DUNEDIN, Fla. — On paper, the new-look Toronto Blue Jays appear to be the team to beat in a tough AL East.
But don’t crown them champions just yet. After all, even in their own clubhouse, they don’t believe that.
“The Yankees are the team to beat because they are the team who wins the division almost every year,” said dynamic shortstop Jose Reyes, one of Toronto’s five big-name acquisitions in the off-season. “We know it’s not going to be easy. We believe in the talent we’re going to put on the field and we’ll go from there. We feel very good about our club.”
The Blue Jays haven’t reached the post-season since Joe Carter’s homer off Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams clinched their second consecutive World Series title in 1993.
Hoping to end that drought, general manager Alex Anthopoulos dramatically reshaped the roster in a wild spending spree in the off-season.
He acquired reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey in a trade with the New York Mets, and landed Reyes, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio in a deal with Miami. Anthopoulos also signed reigning All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera in free agency.
Those five players have 14 All-Star games, four Gold Gloves, one Cy Young Award and one Silver Slugger Award on their resumes. Add sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and pitchers Brandon Morrow, Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos to the mix, and these Blue Jays seem quite formidable.
“We don’t worry about paper; we worry about our effort on the baseball field,” said Encarnacion, who hit a career-best 42 homers last year. “We have to keep working hard, forget about looking good on paper like everybody says and we have to do our individual work on the field.”
Either way, Toronto has tons of talent, and with that, comes expectations. Finding a way to manage all of it — while blending in the new players to an already sound base of returnees to form the right cohesion — will be key for the Blue Jays.
After finishing 73-89 last year, Toronto will also have a new-but-familiar face in charge in the dugout. John Gibbons returned for his second stint with the club, replacing John Farrell, who left to manage Boston.
Gibbons was Toronto’s skipper from 2004-07 and led them to their best finish — 87-75 in 2006 — since 1993. That came after the Blue Jays’ previous major off-season splash when they acquired starter A.J. Burnett, closer B.J. Ryan, catcher Bengie Molina and third baseman Troy Glaus.
“There’s no guarantee that you if you get a talented group that they’re going to win anything,” Gibbons said. “You’ve still got to go out and do it.”
Finding the right time for all that talent won’t be easy. Where to play who to play and for how long are easier decisions in baseball than in some other sports, but if injuries take their toll, and Gibbons has to mix and match, you never know.
But there’s plenty of depth on the club, which will help. Outfielder Rajai Davis, for instance, played in 142 games last year. As it stands now, he’s not even a starter this year.
“We have a lot of talented players on this team, but they don’t play these games on paper,” outfielder Rajai Davis said. “We have to go out there and really focus on what we’re trying to do and our goal is to win.”
The Blue Jays finally put their full team together on Friday after Reyes and Encarnacion returned from helping the Dominican Republic win the World Baseball Classic. For a team with so many new players, it’s important to build chemistry in camp
But it doesn’t seem to be a problem for this bunch. The enthusiastic Reyes seems to fit right in with his new teammates. Buehrle and Johnson share lockers next to each other. And Dickey has former teammates on the roster.
“We have a good group,” designated hitter Adam Lind said. “A lot of guys are just getting back from WBC, so we’re still learning each other. It’s time to get ready for the season. It’s a division we can win. Hopefully it’s our time, so to speak. We have the team to win.”
Toronto’s lineup should score plenty of runs with Reyes setting the tone from the leadoff spot and Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion in the middle of the order.
The rotation is so deep that Ricky Romero, an All-Star in 2011 and the opening-day starter, is still fighting to win the fifth starter spot.
“You still have to play the season,” Lind said. “You never know.”