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).
Johnson, 29, after losing much of 2011 with a shoulder problem, rebounded by logging 1911/3 innings. While his 3.81 ERA represented a career high and 7.8 strikeouts/nine innings his lowest ratio since 2006, John Buck, the former Marlins catcher, said Johnson had all-star-calibre stuff for much of the summer. Johnson's in the last year of his contract.
Buehrle, 34, averaged 85 miles an hour with his fastball last season and he's topped 13 wins only once in the past seven seasons, but he's produced 12 consecutive 200-plus inning seasons with discipline mechanics, sharp control and ability to change speeds. Buehrle did give up 1.2 homers/nine innings last year, a number that figures to rise in the cozy AL East parks.
Returnee Brandon Morrow, 29, was one of only four AL pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 with at least 120 innings (10-7, 2.96).
If nothing else, adding lefty J.A. Happ and dropping Ricky Romero to Class-A Dunedin showed the Jays mean business – they can't afford to give away games in a tight division while nurturing a lost soul. Happ, 30, now three seasons removed from his best in the game (12-4, 2.83 with Philadelphia in 2009) looked sharp in the spring.
Gibbons will be tested to demonstrate his reputation as a deft handler of relief pitchers, as the huge X-factor is the back end of a bullpen temporarily crammed with eight pitchers. Casey Janssen broke out last year (22 of 25 saves, 0.86 WHIP, 6:1 walk/strikeout ratio) but followed November shoulder surgery with a hesitant spring. Sergio Santos arrived from the White Sox in December of 2011 as the closer, but pitched all of five innings before undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of July. The third option is Steve Delabar (12.55 strikeouts/nine innings), in his third season back from a broken elbow, struggled in back-to-back outings. Lefty specialist Darren Oliver, 42, is maturing like fine wine; he rebuffed retirement for the chance to win a ring.
Reyes, the 29-year-old leadoff hitter, has $96-million remaining on his contract through 2017. In 160 games with Miami last season, he had a.347 on-base percentage vs. the .294 cumulative OBP produced by Toronto's leadoff hitters, adding 11 homers and 40 stolen bases. As he missed most of 2009 with a hamstring injury, there's concern about his ability to handle the Rogers Centre artificial turf.
Gibbons can cushion the impact by using Caesar Izturis or Emilio Bonifacio at shortstop, moving Reyes into the DH role on occasion. They'll be sharing second base, with Izturis getting the call routinely with a ground-ball pitcher on the mound. Reyes has stolen 410 bases, Bonifacio 110, Izturis 91 – they should be popular with Rogers Centre crowds who adore hustle. Bonifacio missed most of last season with injuries (torn thumb ligaments; knee sprain) but stole 30 bases against three caught-stealings in his 64 games.
First baseman Encarnacion, 30, broke out last year (42 HR, 110 RBIs).
DH/1B Adam Lind hit .202 against lefties last season and Gibbons wants him to use all fields as he once did, rather than pulling the ball.
Third baseman Lawrie's slugging (.580 to .405) and on-base (.373 to .324) percentages dropped dramatically last year, and the falloff was punctuated by erratic base running. He missed nearly five weeks with an oblique injury last August/September and starts the season on the disabled list with the same problem. Veteran Mark DeRosa, 38, is the backup.
Many thought catcher J.P. Arencibia would be shipped out but the Mets deemed prospect Travis D'Arnaud to have greater upside, especially as a hitter – Arencibia struck out 108 times vs. 18 walks. The challenge for Arencibia, who threw out near 30 per cent of base stealers, is to handle a new, diverse rotation.
Bautista was strapping an ice pack to his left wrist after spring training games, the fallout from surgery to repair a tendon injured in mid-July. He had 27 home runs and 65 RBIs in only 92 games; now with Reyes and Cabrera in front of him in the batting order and protection from Encarnacion, Bautista could have a MVP-calibre season.
With Bautista in right and Cabrera in left, the Jays have two strong and accurate arms flanking Colby Rasmus in centre. Cabrera was hitting .346 for the Giants when suspended 50 games by MLB for a performance-enhancing drug in August. Rasmus has top-flight range in centre with a gliding style of running; at age 26, the Jays are looking for him to break out at the plate; he hit 23 homers but struck out 149 times and averaged only .223.
Given a meagre .554 on-base plus slugging percentage against lefties, compounded by a weak spring, look for Bonifacio to get some time in centre. Speedy Rajai Davis is the backup, and Anthony Gose awaits his opportunity at Triple-A Buffalo.