DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays have one rung remaining on one of baseball's most difficult ladders. In 2006, Toronto finished 87-75 and second in the American League East, ending Boston's eight-year run as the division's runner-up.
This season, the Jays have their sights on the Yankees, who have won nine consecutive AL East crowns. Toronto may have placed higher in the division standings than it had since winning the World Series in 1993, but the club is far from being satisfied.
First, though, the Jays have some issues to sort out over the remainder of the spring season. Toronto needs to determine who will fill the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, and who will bridge the gap to All-Star closer B.J. Ryan. Once those issues are settled, the Jays feel they'll be primed for contention.
Team strength: Toronto's offense has the potential to be one of the most dangerous groups in all of baseball. In 2006, the Blue Jays ranked second in the AL in slugging percentage (.463), third in batting average (.284) and fourth in home runs (199) and on-base percentage (.348). And that was before Toronto picked up slugger Frank Thomas to be its designated hitter.
Achilles heel: The Blue Jays' bullpen lacks a veteran presence in front of Ryan. Last season, 33-year-old reliever Justin Speier served as Toronto's primary setup man. After he signed with the Angels over the winter, though, 23-year-old Brandon League became the top candidate for the job. Lack of experience out of the 'pen will be an obstacle Toronto attempts to overcome this season.
Top newcomer: Thomas provides the Jays with some security at DH. Last season, Toronto cycled 14 different players in and out of the DH role, and that group combined for a mere 16 home runs and 68 extra-base hits out of the position. Only the Twins' DHs produced fewer long balls in 2006. Thomas, meanwhile, belted 39 homers and tallied 114 RBIs for the Oakland A's in '06.
Ready to make The Leap: Outfielder Adam Lind has flown up the organizational ladder and is on the verge of earning a spot in the Majors. For now, though, he's blocked from starting by Reed Johnson in left field and Thomas at DH. Lind will likely begin the year at Triple-A Syracuse to continue his development. He'll be the first player considered if one of Toronto's full-time outfielders faces a setback, though.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
On the hot seat: The Blue Jays might go as far as right-hander A.J. Burnett takes them this year. Ahead of Burnett, Roy Halladay serves as a true ace for Toronto. Behind Burnett, though, the Nos. 3-5 spots are filled with numerous question marks. The Jays need Burnett to finally reach and maintain the potential he's had throughout his injury-plagued career. If he's healthy, and everything clicks, Burnett and Halladay could be one of the strongest one-two combinations in the Majors.
You can bank on: Over the last two seasons, Halladay has gone 28-9 with a 2.89 ERA in 51 starts. The former American League Cy Young Award winner has also appeared in 27 games following a Toronto loss during that span, going 16-3 with a 2.88 ERA in those outings. Since the start of the '02 season, the average time of a nine-inning game started by Halladay is 2 hours, 37 minutes, which represents the second-fastest average in the Majors over that period.
Litmus test: Toronto's offense has the ability to bury opponents, so the pitching staff will be key to the club's success. The Jays added depth to their rotation over the winter, but the club is counting on a number of pitchers to have successful returns from various injuries. A healthy, productive rotation could equal a run at the playoffs. Anything less could derail a promising season.
Games you don't want to miss:
at Tigers: April 2-5. First chance to see how the Jays measure up against the 2006 AL champions.
at Phillies: May 18-20. Toronto heads to Philly to try to stop '06 National League MVP Ryan Howard.
at Yankees: Sept. 21-23. This could be prove to be a crucial series if Jays are in playoff contention.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.