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Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista throws at spring training in Dunedin, Fla. on Tuesday February 25, 2014. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista throws at spring training in Dunedin, Fla. on Tuesday February 25, 2014. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hope springs eternal as Jays begin season with muted expectations Add to ...

Last spring, the hype machine got cranked all the way up to crazy and unreasonable, as it’s wont to do.

A year later, the volume isn’t merely dialled down; the thing has been smashed to its constituent parts and buried out back.

Hardly anyone with a reputation to defend is picking the Toronto Blue Jays to be anything other than an also-ran in the American League East, baseball’s division of death – where the World Series defending-champion Boston Red Sox could be in a dog fight for a playoff spot.

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That’s okay, it’s easier to be the underdog than the lead dog.

And nobody ever got anywhere by accepting all was lost on the first day of the voyage – the Jays remain an outwardly confident group.

“I feel good about our team … this year has to be better,” said shortstop Jose Reyes, the statement-of-intent trade acquisition from the winter of 2012, whose first year in Toronto was derailed by an April ankle injury.

That’s not to say that Reyes is in tip-top form, he sat out the final week of spring training with a tender hamstring, but successfully tested it on artificial turf during a two-game set at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

“I don’t want to say it’s 100 per cent, but it’s good enough. I just need to control myself a little bit running-wise,” Reyes said this weekend.

On Sunday, the team said that closer Casey Janssen would start the season on the disabled list with an abdominal strain, meaning Sergio Santos take over his job for the time being (catcher Erik Kratz was recalled from Triple A). Jays fans are left to hope dark clouds aren’t massing again.

But hey, it’s the first week of a new season, there’s no more appropriate time to suspend one’s cynicism and negativity.

Toronto opens the season against the mighty Tampa Bay Rays – no bets on whether the home team will manage to draw as many fans in the opening four-game set as the 96,350 that the Jays and New York Mets packed into Montreal’s Big O on the weekend.

Sure, the Jays’ pitching rotation is held together with binder twine and chewing gum, yes, they have a bunch of fragile players.

But things can’t possibly be as bad again as they were last year, right?

Reyes and centre fielder Colby Rasmus both missed extended stretches, as did B.C.-born third baseman Brett Lawrie (out for 55 games, in all).

“I think everybody’s ready to start walking the walk ... everyone is comfortable with every one now. Last year was about establishing a little chemistry, and that’s already there this year,” Lawrie said.

Over the weekend, general manager Alex Anthopoulos argued that with the Jays’ core – led by power-hitting outfielder Jose Bautista – there’s no reason to doubt Toronto can’t make some noise in the AL East.

“It didn’t work out last year, but we’re definitely built to win now,” he said.

Anthopolous didn’t need to add: as long as we stay healthy and our pitching is up to snuff.

Now, about those arms.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s reliability as far as innings-pitched is unassailable, and if the Jays’ opening-day starter can rekindle his second-half form from a year ago he’ll be an effective ace.

Similarly, lefty Mark Buerhle can be expected to continue to hungrily chew up innings.

After that it could get complicated.

Manager John Gibbons has pencilled Drew Hutchison in behind Dickey.

The 23-year-old hasn’t been seen around these parts since the summer of 2012, when he left the field clutching his elbow. His velocity hit mid-90s in spring training, suggesting he is all the way back from ligament-replacement surgery.

“You can’t make up lost ground, so you have to just let it go … all you can change is what’s going to happen from here on out,” he said.

Hutchison looked good in his last spring start, giving up one hit in 5 2/3 innings. Fourth starter Brandon Morrow looked even better, striking out eight New York Mets in his final spring training start on Saturday in Montreal.

“We’re confident in what we have … I think we have more depth than we did last year,” said Morrow, who made only 10 starts in 2013 because of a forearm issue.

Fifth starter Dustin McGowan, he of the knee and shoulder surgeries – he has only pitched more than 150 winnings once since 2005 – can be a significant contributor if he can stay healthy.

Again, the optimist’s view: Doesn’t every pitching staff in baseball have to deal with a bunch of guys who have had Tommy John surgery and high-mileage shoulders?

With a lineup widely acknowledged to be their strongest since the World Series glory days of the early 1990s, the Jays stumbled to a 74-88 record in 2013, last in the AL East.

Given they share divisional space with the Rays, Red Sox, the deep-pocketed New York Yankees and resurgent Baltimore Orioles, pretty much everything will have to go right for the Jays to grab a playoff spot.

That rarely happens over 162 games, but this is the one day of the year where everyone is allowed to believe it might.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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