Jays' '08 lineup? It's anybody's guess

Jays' '08 lineup? It's anybody's guess

TORONTO -- Blue Jays manager John Gibbons hasn't spent much time this offseason jotting down possible arrangements for Toronto's lineup. There'd be too many crumpled up pieces of paper occupying the waste basket.

A few pieces of the lineup puzzle appear to have their place, but there are too many questions remaining to project how things will be aligned from top to bottom. So, until Spring Training nears its close in late March, Gibbons is shying away from predicting exactly how the Jays' Opening Day batting order will look.

"I've thought about some things," said Gibbons, speaking from his home in San Antonio, Texas. "But it's too early to tell, to be honest with you, just how we're going to do it."

Gibbons said that one thing is certain: newly acquired shortstop David Eckstein will serve as Toronto's leadoff man. Beyond that, the only other players who appear to have homes in the lineup are designated hitter Frank Thomas and third baseman Troy Glaus, who would likely bat fourth and fifth, according to the Blue Jays' skipper.

That leaves six question marks for Gibbons to sort out before Toronto heads to Yankee Stadium for its regular-season opener against New York on March 31. While discussing the possibilities, Gibbons caught himself rambling, realizing that he just didn't have any answers just yet. He'd like to avoid mixing and matching within the lineup as much as possible once games do begin, though.

"Truthfully, you don't want to do too much juggling," Gibbons said. "I've never liked to do that. Occasionally, you have to if it makes your team stronger. But I'm not convinced yet of what that's going to be."

Gibbons does like that he has two versatile weapons in right fielder Alex Rios and center fielder Vernon Wells. Both have the potential to hit for average and power, and each boast above-average speed on the basepaths. Spring Training will help determine which of the two has an edge to initially step into the crucial No. 3 hole in the Blue Jays' order.

Wells, who has been Toronto's primary third hitter for the past few seasons, had a disappointing 2007 campaign, hitting .245 with just 16 home runs and 80 RBIs, while battling a left shoulder injury. Rios, on the other hand, emerged as the Jays' most potent bat by hitting at a .297 clip with 24 homers and 85 RBIs. By the end of the year, Rios had supplanted Wells as Toronto's No. 3 hitter.

Hot Stove

"Those are two of our top guys," Gibbons said. "Those are guys that are able to do the most. They've got some wheels and they both have pop. So you don't want to bunch them in."

Gibbons' last remark referred to his preference not to have Rios' or Wells' speed limited by slotting them behind slower runners like Thomas and Glaus. So instead of having Rios and Wells occupy the third and sixth spots, for example, Gibbons said it's more likely that the pair would hit consecutively out of the No. 2 and 3 spots.

"I could probably see it more of a two-three type thing," Gibbons said. "But two, three, four, it all depends on how it slots."

Gibbons will have a better idea of how to handle Rios and Wells after he determines how to best utilize the second spot in Toronto's order. Besides possibly using that slot to try to keep both Rios and Wells near the top of the lineup, Gibbons has other options in first baseman Lyle Overbay, left fielder Reed Johnson and second baseman Aaron Hill.

Overbay spent most of his time last year in the No. 2 spot, but he only managed a .242 average in that position. Then again, Overbay was hampered by a broken right hand, giving Gibbons doubts about how much to rely on the statistics. The reality is that Overbay is a career .284 hitter and he's one of two pure left-handed batters projected to be on Toronto's roster.

"We'll just see how he responds," said Gibbons, referring to Overbay's return from injury. "It was one of those years, too, where it might be tough to tell if the numbers even matter. It's tough to tell."

After signing Eckstein last week, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi floated the idea of using Overbay and Johnson as the second hitters against right-handed and left-handed pitchers, respectively. Gibbons said that's a possibility, but that he also saw potential for Hill to be a top-of-the-order hitter, too. Last season, Hill hit .291 with 17 homers, 47 doubles and 78 RBIs.

"I looked at Aaron last year," Gibbons said, "and over and over I said, 'You know, eventually, he's so valuable and productive a hitter that you may want him up higher.' I don't know if that'll happen this year."

That being the case, Hill will probably find himself lower in the lineup once again. A combination of Overbay, Hill, catcher Gregg Zaun -- a switch-hitter -- and Johnson, may round out the lineup in the Nos. 7-9 holes. With Johnson, Gibbons also has to keep in mind the platoon Toronto plans on implementing in left field.

At least to begin the season, Gibbons said the Jays plan on having Johnson platoon in left with veteran Matt Stairs, who is Toronto's other left-handed hitter. Last season, Stairs hit .289 with 21 homers and 64 RBIs in limited action and the Jays re-signed him to a two-year deal in November.

Johnson, who missed three months with a back injury last season, was bumped out of the leadoff spot when Toronto signed Eckstein. The Jays are hoping Eckstein can bring stability to the lineup's first slot, which was filled by a variety of players, including Stairs, in 2007. Stairs could potentially hit sixth on days he's in the order next season.

Gibbons chuckled when asked if Stairs -- the stocky soon-to-be 40-year-old from New Brunswick -- would be challenging Eckstein for the leadoff spot come Spring Training.

"Never say never," Gibbons said with a laugh.

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