1. Toronto Blue Jays
2012: 73-89, 4th place, 22 games back
2013 projection: 93-69, 1st place, 3 games ahead
Revamped team the favorite: The great starting pitching collapse and other assorted injuries sank John Farrell’s Blue Jays in 2012. But this is a totally revamped Blue Jays squad and after some major deals to bring in veteran talent. Toronto goes into the spring as the prohibitive favorite in the American League East.
What’s changed? Wheeling and dealing general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided to make some noise in the wide-open AL East in the offseason. Ten new major-league ready players have come in and 13 players have been sent packing this offseason.
In November, the baseball world was jolted off its axis when the Jays and Marlins got together for a seven-player megadeal. Toronto sent shortstop Yunel Escobar, starter Henderson Alvarez, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, catcher Jeff Mathis, and three minor leaguers to Miami in exchange for four-time All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, Marlins staff ace Josh Johnson, gritty lefthander Mark Buehrle, infielder Emilio Bonifacio, and catcher John Buck. The 29-year-old Reyes slumped to .287 in Miami last season
The Jays next signed free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera — of 50-game suspension fame — to a two year, $16 million contract.
Bonifacio, who hit .258 in 64 games with the Marlins last season, will replace Kelly Johnson at second base.
About a month after the trade, the Blue Jays sent two highly ranked prospects to the Mets for reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and gave the 38-year-old knuckleballer a $25 millon contract extension. Dickey, Tim Wakefield’s co-star in the 2012 documentary ‘Knuckleball!’, struck out 230 batters to go along with a 20-6 record and 2.73 ERA with the Mets last season, but it’s always dangerous to have a knuckleballer as the ace of your staff. The Jays also picked up catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas in the deal.
Josh Johnson (8-14, 3.81 ERA), who becomes a free agent after the coming season, has not thrown as hard or been as effective since experiencing shoulder problems in 2011, and the former Marlins ace will have to adjust to facing the big bats in the American League in 2013.
Mark Buehrle, who went 13-13 with a 3.74 ERA for Miami last season, joins the starting staff. The 33-year-old lefty and durable former White Sox stalwart has pitched at least 200 inning for 12 consecutive seasons.
Last but not least, John Farrell is out and old manager John Gibbons is back as Blue Jays manager. No matter who is on the field, Gibbons will have to stress fundamentals as Farrell’s Jay were woeful in the field and on the basepaths in 2012.
What’s stayed the same? Super-slugging right fielder Jose Bautista is back to hammer away after a wrist injury limited him to just 332 at-bats last year.
Center fielder Colby Rasmus, who broke out with 23 homers and 75 RBIs last season, will also return.
Emerging star Edwin Encarnacion, 42 homers and 100 RBIs in 2012, is back to handle DH/first base duties along with Adam Lind.
Brett Lawrie, who hit .273 with 11 homers in 494 at-bats, will be back at third base.
J.P. Arencibia is expected to be the starting catcher.
Starter Brandon Morrow blossomed with a 2.96 ERA to go along with a 10-7 record in 2012 and the enigmatic Ricky Romero, looking to stay healthy and bounce back from a 9-14 record and 5.77 ERA, return to the Jays’ rotation, but with the acquisitions of Dickey, Johnson, and Buehrle, they drop down from 1-2 to 4-5 in 2013. Romero, last year’s Opening Day starter who sported a .292 ERA in 2011, is coming back off elbow surgery at the end of last season.
Relievers Sergio Santos, back from an extended stay on the DL in 2012, and Casey Janssen could battle it out to earn the closer job.
Old friend Darren Oliver will be returning to Blue Jays for his 20th season to help the bullpen from the left side.
On paper, the Jays look like they have all the pieces in place to win the division and return to the World Series for the first time since ‘93. But what happens on the field is always another story in Toronto.
Like with everyone else in the AL East, there are important questions to be answered. Was Cabrera a performance-enhanced fluke last season in San Francisco? Will Jose Reyes bounce back to become an impact player in the AL or will he show to be an aging shortstop on the downside of his career?
The Jays’ rotation has the potential to be the best in the division, but how Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson hold up and adjust to the American League remains to be seen. The bullpen remains the weak spot. And the new high expectations put the Jays in a different light and it will be interesting to see how they respond to being the frontrunners.
Even with all the questions surrounding the new cast of characters in the Toronto clubhouse, the first place pick goes to the talent-rich Jays. For the first time since Joe Carter ripped a one-out, three-run walk-off home run to clinch the ’93 series off of Phillies closer Mitch Williams, Jays fans could be cheering north of the border deep into October.