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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Brandon Morrow warms up before facing the Boston Red Sox in Spring Training action in Dunedin, Fla. on Wednesday March 7 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/CP)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Brandon Morrow warms up before facing the Boston Red Sox in Spring Training action in Dunedin, Fla. on Wednesday March 7 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/CP)

Battle for AL East

Spring hopes eternal for Jays Add to ...

So how do the Toronto Blue Jays manage expectations after a spring like this?

Privately, they’ll tell you a modest increase in wins but a fourth- or maybe third-place finish in the American League East is the anticipated scenario. That is proper: realistic expectations should be for 87 wins, better than the Baltimore Orioles, poised to take advantage of slippage on the part of the Boston Red Sox or Tampa Bay Rays. Yet at a time when fans are chanting “Let’s go Blue Jays” at Maple Leafs games, when even the swells that populate the Platinum seats can’t be bothered to drag their gilded butts out to the Air Canada Centre, is there an almost inescapable void ready to swallow up the Blue Jays?

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Truth is, the gaudy spring record has not answered the concerns arisen when the promised land of an extra postseason berth met the reality of management and by extension ownership trying to sell the virtue of keeping its powder dry. There was no Princely free-agent pay-out. No Yu-niversal declaration of intent, despite whispers to the contrary. Prince Fielder was never coming here; the offer for Yu Darvish wasn’t in the same stratosphere as the Texas Rangers’ winning bid, and Paul Beeston, the president and chief executive officer of the Blue Jays, admits the organization did a lousy job managing expectations.

Yet there was general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell back at it this spring, fighting gamely to manage expectations that heightened with every 95 miles-an-hour pitch from Dustin McGowan and every brazen athletic act by Brett Lawrie. Injuries bit down eventually – Adam Lind’s back aches are particularly sobering – and perhaps it was a necessarily cautious tale heading into this week in Cleveland, when the Toronto Blue Jays begin to see whether any of it matters.

Major-league baseball, which is in an unprecedented period of growth fuelled by labour peace and an understanding of the economics of regional sports television as well as on-line savvy, has added another wild-card team in both the American and National Leagues. For now, it’s little more than a tease for the Blue Jays, coming at a time when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have beefed up themselves to take a run at the two-time AL champion Rangers.

Either of those two teams must at least be considered a prohibitive favourite for the one-game wild-card playoff, along with whoever loses out in the annual three-way race between the New York Yankees, Rays and Red Sox for the AL East title. The Yankees have very quietly shifted focus away from free-agent spending to drafting and signing players and made the savviest off-season move of any team in baseball, getting the electric Michael Pineda from the Seattle Mariners for Jesus Montero.

Of the three AL East bullies, the Red Sox would appear to be in most serious danger of slipping. For the Blue Jays to be in a position to exceed expectations, they must make hay out of the gate: following the season-opening series against the Cleveland Indians, 13 of their next 23 games are against the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Orioles.

For now, though, it says here an 87- or 88-win season is in store for the Blue Jays, and that will be achingly close but no cigar for aficionado Beeston. As the Wall Street Journal notes, since 1996 the average wild-card team has won 93 games while the average fifth-place team (which would now qualify for the sudden-death playoff) has won 88.9, although the spread in the AL is six wins.

Beyond ace Ricky Romero, the rotation is composed of two brilliant power arms, Brandon Morrow and rookie Henderson Alvarez, and two pitchers that underwent major physical and mechanical overhauls, Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek. Lind is now two seasons removed from being the type of cleanup hitter the Blue Jays need him to be, becoming an undisciplined hacker in the process, and Tony La Russa could still be proven right about Colby Rasmus: he just may never get it.

Those are two crucial left-handed bats.

Still, that was the case last season when the Jays were sixth in the majors in runs scored 11th in on-base plus slugging and this time (knock on wood) they’ll have Lawrie for an entire season and perhaps a more representative season from second baseman Kelly Johnson. And the bullpen is no longer a repository of ragged arms biding time until the Blue Jays parlay them into compensatory draft picks, starting with closer Sergio Santos who is expected to be here when the Blue Jays play significant games in September 2013 or 2014.

While the Blue Jays were beasts in spring training, it is a stroll around their minor-league complex that creates the most optimistic stirrings. It is choc-a-bloc with big arms and big players and big intentions and the first influx of pitching is months, not years, away.

Have the halcyon days of baseball in Toronto returned? Not yet. But as the Red Sox come to grips with muddled pitching and a new manager – Bobby Valentine – charged with cleaning up a poisonous clubhouse; and the Yankees get another year older and the Rays get closer and closer to a being splattered against a payroll wall, it is difficult to fight the feeling that a significant September is just around the corner. The players seem ready. Here’s hoping everybody else is, too.

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