Toronto’s new ignitor

By Gregor Chisholm
Updated: November 20, 2010

CANADA — When the Blue Jays traded for outfielder Rajai Davis on Wednesday, it was the first step in rebuilding an offense that too often last season relied on an all-or-nothing approach.

Toronto ranked first in the American League in home runs, and when the bats were hot, the club managed to win a lot of games. When the ball wasn’t flying out of the park, though, the Blue Jays struggled to find other ways to score runs.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos has made it one of his priorities to have a more balanced attack next season, and adding players such as Davis is the first step.

Davis, who stole 50 bases last season with the Athletics, is the type of ballplayer the team hasn’t had the luxury of having in recent years. In fact, Toronto hasn’t had a player reach the 50-steals plateau since outfielder Shannon Stewart swiped 51 in 1998.

Davis is aware of the style of play the Jays have had in recent years and is hoping he can add a new element to the team.

“I’m excited about a new opportunity,” said Davis, who hit .284 with five home runs and 52 RBIs last season. “I’m joining a great bunch of guys. Hearing all the stories about the Blue Jays hitting all those home runs last year was a really big thing around baseball.

“For me, I bring hustle [and] a will to win and will do whatever I have to do to help the ballclub get better.”

Despite the recent trade, Davis also is aware that his role with the Blue Jays is still up in the air. He spoke to Anthopoulos on Thursday and knows that the club hasn’t ruled out making other additions to the outfield, which puts his situation in limbo.

The 30-year-old says he has been around the game long enough that he isn’t going to let something like that frustrate him. It’s just something he can use as motivation as he moves forward through the offseason.

“Honestly, it’s nothing new to me in my career,” said Davis, who has also played for the Pirates and Giants during his five-year tenure in the Majors. “It’s something I’ve learned to deal with. It’s something that has made me stronger and it just helps me to build more character.

“I think it’s really early in the offseason and the team hasn’t really been solidified. There’s some uncertainty. I’m going in with the mindset that this offseason I have to work hard and I have to get better.”

Toronto stole just 58 bases as a team last year. But when John Farrell was introduced as the new manager of the club in October, he expressed a desire to be more active on the basepaths. If given the opportunity, that type of system would play directly into Davis’ strengths.

The native of Connecticut has stolen 143 bases over his career, including 91 in the past two seasons. He is used to being given the green light, and if he receives the same kind of opportunity in Toronto, he expects to see similar numbers.

“That’s essential,” Davis said. “Most of the time when I’m out there, I can see things that the manager is not going to see — just knowing, having an idea out there, when is the right time to go. It lets the baserunner know that the management trusts you and trusts that you will make the right decisions.”

Davis also brings some versatility to the Blue Jays on the defensive side of the diamond. He has the ability to play multiple positions and talked openly about how he’d enjoy playing alongside someone with the reputation of former Gold Glove winner Vernon Wells in the outfield.

Ultimately, it was Davis’ all-around game that attracted Anthopoulos to the speedster the most.

“He can be a leadoff hitter, he can be a fourth outfielder, he can play all three outfield positions,” Anthopoulos said earlier this week.

“He’s very good in the clubhouse, a great worker, with good makeup that’s certainly important to us. That was a big dynamic when we put the team together last offseason — getting high character in the clubhouse. We think that helps bring out the best of players across the board.”

The acquisition of Davis likely spells the end of Fred Lewis’ tenure in Toronto. The 29-year-old now becomes a candidate to be non-tendered as there does not appear to be room on the roster for both players.

It’s also possible the acquisition of Davis could be the prelude to more moves by Anthopoulos, who is one of the most active general managers in the league. He has talked openly about his desire to have a feel on what players are available around the league and how much it would take to get them if they are deemed a right fit for Toronto.

The offseason is just getting started and Anthopoulos isn’t about to rule anything out.

“We’re in the talent acquisition mode right now,” Anthopoulos said, “trying to get the right value, and if the right value lines up, then we’ll go ahead and make that trade, or make that acquisition, and continue to sort through it as we go through the offseason.”

For now, Davis is focused on getting ready for next year. He knows he has plenty to prove, but until Spring Training arrives, it’s unclear what role he will be able do that in.