Jays set to take big step in playoff quest

Jays ready to take next step toward playoff goal

TORONTO -- The next step has nearly arrived. The Blue Jays are eager to build on the progress they made last season, and that quest begins on a few sun-soaked baseball diamonds in Florida -- far away from the bitter cold of Toronto.

On Friday, Toronto's pitchers and catchers will report to Dunedin, Fla. -- the only Spring Training site the Jays have known in their 31-year history. One day later, those players will head to the Bobby Mattick Training Center for the club's first official workout.

Once on the mounds, a select group of Toronto pitchers will enter into a competition that will last deep into March to determine the back end of the rotation. Right-handers John Thomson and Tomo Ohka, who signed with the Jays in January, are the leading candidates for the final two spots. But they'll have to fend off Shaun Marcum, Josh Towers, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan to do it.

The drills for pitchers and catchers will be in full swing by the time Toronto's position players are required to report on Feb. 21. Then, on Feb. 22, the Blue Jays will hold the first full-squad workout for their revamped roster.

At that time, manager John Gibbons will get a look at all the pieces he's been provided with for the 2007 season. The Jays reeled in free-agent slugger Frank Thomas, added shortstop Royce Clayton and picked up a few reserves in outfielder Matt Stairs, infielder Jason Smith and catcher Sal Fasano.

Some of Toronto's biggest offseason moves actually dealt with players already on the roster. In December, the Jays locked up center fielder Vernon Wells with a seven-year, $126 million deal that begins in 2008. Then, in January, Toronto handed first baseman Lyle Overbay a four-year, $24 million extension.

Thomas, Wells and Overbay, along with All-Stars Troy Glaus and Alex Rios, help give Toronto one of the best offenses in the American League. It will be up to Gibbons to find out this spring exactly how that impressive lineup will shape up for Opening Day.

The Blue Jays will use Spring Training to help answer some of their remaining questions. Once the season begins, Toronto hopes to make a run at the playoffs. Last year, the Jays placed second in the AL East, marking the first time the club finished higher than third in the division since 1993. It was a step in the right direction, but the Blue Jays want to take the next step.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.