The Toronto Blue Jays’ home opener is on Tuesday, and Toronto sports watchers find themselves in an unusual position.
Local fans have grown accustomed to being disappointed by their city’s teams, and so they’re understandably wary of getting too excited at the start of any given season. In spite of this tendency towards cautious optimism, it’s hard not to look at the talent on the Jays’ roster this year and wonder whether the team might have a shot at competing for a World Series title for the first time since Joe Carter touched them all. In order for these lofty aspirations to be realized, there are a number of new faces that are going to need to step in and make an impact, and they’ll need to do it alongside the nucleus of seasoned players that have joined the team in the last few years.
Sensing a power shift inside the American League East, with the Yankees and Red Sox in a state of transition and the Rays and Orioles on the rise, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided that the time was right to make some big moves in the off-season. He began by taking advantage of a fire sale by the Miami Marlins, which allowed him to trade for four-time all-star shortstop Jose Reyes while also solidifying a shaky starting rotation with pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. Still not content with the pitching staff, Anthopoulos was able to acquire last year’s National League Cy Young Award winner, former Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, who is adept at throwing the knuckleball, a rare type of pitch.
A few of Anthopoulos’s personnel decisions aren’t as unassailable—like his decision to bring back manager John Gibbons. While many vilified the departing John Farrell for his inelegant defection to the division-rival Red Sox, it’s hard to forget how rocky Gibbons’s tenure with the Jays was last time around. (It was characterized by a fractured locker room and speculation that Gibbons even came to blows with one of his own players.) Another intriguing—but potentially risky—move was to sign free agent Melky Cabrera to play left field. Cabrera was having a fantastic 2012 with the Giants before admitting to using a banned substance in August and serving a suspension that kept him from contributing to his team’s eventual World Series victory.
Looking at the key pieces returning from last year’s team, there is reason for optimism. Assuming José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación are still able to provide consistent power from the heart of the batting order, it will be necessary for catcher J.P. Arencibia, designated-hitter Adam Lind, center-fielder Colby Rasmus, and third-baseman Brett Lawrie (who begins 2013 on the disabled list) to live up to the flashes of potential they have shown in their short careers so far. For Ricky Romero—last year’s supposed ace of the pitching staff—this season will begin in Dunedin, where he’ll be playing class-A baseball after struggling in spring training with the same command issues that plagued him during all of 2012. This makes it imperative that his replacement, J.A. Happ, picks up some of the slack. Likewise Brandon Morrow, who is the one piece of last year’s rotation returning to the fold.
If there is a weakness to be found on the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster, it’s in an area that has consistently been worrisome for the team in recent seasons: the bullpen. The Jays’ two best set-up men, Sergio Santos (who has had a terrible March) and Steve Delabar, both have histories with injuries. Santos made all of six appearances last year before eventually undergoing season-ending surgery and Delabar has spent years working his way back from an elbow injury. He posted good numbers for the Jays in 2012 after being acquired from the Mariners in a trade. No stranger to surgery himself is the team’s closer, Casey Janssen, a reconstituted former starter who was handed his new role almost entirely out of necessity last year. He was evidently impressive enough that he earned a vote of confidence for the upcoming campaign.
Given the war of attrition the Jays have had to fight in recent years, there’s always the worry that the team may not possess the necessary depth to recover from the kinds of debilitating injuries that have seemed to follow it like a black cloud. But for now, those health issues are only hypothetical. There’s a pervasive sense that when the first pitch is thrown on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre, the sell-out crowd on hand may actually be watching the first steps of a bona fide contender. It’s been a long time since spectators could settle into those seats at the outset of spring to watch a Jays team with this much potential.