it is. I'm trying to hold back my expectation until we get rolling but it's nice to see those names for sure."

Martin has expressed an interest in learning how to catch Dickey's knuckleball, a floating, tricky pitch that's difficult for all backstops to handle. Dickey has primarily worked with Josh Thole but he's looking forward to developing a rapport with Martin as well.

"I've thrown 75 or 80 per cent of my starts since 2010 to Josh Thole and I love him like a brother," Dickey said. "But to have a guy who can step in there and do it as well is a nice commodity."

Also Friday, the Blue Jays avoided arbitration with Estrada and Saunders by agreeing to terms on one-year contracts. Estrada's deal is worth US$3.9 million while Saunders will earn $2.875 million.

Toronto also signed infielder Munenori Kawasaki to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training and outrighted right-hander Cory Burns to triple-A Buffalo.

Pitchers and catchers will begin working out at spring training on Feb. 23. The Blue Jays will kick off the regular season April 6 at New York.

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