Blue Jays plot northern course in standings
Contending in American League East the goal for 2012
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There is a growing sense of optimism surrounding the Blue Jays that this could finally be the year they challenge for a spot in the postseason for the first time since 1993.
Toronto still has plenty of question marks entering the year, in both the rotation and starting lineup, but there's no denying that the club currently has the pieces in place to improve on last season's 81-win total.
The Blue Jays will need bounce-back seasons from a variety of players coming off down years, but manager John Farrell is optimistic of his club's chances and wants to set the bar high.
"I think those expectations naturally heighten as the talent and the core group grows," Farrell said. "As guys in their early years in the big leagues become more established, you get to have a greater understanding and expectation of what their individual performance can be.
"We've gone through a year of change, I guess is the way to categorize last year, but there's no question what our overall vision has been. Steps needed to be taken along the way, but our vision is always to win a World Series. I think we've made a huge step in one year to get closer towards that."
W: Perez (1-0) L: Asencio (0-1)
Toronto is coming off a season in which the club ranked fifth in the American League for runs scored with 743. That was a relatively impressive finish, considering the Blue Jays opened the year with plenty of playing time for the likes of Juan Rivera, Jayson Nix and Corey Patterson.
That trio has since departed, paving the way for an influx of young talent on the 25-man roster. Third-base phenom Brett Lawrie enters his first full season in the Majors, while expectations are running high for second baseman Kelly Johnson, center fielder Colby Rasmus and, with any luck, a return to form by first baseman Adam Lind.
There are a lot of "ifs" surrounding the starting nine, but with the type of depth that places catcher J.P. Arencibia -- and his 23 home runs from 2011 -- ninth in the order, it's clear that not everything has to go right.
"We don't need them to have career years, we just need them to perform to their abilities and be solid," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said of Johnson, Rasmus and Lind. "If they can be great, even better for us. There's no question they didn't play as well as they're capable of last year, they'd all tell you that. They're all capable of more and that's the performance risk in our team.
"That being said, the exciting part is that they're capable of being a lot more than good. They can be well above average at each of their spots but even if they're just average at their position we're going to have a very deep team."
Despite the offensive talent currently on Toronto's roster, it's the starting rotation that likely holds the key to any potential success. Last year, the starters ranked ninth in the AL with 964 2/3 innings pitched and 11th in ERA with a 4.55 mark.
Those numbers would have been even worse without the emergence of No. 1 starter Ricky Romero as one of the best pitchers in the AL. Romero, who finished last year with a 15-11 record and 2.92 ERA in 225 innings, will once again be the leader of a staff that includes Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek.
Waiting in the wings is 30-year-old Dustin McGowan, whose start to the regular season will be delayed because of plantar fasciitis. That will put pressure on both Cecil and Drabek to perform early, in order to keep their jobs once McGowan returns to full strength.
Regardless of what the starting five ends up being, that core will need to emerge as a strength if the Blue Jays hope to play meaningful games in September.
"It's special, our team is special," Romero said. "I feel like everyone is a leader in their own way. It's a little different feel, I feel like we're bringing little different attitude, in a good way. We're arrogant, we know we can win and those are good qualities to have when you're out there playing.
"I feel like we have a lot of aces on our team. Brandon has the same, if not better, stuff than me, and so does Henderson. We all lead by example and I feel like this team is going to be led by 25 guys, not one guy, and I think if we're able to do that, this team is headed in the right direction."
Arguably the biggest upgrade on Toronto's roster from 2011 can be found in the bullpen. Last year, the Blue Jays tied for the American League lead in blown saves with 25. That led to the departures of veteran relievers Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, who were unable to get the job done during late-inning situations.
Anthopoulos' top priority this offseason was to rectify that situation, and he appears to have accomplished it by acquiring closer Sergio Santos from the White Sox in a trade. Santos will be supported by the free agent signings of Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver.
The return of longtime Blue Jay Jason Frasor provides further depth. Frasor will handle middle-relief duties alongside Casey Janssen. It's the deepest bullpen the Blue Jays have possessed in recent memory, and as long as they don't get overworked it should prove to be an overall strength of the organization.
"On paper, it feels like we have a lights-out bullpen," Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista said. "I know there's a very capable group put together. I'm excited to think that in those close games we're going to have much better chances to come out on top and I think those are the biggest difference-makers in a season for any Major League team. You want to win every single close game that you can get.
"Knowing that we have great arms throughout the bullpen, it gives us a lot of peace of mind and I can see the starting rotation being much more relaxed when they go out to the field, knowing that they can rely on those guys and on the offense as well. We don't have to get 10 runs up on the board to win. If we just get ahead one or two runs, we'll feel comfortable those guys are going to be able to hold the lead and close out the ballgame."
The Blue Jays' young squad finished last season with an eye on contending in 2012. The belief was always there, but it couldn't have hurt to receive another boost this spring when Major League Baseball announced it was introducing a second Wild Card to each league.
That will improve Toronto's chances of making the postseason. For the first time in years, this is a team not lamenting the fact that it must compete against the likes of New York, Boston and Tampa Bay. It will still be a daunting challenge to contend, but it's a club that is dreaming big.
"They know they're going to win year in and year out -- just the way those guys carry themselves," Romero said of his AL East rivals. "I pay attention to that little kind of stuff, just the way they carry themselves and I want that to be my team. I think we're ready."