Rios still searching for his swing
Fully recovered after infection, Jays outfielder working hard
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Alex Rios can flat-out put on a show. During batting practice, the Blue Jays outfielder tends to turn the batter's box into his own personal launching pad.
Rios has put a fair share of dents in the scoreboard in center field at Knology Park this spring, and he frequently sends baseballs arching high over the wall in left, where they disappear into a patch of trees.
Fans and teammates alike stand and marvel at the tape-measure shots that fly off Rios' bat, and it's a safe bet that none of them can tell that the right fielder isn't comfortable at the plate. Rios is still searching for the feeling he had during the first half of last season, when he was able to consistently put on a show during games, too.
"I feel a little weird right now at the plate," Rios said on Monday. "But I'm getting to that point where I'm close to getting locked in. I've been working on trying to remember the things I was doing last year in the first half of the season so I can pick things up where I left off."
It's been nine months since a strange staph infection forced Rios to miss a month of the regular season. The injury abruptly halted a promising season for the outfielder, who was hitting .330 with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs when the infection sidelined him on June 28.
Rios, 26, never fully regained that same form after returning to the lineup in late July. After the season ended, Rios decided against playing winter ball back home in Puerto Rico. Instead, he and White Sox infielder Alex Cintron hit the weight room regularly, and Rios didn't pick up a bat again until December.
One reason Rios believes it's taking him a little time to get locked in at the plate is the fact that he didn't participate in winter ball. It's not something he does every offseason, but Rios knows playing has helped him in the past.
"It was strange not to play," Rios said. "I believe that it's good to play a little bit during the winter to get rid of your bad at-bats, and get everything settled down before Spring Training. You come a little more ready here."
Rios is one player that the Blue Jays aren't worried about, though. Last year, he emerged as the full-timer in right field and was named an American League All-Star for the first time in his young career.
"He erased all doubts," manager John Gibbons said. "The big knock on him was, 'Is he going to hit for power?' He proved last year that he has that in him. But he has the ability to hit all fields and hit for a high average, too."
Gibbons admits that the club rushed Rios' return to the lineup after the injury, and that was probably a main factor in the outfielder's .200 average in his 30 games with the Jays in July and August.
In September, though, Rios began to get back on track, hitting .357 across his final 26 games. That's something that Gibbons is quick to point out -- that, and the fact that Rios still finished with career highs in batting average (.302), homers (17), doubles (33), and RBIs (82).
"That layoff, that set him back," Gibbons said. "He probably wasn't ready when we brought him back, either. So, he struggled getting his timing a little bit, but before the end of the year, he picked it up again and he finished very strong."
The club doesn't need Rios to strictly be a big power hitter, though. The heart of the lineup will also get plenty of long balls from center fielder Vernon Wells, third baseman Troy Glaus, designated hitter Frank Thomas and first baseman Lyle Overbay.
Rios was on pace to slug 30 homers and drive in 100 runs last season, but Gibbons doesn't want the outfielder to feel pressure to duplicate those numbers. True, that type of production would greatly benefit the Jays, but he club wants Rios to continue to focus on being an all-around talent.
"I expect him to be better, there's no question about it," Gibbons said. "But we don't need him to hit 30 home runs -- that's not his thing. He's going to hit his share, but we just want him to be a complete hitter. He's got everything, which makes him more exciting."
Rios' numbers haven't been bad this spring. He's hit .281 with one home run and five RBIs through 13 Grapefruit League games. Rios isn't satisfied, though, and he's working daily with hitting coach Mickey Brantley to find the same swing that carried him in the first half last season.
"I'm trying to get that feeling back," Rios said. "I'm pretty confident that, if I do get that feeling back, I'll probably do the same thing that I did last year."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.