New-look Blue Jays could be serious contender in 2013
Toronto finished fourth in the American League East last season
The Toronto Blue Jays have a new skipper, fresh faces on the roster and a renewed sense of confidence.
With one bold megatrade and a few surprise moves, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has put baseball back on the front burner in a city that is starving for a taste of the post-season.
Anthopoulos has addressed several glaring needs and strengthened a sagging starting rotation. The lineup is much deeper, team speed has improved and there is more depth on the roster.
Fans of Canada's only major-league team have endured a near two-decade run of mediocrity. After years of looking down the road, the Blue Jays' future is now.
However, while it's tempting for some fans to start planning the parade route, there is a long list of teams that made big off-season splashes in previous years but flopped in the regular season. It's one of the reasons why team officials haven't made any bold statements or predictions.
"We know we haven't won anything yet, we haven't done anything yet," Anthopoulos said in a recent interview. "We've made some trades and I understand it's always exciting when trades are made.
"But I don't know that anything's ever been won in the winter."
Big changes were made shortly after Toronto wrapped up a 73-win season in 2012, good for a fourth-place finish in the American League East. Injuries and ineffectiveness contributed to some mid-season struggles, resulting in another run of inconsequential late-season games and a rather dreary atmosphere at Rogers Centre.
Anthopoulos made it very clear at season's end that beefing up the team's starting pitching would be a top priority. He delivered by acquiring veteran starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in a huge deal with Miami last month, giving the Jays a couple of inning-eating horses at the front end of the rotation.
All-star shortstop Jose Reyes also came over from the Marlins along with infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, catcher John Buck and cash considerations. In return, the Blue Jays gave up infielders Yunel Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria, catcher Jeff Mathis, pitcher Henderson Alvarez and three prospects.
Toronto also got in on the free-agent action this off-season, signing outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal and infielder Maicer Izturis to a three-year contract. Manager John Farrell was dealt to Boston and John Gibbons was brought back as skipper.
On paper the team looks significantly better. If the players can stay healthy and consistent, the Blue Jays should be in the mix of American League contenders.
But there are still several question marks heading into next season.
Will slugger Jose Bautista have the same pop after undergoing wrist surgery last summer? Can Edwin Encarnacion duplicate the statistics from his breakout season? Will Cabrera be able to post the same numbers he did with San Francisco before his suspension for a positive testosterone test last August?
The other teams in the always-tough AL East have also been busy and there is no clear favourite at this point. Anthopoulos feels it will likely come down to health and the performance of every team's key players.
"We thought we had a competitive team last year, obviously we had a lot of injuries," he said. "But those other clubs had a lot of injuries as well and we were still in fourth place. So those other clubs are incredibly strong. They've shown the ability to withstand and to have the depth with the injuries that they sustained last year.
"So from that standpoint, I mean every team in the division, there's just so much parity right now. It's really going to be a coin flip I think in a lot of ways going into next year."
The Blue Jays will look to build on last season's 15 per cent home attendance jump and it's a good bet the team will be a hot ticket out of the gate. Toronto hasn't been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1993.
Ready for the Classic
The Canadian national team is also hungry for success after coming up short at the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic.
Japan won the inaugural WBC in 2006 and successfully defended its title in 2009. Canada did not make it to the second round at either event and needed to advance through a qualifying round to reach the 16-team main draw for 2013.
Canada is in Pool D along with Italy, Mexico and the United States. Canada will open round-robin play March 8 against Italy at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Canada will play Mexico the following day at Chase Field in Phoenix before wrapping up the first round against the Americans on March 10. The top two teams in each of the four pools will advance to the second round.
Minnesota Twins slugger Justin Morneau of New Westminster, B.C., and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C., have already been named to the provisional 28-man roster. The rest of the Canadian players will be named in mid-January.