By Dion Caputi
Toronto’s boys of summer have landed in Dunedin, Fla., for the first official day of spring training Tuesday. Pitchers and catchers get camp started while positional players will report on Feb. 16.
Following a busy offseason highlighted by a handful of intriguing acquisitions, the Toronto Blue Jays have earned praise from sports analysts for markedly improving the squad’s overall talent level.
“It shows the commitment by the organization to try and put a winning team on the field for, not only the city of Toronto, but the country of Canada,” Sportsnet analyst Gregg Zaun told the MLB Network.
Among the new additions to the Toronto Blue Jays roster, this year will feature a notably improved pitching staff and an infusion of all stars at key positions in the field.
After a disappointing 73-89 season, which saw the Jays place second last in the AL East division, general manager Alex Anthopoulos kick started the blue birds’ transformation from cellar dwellers to legitimate contenders.
Toronto started the offseason by executing an unexpected 12-player deal with the Miami Marlins, bringing a trio of all-stars — Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle — to the Jays.
The buzz generated from the trade continued as the Blue Jays signed 2012 National League MVP candidate Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract, shoring up a notable area of concern in left field.
Boldly capping the activity, the Jays dealt prospects to the New York Mets in exchange for 2012 NL Cy Young Award winning pitcher R.A. Dickey and depth catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas as part of a seven-player deal.
The Blue Jays’ offseason additions have bumped 2012’s payroll of $83.7-million to roughly $125-million at the start of this upcoming campaign.
According to baseballprospectus.com, the whopping $41.3-million bump in payroll is the fourth largest single-year increase since 2000.
Team president Paul Beeston reminded season ticket holders during last week’s state of the franchise address, the organization has always been willing to spend money when necessary.
“We always said we would spend the money when the opportunity was right,” he said. “The opportunity was right this year, the deals were right and I think now is the time for us to go out there and play and return the fans’ support.”
With pre-season games beginning soon, expectations couldn’t be higher for the organization and its fans.
Anthopoulos said this spring term is unlikely to yield many battles for starting roles due to the additions.
“This is the least amount of competition we’ve ever had, I think, since I’ve been here,” he told the National Post. “You have a bunch of established players that know they have a job and they go about their business.”
Among the questions Toronto is hoping to have answered are who will earn the full time duties at second base. The position battle is between a pair of switch-hitters: free agent signing Maicer Izturis, a career .273 hitter, and dynamic base-stealing threat Emilio Bonifacio, who was acquired in the Marlins deal.
Josh Thole and 41-year old Henry Blanco will also fight for the right to be J.P. Arencibia’s backup and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s primary catcher.
Other points of emphasis in spring ball for manager John Gibbons, entering his second term with the club, will be overseeing first basemen and occasional designated hitter Adam Lind’s offseason progress.
The former Silver Slugger Award winner has struggled to reclaim form since earning the honour in 2009, and the high-powered Blue Jay offense is currently lacking a reliable producer at first.
Aside from ensuring star right fielder Jose Bautista, who went under the knife in August to repair the tendon sheath in his left wrist, is healthy by the beginning of fall, team chemistry will also be evaluated.
The Jays could have up to 11 new players in 2013, and with so many news faces in the clubhouse, Toronto’s success could ultimately hinge on how quickly the group can gel as a unit.
Expectations haven’t been this high in two decades for the organization. Given the hype, anything less than a playoff birth would leave fans with resounding disappointment.
This Jays team is undoubtedly hoping to rekindle its hailed success following the acquisition of cornerstone players Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar in 1991: the deal that facilitated back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.