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Gaston excited about challenging '09

Gaston excited about challenging '09

LAS VEGAS -- The Blue Jays could be in store for a trying season this year, with a depleted starting rotation and an increasingly difficult field in the American League East. Those realities didn't stop manager Cito Gaston from wearing a warm smile while discussing Toronto's future on Wednesday.

During a sit-down with reporters at the Bellagio during these Winter Meetings, Gaston might've been excused for expressing some trepidation over the coming campaign. Instead, the manager was in an amiable mood and said he's looking forward to tackling the daunting task ahead.

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"I'm not nervous," Gaston said. "[I'm] a little bit excited, because it's a challenge. I like challenges. They're fun."

Gaston then chuckled to himself, realizing his comments could come back to haunt him during the season.

"You guys might come back to me later in the year and say, 'Remember, you said that, Cito,'" Gaston added. "That's OK, because it is a challenge, and I think it should be great."

It might not be great in terms of a high volume of wins or a playoff spot, but Gaston believes the coming year could serve as an important bridge to 2010 and beyond. The Blue Jays might be forced to throw some young pitchers into the fire while waiting for some of their injured starters to return to full strength.

Dustin McGowan (right shoulder) is sidelined until at least May and Shaun Marcum (right elbow) is out of the picture until 2010, leaving two rotation jobs up for grabs come Spring Training. A bevy of young arms are expected to compete for those roles, and Gaston is interested in seeing how the candidates respond.

"I know one thing, they can count," Gaston said. "When they go into Spring Training, they can see that we have three starters, at the most. They know there's a couple of jobs open, so, hopefully, they're going to come in there ready to go and impress us."

Behind ace Roy Halladay, the only pitchers considered locks for starting jobs at the moment are youngsters Jesse Litsch and David Purcey. The final two spots might be filled from within, with Casey Janssen, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, Scott Richmond and Brad Mills all vying for a role with the big league club.

Toronto will continue to look for starting help via the trade route, and the club is kicking the tires on some inexpensive reclamation projects, but the Jays might be forced to fill in the gaps internally. That being the case, Toronto is also contemplating trying to shift relievers Brian Tallet or Scott Downs to the rotation -- an idea Gaston doesn't entirely oppose.

"I guess you can always try that," said Gaston, adding that Jesse Carlson and Brandon League could help with the bullpen's setup job. "If we have to go that way, we can go that way and see what happens. First of all, you have to get to those guys, right? They're no good if you can't get to them with a lead."

As far as that aspect is concerned, Gaston fully understands that his offense is riddled with question marks as well.

For starters, Toronto lacks a true leadoff hitter, though Gaston seemed excited about the possibility of adding free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal to the mix to help with that problem. Another issue is that Lyle Overbay, Scott Rolen and Alex Rios all performed below expectations offensively in 2008.

"I think all the hitters can improve on the approach that they have at the plate," Gaston said.

That includes younger hitters such as Adam Lind and Travis Snider, who are due to split time between the outfield and the designated hitter role. Gaston said Lind is in line to be the primary DH and added that the Jays might try him as a first baseman this spring. At the moment, Snider is going to be Toronto's regular left fielder.

"I think you would use Lind there before [Snider]," said Gaston, referring to the DH role. "Snider is a little bit better defensive player than Lind right now."

As for second baseman Aaron Hill, who suffered a season-ending concussion at the end of May, Gaston said the Jays might not rule trying him out at short during the spring, if the club didn't land Furcal. Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi rejected that concept, though, considering that Hill is coming back from injury.

"With everything he went through last year," Ricciardi said, "I think we'll just leave him at second base this year and not throw another thing on his plate."

Besides, the Blue Jays will have plenty of other issues to sort out this spring -- not that Gaston is worrying too much about that.

"I think challenges are good, because it just gives you an edge," Gaston said. "We're going to go hard at it and see what happens."

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

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