Senior Baseball Columnist

These red-hot Blue Jays provide flashback of 1990s glory days


Henderson Alvarez, 22, boasts a deadly fastball that should scare opponents. (US Presswire)  
Henderson Alvarez, 22, boasts a deadly fastball that should scare opponents. (US Presswire)  

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- No place in the Grapefruit League is hotter than the tiny little ballpark here that represents everything quaint about spring training. Up to, and including, the overwhelming need for vats of sunblock.

"Some kind of hot," one baseball man exclaimed Friday through the drops of sweat.

"Like playing on the surface of the sun," another guy said, skin somewhere between burnt and blistering.

And that doesn't even take into account the baseball team playing inside of this ballpark. You want hot? You could fry an egg on these Blue Jays.

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Don't look now, but Toronto is 22-5-1 this spring. The Jays have set a franchise record for spring victories. They've gone 20-3-1 since starting 2-2.

Up north, in the third period at the hapless Maple Leaf's hockey game in Toronto on Thursday night, fans were chanting "Let's go Blue Jays!"

Down south, at Boston's place in Fort Myers on Thursday, a Blue Jays traveling squad that included just one regular position player (Eric Thames) and no pitchers projected to be on the opening day roster beat what was close to the Red Sox's opening day lineup.

There is a buzz surrounding this team that is growing louder by the day.

"I think there was a sense of optimism and energy before camp even opened," says manager John Farrell, citing some 40 Blue Jays players that descended on Dunedin for workouts even before Toronto's first day of camp.

"No matter what the time of year, wins are wins. There's a sense of positivity in our clubhouse."

Truthfully, wins over Boston in June are far better than wins over the Red Sox in March but, hey. You've got to start somewhere. And Lord knows, the Blue Jays have had their share of false alarms since the glory days of the early 1990s.

This does not look like a false alarm. Not that they're going to stay spring-training hot all summer. Not that they're even going to land a playoff slot this season.

But there is a lot of terrific young talent here, starting with future MVP (yes, you read that right) Brett Lawrie and starter Henderson Alvarez.

Both are 22, each has some learning yet to do ... but, my goodness.

Lawrie's energy and confidence already draw comparisons to Pete Rose and Dustin Pedroia. And Lawrie is blessed with better overall skills -- according to one expert on both players -- than Hall of Famer George Brett.

"George outplayed his ability every single day," says Blue Jays broadcaster and former manager Buck Martinez, who roomed with Brett in both the minors and majors when they played together in Kansas City in the 1970s. "He never played less than optimum.

"I remember the hours and hours and hours at 2 in the afternoon on that hot artificial turf at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City when Charley Lau would be out working with us, just grinding. George used to hit like Carl Yastrzemski [bat held high in his stance]. Charley told him, 'You're not going to hit like that in the big leagues.' And George became one of the best-hitting third-baseman we ever saw.

"Physical skills, speed, strength, Lawrie has better ability. And I love George Brett. He's like a brother to me."

As Martinez notes, one key difference between the two right now: Lawrie doesn't have 3,000 hits, three batting titles, a World Series ring and 13 All-Star appearances.

So there's that. But the fun will be in watching him develop, and no small part of Toronto's optimism for the future is that he will develop.

Farrell and the front office arm-wrestled over Lawrie at this time last spring, with general manager Alex Anthopoulos overruling the field staff and sending him to Triple-A Las Vegas for more seasoning. After Lawrie was recalled on Aug. 5, he hit .293 with nine homers and 25 RBI over 43 games.

What's even more perfect, Lawrie is a native of British Columbia.

"He carries the Maple Leaf for everyone on our team," Farrell says.

"It's amazing," Lawrie says. "There's been so much fan support, and it's a great feeling to have the Maple Leaf on my chest every day."

The Blue Jays absolutely love Lawrie's energy. Maybe opponents chafe at his flurry of high fives and sheer volume, but those on his team sure love him.

"He impacts the game in one of three ways every day he's on the field," Farrell says. "On the bases, defensively or swinging in the batter's box."

In just his second big-league spring, Lawrie says he's "a little more comfortable" in the clubhouse now and he loves the young talent alongside him on Toronto's launching pad.

Spring training traditionally elicits all kinds of crazy predictions -- Sparky Anderson once viewed Kirk Gibson as the next Mickey Mantle -- but Lawrie seems as close to can't-miss as there is.

He does not shy away from the Brett stuff.

"It's obviously pretty cool," he says. "At the same time, there's still a lot of work to be done."

Same can be said for Alvarez, a right-hander whose two-seam fastball and changeup left a trail of impressed American League batters during his 10 starts over last August and September. Though he was 1-3, his ERA was 3.53 and he fanned 40, against only eight walks, in 63 2/3 innings pitched.

The kid started 2011 in high-A ball, produced a 1.11 WHIP at Double-A New Hampshire and then moved on to produce a 1.13 WHIP in those 10 starts for the Jays.

"Unbelievable," Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia says. "He's one of the hardest guys to catch because of his velocity [mid-90s], and the ball is sinking so hard. It's tough enough catching when it's 95 and straight."

Straight isn't in Alvarez's repertoire. His fastball moves.

It's not going to be long before people stop viewing the Blue Jays as Joey Bautista and Everybody Else.

"When you're as talented as those two are, you should have a lot of confidence," Farrell says of Lawrie and Alvarez. "This game is humbling, and it's our job to support that and help them work through it."

Everything the Blue Jays touch this spring, they're spinning to gold. That 3-2 win at Boston's place Thursday? Fleet center field prospect Anthony Gose, a ripple effect of the haul Anthopoulos received in the Roy Halladay trade, stole second base, third base and then home in the eighth inning. That was the deciding run.

No, Farrell says, he has never seen anything like that. And he's in his third decade in pro ball.

Nor has he ever seen as deep a minor-league system as the Blue Jays currently have stocked. He's been in places that have been pitcher-heavy in the minors. He's been in places overflowing with young position players.

But both?

"It's a very healthy system."

Look out. The Blue Jays are getting close.


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