Outlook: Cabrera aiming to regain his previous form

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Melky Cabrera could be in line for a bounceback season after his 2013 campaign was completely derailed because of a large tumor in his lower back.

Cabrera is healthy this spring and so far hasn't displayed any lingering effects from last year's serious medical condition. The tumor sent waves of pain throughout his back and legs, which negatively impacted not only his power at the plate, but his ability to run and play the field.

The Blue Jays still have to wait and see how Cabrera responds during game situations, but the mobility appears to be back, and manager John Gibbons is at least tentatively slotting him into the No. 2 spot of the lineup.

"He looks fine, but right now is when we'll be able to tell: Get a ball in the gap or a ball down the line, we'll see how he goes after it," Gibbons said as the Blue Jays prepared to start the spring season. "You can do all the drills you want, but until real-time in games, that's when we're going to be able to tell."

Cabrera was expected to be the ideal hitter to slot between leadoff man Jose Reyes and the heart of the Blue Jays' order with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Cabrera's a career .284 hitter with a .337 on-base percentage and an ability to hit the gaps with decent power numbers and a .746 OPS.

Those numbers weren't nearly as impressive last year, as Cabrera struggled to hit the ball with any kind of authority. Pain in the lower half of his body took away all of his power, and even when he hit the ball into the gaps or down the line, there was noticeable difficulty to even reach second base.

The hope is that won't be the case this season, but it will likely be at least a couple of weeks before the Blue Jays know for sure.

"He's a good hitter and he gets a lot of hits," Gibbons said of Cabrera hitting second. "The only real downfall is he does hit a lot of ground balls. But you look at what he's done the last few years, take away last year, and he's been one of the better hitters in baseball. We like guys there that can get a lot of hits.

"He's a switch-hitter, he can manipulate the bat a little bit, he knows how to do those things. Ideally, if he's the player we expect him to be, then he'd be a good guy for that spot. We need him to be good and we need him to be able to move, that's for sure."

Bautista shows how well he's seeing the ball

TOR@PHI: Bautista opens the scoring with a moon shot

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jose Bautista made sure his spring got off to a quick start Wednesday by crushing a home run against the Phillies during his first at-bat of the Grapefruit League season.

Toronto's right fielder got ahead in the count 2-0, and then sent a pitch from Roberto Hernandez over the wall in left field in the first inning of a 4-3, rain-shortened win. The ball went so far that it actually went past a picnic area at Bright House Field and left the ballpark.

Results don't mean much at this time of the year, but the biggest positive is that Bautista says he's seeing the ball really well out of the pitcher's hand this spring, even though there still hasn't been a lot of reps.

"It felt pretty good, I can't deny that," said Bautista, who also walked and scored two runs. "More importantly, I felt like I was seeing the ball great. It didn't really feel like I haven't been playing for awhile. So that's a positive."

Bautista missed the end of last season with a deep bone bruise in his hip. It was just one in a long list of injuries the Blue Jays had to endure last season that -- at least partially -- played a role in a disappointing year.

The core group of Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus were in the lineup at the same time on just eight occasions all year. Lind was the only one of that group to avoid the disabled list, and an offense that was supposed to be one of the best in the league often had trouble scoring runs.

That's why more than anything this spring, the focus of camp is keeping everyone healthy and having them peak at the right time.

"The fact that everyone is healthy and on the field is what matters," Bautista said. "Hopefully we can play 162 [games] together. It's a pretty high goal, but the most amount of games that each guy can play, hopefully we can get everybody out there for that amount of games and get to maximize and feed off each other and benefit from having a good hitter in front or behind.

"Our lineup is pretty deep one through nine, so I think everybody is going to get to enjoy that feeling if everybody is healthy."

Gibbons goes with similar lineup to open spring

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Manager John Gibbons used the Blue Jays' first game of the spring to unveil the lineup he's expected to use at the start of the regular season.

Gibbons has decided to go with a starting nine which closely resembles the one he put out there in 2013. Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion once again found themselves in the top four spots, and they were followed by Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus.

The only changes from last season can be found at the very bottom of the lineup, where Dioner Navarro takes over for J.P. Arencibia, and rookie Ryan Goins gets the nod over second baseman Maicer Izturis.

"Having two switch-hitters with a good track record of on-base percentage," Bautista said when describing the top of the Blue Jays' lineup. "It's not going to hurt me or Edwin's chances of driving runs in. If we drive runs in, we're either on base again for Lindy and whoever hits behind him. The more you come up to hit with people on base, increases your chances of getting a pitch to hit over the plate and people making some mistakes because there is more stuff to worry about.

"I think we're going to have more quality overall at-bats throughout the year if we can just manage to get on base. I know that was another area of weakness last year, our on-base percentage as a team wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great. Ideally we can keep guys on the bases at all times."

This is expected to be the lineup the Blue Jays end up going with the majority of the time, but it likely won't be the starting nine on Opening Day. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey will be on the mound for the season opener against Tampa Bay on March 31, and Gibbons is already on record saying it's very unlikely that Navarro will be his catcher.

The start instead would go to either Erik Kratz or Josh Thole. Both catchers are competing for the backup job and will become Dickey's personal catcher this season. The one thing the Blue Jays won't do again this year is start their first-string catcher just because it's Opening Day.

Toronto tried that last season when it decided to go with Arencibia on Opening Day, even though he wasn't expected to become Dickey's regular catcher. The end result was rather disastrous, as Arencibia had three passed balls, which largely contributed to the Blue Jays' 4-1 loss to the Indians.

Only one bench job open for outfielder

BAL@TOR: Sierra's double plates a pair of Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Outfielders Moises Sierra and Anthony Gose appear to be competing against each other for one spot on the Blue Jays' bench.

Initial speculation suggested the Blue Jays might be open to the idea of carrying five outfielders at the start of the year, but manager John Gibbons appeared to put that notion to rest on Wednesday morning.

There's a strong likelihood that Toronto will open the year with an eight-man bullpen, and that limits its overall flexibility for the bench. Two spots will go to a backup catcher and infielder, which leaves only one job up for grabs in the outfield.

"It's going to be tough to go with five outfielders, and we're not sure how the bullpen is going to stack up with how many guys we're going to have down there." Gibbons said. "We've got some questions we've got to answer."

If the Blue Jays do start the year with four outfielders, then it would appear as though Sierra is the early favorite to make the team. He would receive occasional playing time in the outfield and also likely get the start at designated hitter over Adam Lind when a left-hander is on the mound.

Sierra doesn't have favorable splits against lefties throughout the course of his Minor League career, but the hope is that as a right-handed hitter, that will eventually change. Either way, he appears to be the club's preferred option for that role over the left-handed-hitting Gose.

There's also the fact that Sierra can't be sent to the Minor Leagues without being exposed to waivers that will heavily factor into Toronto's final decision.

"He's out of options, so he's got a shot to make the team," Gibbons said of Sierra. "We need someone who can hit lefties. We don't have that guy locked in.

"Over time you become a better hitter; normally the good ones do. He's got a chance to be a good overall hitter, period. But he's not established yet in the big leagues. Hopefully he takes advantage of this and becomes that guy."

The big problem with Sierra potentially making the team over Gose is that it would leave the Blue Jays without a legitimate backup center fielder. Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista or Sierra could potentially give Colby Rasmus a day off every now and then, but it's a less-than-ideal situation.

If Rasmus were to get injured, then it would likely prompt the Blue Jays to make an immediate roster move by calling someone like Gose up from the Minor Leagues.