DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman is feeling better than ever.
With the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee fully healed nearly a year after he was injured in a freak accident during a fielding drill, the hard-throwing righty has set high expectations for himself going into the new season.
Stroman doesn't want to merely be a part of a rotation helping Toronto defend its first AL East title in 22 years - he's determined to lead it.
''I want to be that guy,'' he said. ''That's why I put in all that work in the offseason. Everything I did was to be the ace and, hopefully, I have that opportunity to be the ace and I can kind of run with it.''
With former ace and 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price's offseason departure to the Red Sox, the chances are good for Stroman to fill the void.
Despite missing the first five months last season after getting hurt in March, Stroman returned for four starts in September, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
Stroman also started Toronto's memorable come-from-behind triumph over Texas in the deciding Game 5 of the AL Division Series, then earned the win in Game 3 against Kansas City in the AL Championship Series.
Even when Stroman wasn't able to walk, the 24-year-old said he still maintained a consistent throwing schedule throughout the rehabilitation process. He worked with trainers during the summer at Duke University, where he was drafted 22nd overall by Toronto as a junior in 2012, and completed coursework to finish his degree in sociology.
''My body is in the best position that it's ever been,'' Stroman said. ''I'm excited, man. It's going to be hard for this next month, because I'm kind of itching to get at the bit, being that I didn't play all last year.''
Manager John Gibbons believes his young pitcher is equipped with the necessary tools to be atop the rotation for the foreseeable future. Stroman is scheduled to start Toronto's exhibition opener on Wednesday against Philadelphia.
It all starts with his arm, Gibbons said.
''That (motivation and his confidence) definitely helps make him good, but he's not going out there naked, either,'' he quipped. ''He really has a dynamite arm. . He's an energizer. And he's off to a pretty good start in a young career, at this point.''
If his name is penciled in to start Toronto's opener April 3 at Tampa Bay, Stroman hopes it will be just the beginning of something special.
''Everyone here is motivated,'' he said. ''Everyone knows what we're capable of. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it, but we have a tight camaraderie in the clubhouse here. It's more like a family than it is a team. We're excited and we're ready, man.''
NOTES: RHP Marco Estrada, recovering from mild back stiffness, could begin throwing off a mound in a couple days, Gibbons said. . In preparation for its exhibition opener, the team will play an intrasquad game on Monday morning.