Toronto Blue Jays fans have reason to rejoice for the first time in years, as another season to forget was followed by an off-season to remember.
Just months ago Jays fans were going through the usual end-of-season motions, accepting another year out of playoff contention and uttering the adopted team motto, “maybe next year.” A promising spring training record had fans thinking perhaps it could be their year to compete for a position atop the American League East.
But an injury-riddled season depleted the bullpen and resulted in stretches without leaders Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, and JP Arencebia. Toronto spiralled to a 73–89 record and finished the season 20 games back of a wildcard position.
At first, the off-season looked grim. Manager John Farrell, with a year left on his contract, asked to be released so he could instead manage the Boston Red Sox. Farrell began his career as pitching coach in Boston, and describes rejoining the team as manager as “somewhat of a dream come true.”
Farrell’s self-imposed departure left Toronto without a manager, in the aftermath of the team’s worst season in eight years. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was publicly criticized by Bautista in July for not doing enough to improve the team, knew his days at the helm could be numbered.
That was until Anthopoulos struck a blockbuster deal on Nov. 13 with the Miami Marlins to acquire starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, all-star shortstop Jose Reyes, utility player Emilio Bonifacio, and former-Blue Jay John Buck.
The Miami deal likely played a role in luring 2012 All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera to sign a two-year, $16 million contract with Toronto three days later. The Blue Jays took a chance on the 28-year-old outfielder, who was suspended 50 games for steroid use this season, but finished first in the National League with a .346 batting average.
Later that week, Anthopolous announced the rehiring of John Gibbons as manager, who previously held the title from 2004–2008. Gibbons led the team to their first 2nd-place finish since 1993, and the most wins since the Roger Clemons era.
But Anthopolous wasn’t done just yet. Blue Jays fans received an early Christmas present on Dec. 17 when the team acquired reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, and signed him to a 3-year contract extension.
Toronto transformed its battered bullpen into baseball’s most potent pitching rotation in just over a month. Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, deemed the Jays’ top starters last spring, will likely be slotted fourth and fifth behind Dickey, Buehrle, and Johnson.
Buehrle became one of just 23 pitchers in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game in 2009, and also pitched a no-hitter in 2007. Johnson is a two-time National League (NL) all-star and was the league ERA leader for 2010.
But it was the acquisition of Dickey that brought the team from playoff contenders to World Series favorites. At 38-years-old most players would be nearing the end of their careers, but Dickey has just found his peak.
The Nashville native is the only current player to rely on the knuckleball as his primary pitch, which he mastered during his transition from Seattle to the New York Mets in 2010. Last season Dickey amassed 20 wins, 3 shutouts, and threw the most National League strikeouts with 230.
In sending Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, and Jeff Mathis to Miami, the Blue Jays were able to deal away some distractions as well. Escobar was suspended at the end of the season for writing a Spanish homophobic slur on his eye black, while Alvarez struggled to find consistency pitching fifth in the rotation.
Starting catcher Arencebia, who was the target of trade rumours all season, will gain confidence with backup Mathis no longer in the picture. The addition of Bonifacio relieves pressure on Anthopoulos to re-sign shortstop Kelly Johnson, who tied the team record for most strikeouts in a single season.
The least discussed offseason pick-up is Reyes, who will certainly add runs for the Blue Jays with his .291 career batting average and 40 stolen bases last season (third best in the NL). His and Cabrera’s addition to Toronto will give John Gibbons plenty of options when assembling the batting order. Reyes hitting lead-off, followed by Edwin Encarnacion and Cabrera could make Bautista the most successful cleanup hitter in Blue Jays history.
If Toronto avoids the injury bug this season, and no chemistry crisis sparks as result of the new acquisitions, the Jays could see their first post-season berth in 20 years. Closer Casey Janssen will need another quality season on the mound and Langley, B.C. native Lawrie needs to continue off his strong sophomore year.
The Blue Jays kick off spring training Feb. 23 against Detroit, with the first regular season match scheduled for Apr. 2 at home against Cleveland.