On the Grapefruit League circuit in Florida this spring, the question was asked, and the answer came back repeatedly with the same two words at the start of the reply.
Q: What do you think of the Blue Jays’ chances in the American League East?
A: “On paper ... “ On paper, GM Alex Anthopoulos built a contender by addressing three off-season priorities:
Get a boatload more innings out of his starting rotation; Bring more contact/fewer strikeouts to the lineup, with the ancillary benefit of greater speed on offence and defence; Stabilize the dugout and the clubhouse by hiring manager John Gibbons in place of the departed John Farrell (Boston).
Two blockbuster trades with the Marlins and the Mets also added veteran savvy and leadership to a team that was perceived inside baseball last year as immature on and off the field (see Lawrie, Brett: base running).
Now, there are great expectations. In the AL East, Tampa retains strong pitching, Baltimore’s 29-9 record in one-run games last season may find equilibrium in 2013, the Yankees are old and injured, the Red Sox are coming off a last-place finish. Far and wide, the Jays are being predicted as a playoff team, and even Apple hasn’t seen this level of pent-up demand. Since 1993 when the Blue Jays won the World Series and the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, no Canadian franchise has captured an NHL, NBA or MLB title.
J.P. Ricciardi, assistant GM for the New York Mets, hired and fired Gibbons during his time as Jays GM, and promoted Anthopoulos.
“Everywhere you look, the Marlins last year, Lakers this year, no one wins a pennant in January and February,” Ricciardi said, in conversation at Port St. Lucie, Fla. “Alex and Gibby know that. They’re trying to temper expectations but they went out and spent a lot of money, so they have to handle those expectations.”
Another voice in the chorus, Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin, speaking from his perspective as the New York Yankees catcher these past two seasons: “First of all, it’s on paper. We know these guys are good – because they’ve been good. Are they as good as they used to be? Are they going to be able to stay on the field? How’s their depth? How’s their bullpen? How many games are won and lost in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings? You need your team to be balanced and the bullpen has to be good, otherwise you are going to be exposed. ... Are they turning double plays? On paper, they look awesome, their lineup is going to be disgusting, they’re going to be dirty, but what wins games are defence and pitching – always.”
The rotation features 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, a dark horse Cy Young candidate in right-hander Josh Johnson, a four-time all-star in left-hander Mark Buehrle, and, with an acquisition last July, veteran lefty J.A. Happ to replace struggling Ricky Romero. They join the only incumbent, power right-hander Brandon Morrow.
The Jays haven’t had a bonafide leadoff hitter since Devon White two decades ago. Four-time all-star Jose Reyes, acquired in the 12-player Marlins trade with Buehrle, Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio, tops an order that features Dominican players in the first four spots – Reyes, roll-of-the-dice free-agent acquisition Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. With speed demon Bonifacio in the 9-slot, they’ll have five consecutive Dominicans batting, and in theory, RBI opportunities galore for the middle of the order.
For now, the bullpen is the outstanding question because of a history of arm problems, most recently at the back end.
The Jays had a payroll in the lower third of baseball last season, disproportionate to market size. The acquisitions brought payroll to No.10 overall. Yet for all the money spent, health is the great unknown, with Bautista coming off wrist surgery, both closers having undergone shoulder procedures, Reyes playing on artificial turf with suspect hamstrings, Encarnacion having injured a finger during the World Baseball Classic, Lawrie having reinjured muscles in his ribcage area, Morrow having missed 10 weeks with an oblique strain … “Last year in Miami on paper we had one of the best teams in the league and we finished last,” Reyes said. “On paper, it means nothing.”
In 2012, the injury-affected staff compiled a 4.82 ERA, ranking 12th in strikeouts and 11th in innings pitched, the latter stat resulting in undue pressure on the bullpen. Now there are four pitchers in the rotation capable of reaching the gold standard of 200 innings.
With a knuckleball he’s able to move up and down the strike zone, Dickey, 38, the opening day starter, led the NL in innings (2332/3), complete games (five), shutouts (three) and strikeouts (230).