"Who wouldn't want to be here?" asked the Blue Jays' new manager, John Gibbons, at his introductory press conference. "The front office has put together a legitimate contending type team."
Now, "legitimate contending type team" might not be quite the most resounding words of praise imaginable. You probably don't want to put in on banners or print it on the season tickets. But it's a fair description … and that's not a bad type of team to be.
The Blue Jays have been largely an afterthought in the AL East since 1993, when they won their last World Series. And they appear to be sick of it. In the nearly two decades since their championship, they've finished higher than third in the division only once -- in 2006, when they were second behind the Yankees and missed the wild card by plenty -- and have not topped 88 wins. That said, they were hardly at Pittsburgh Pirates levels of futility and ineptitude, either. Last season's rather promising team was derailed by a list of injuries long enough to be made into a book on tape.
Toronto has been alternately respectable and mediocre, over or at least near .500, fielding some good teams that simply weren't quite good enough, at least not in -- all together now -- the AL East.
But the AL East is starting to unfreeze. Last year the Red Sox had their worst record since 1965, and while they're unlikely to repeat that debacle, they're not the Goliath they were for a good chunk of the decade. The Orioles, who'd been in the basement for so long, stumbled blinking into the sunshine in 2012 and won 93 games. No one expects them to repeat that, either -- their record-setting 29-9 record in one-run games was fluky, even with due credit to Buck Showalter -- but it was still a shock to the division's system. The Rays are good, again, but not unbeatably good, not yet. And the Yankees are the Yankees, but they're older, more fragile, more frugal and potentially more vulnerable now than they have been in years.
Most of the attention around Toronto's mega-trade with the Marlins last week, the one that sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck to Canada, revolved around Miami: The owner's perceived greed, the team's sordid stadium dealings, their betrayal of their fans and of their own players. And when the Blue Jays signed Melky Cabrera on Friday, people seemed to focus mainly on what it meant about baseball's acceptance of steroid users, or lack thereof. But maybe it's time to talk about the Blue Jays.
Is this the season they break out and win the AL East? Well, that depends on a number of questions we can only answer with educated guesses: Were their injuries the past few seasons just bad luck, or something more systematic? Will they be repeated? Can Jose Reyes' legs stay intact on artificial turf?
Here's a more answerable question: Is this the season the Blue Jays finally get a real shot at the AL East? It looks as though, at long last, they have a decent one.
They have a theoretically promising young pitching core that includes Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison (... arguably), Ricky Romero and Kyle Drabek -- if, if, if they can stay healthy. And sure, even then it's impossible to know if all or any of them will reach the potential that the team sees in them, but you have to start somewhere. Besides, the potential pitching injuries are less crippling with Johnson and Buehrle, the ultimate workhorse, now on board. They add Reyes (… if, if, if) to the top of a lineup that also includes Brett Lawrie, José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación. Even if Melky Cabrera goes back to his old, pre-batting-title-contender, pre-PED-use-and-fake-website self, he's still a useful addition in the outfield.
This team is not a powerhouse. It's not even a favorite. Success is hardly assured, but it's very easy now, in a way that it hasn't been for a long time, to imagine. They need a lot of things to go right and a lot of things to go wrong for their competition; so does every other team in the AL East.
Why they decided to put John Gibbons in charge of the team is still a bit unclear. He's the man who led them to those 87 wins in 2006, but was overall 305-305 with the Jays, a record of impressive mediocrity, and might be best known outside of Toronto as The Guy Who Once Challenged Shea Hillenbrand to a Fight (after Hillenbrand, on a clubhouse bulletin board, told his teammates to "play for yourself" because the "ship was sinking"). He also got into a physical altercation with Ted Lilly, which, all sports clichés about the importance of a fighting spirit aside, is probably not the ideal way to motivate your team in this post-Billy Martin world. But Gibbons managed Toronto for several years after that without further incident, and if anyone would know what sort of manager he is, it's the team that employed him for four years. Strategy-wise, he, mercifully, used sacrifice bunts rarely, and was widely praised for his bullpen management.
And at least we know that if Shea Hillenbrand shows up and tries to start anything, the team will be fully prepared. Not every club in the AL East can say the same.