Optimism abounds in clubhouse

Optimistic Jays have sights set on playoffs

TORONTO -- The level of turnover that Toronto's clubhouse experienced this winter could've raised concerns about team chemistry.

Having so many new additions, and each being such an integral part of the team, might have created a group of players that was lacking in familiarity and comfort. The exact opposite has happened, though.

The high expectations that surround the Blue Jays entering this season haven't affected the atmosphere around the club one bit. The five major acquisitions have mixed in well with the rest of the players and the laid back approach of Toronto manager John Gibbons has made for a fun clubhouse.

The level of camaraderie hasn't taken anything away from the players' mindsets heading into Opening Day, though. The team is now expected to win. The Blue Jays are expected to tighten the race with the Yankees and Boston for the American League East crown.

The Jays feel they have the personnel to accomplish that goal. They just want to have fun doing it.

"Guys come in here and have a good time. Guys are relaxed," center fielder Vernon Wells said. "Everybody has the same goal in mind -- to win. It hasn't happened the last few years, but I think this is a unique clubhouse, because everybody gets along, everybody likes each other. That makes for a fun year."

The chance to be a part of that "unique clubhouse" was one of the aspects that the new players liked about Toronto. First baseman Lyle Overbay, who was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee in December, said he was tentative when he first joined the team at Spring Training, but that his initial questions about the atmosphere were answered right away.

"You kind of get nervous when you come in and see everyone around a new team and you're not sure what kind of clubhouse it is," Overbay said. "I knew it was going to be a good clubhouse, but I didn't know it was going to be this good."

Overbay was one of the five additions over the winter. Toronto also signed free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett, closer B.J. Ryan and catcher Bengie Molina. The club also pulled off a deal with Arizona that brought slugging third baseman Troy Glaus to the heart of the Jays' lineup.

Burnett has been spending most of his time training with former Cy Young Award winner and team ace Roy Halladay. Ryan has meshed in well with the rest of the relievers, while Overbay and Glaus have fit in well, too. Glaus and Molina, along with Toronto pitcher Scott Schoeneweis, were teammates on the 2002 Angels team that won the World Series -- so they all are familiar with each other. Molina has spent virtually all of his spare time with his new pitchers, who have all have had nothing but praise for the two-time Gold Glove winning catcher.

"The new guys that have come in are fitting in nicely," Wells said. "We brought in good people, and I think that's the important thing. It makes the transition a whole lot easier. Guys have come in and enjoyed themselves."

One of the reasons they're enjoying themselves is the renewed optimism surrounding the organization. This group believes it might be on the verge of something that Toronto hasn't experienced since 1993 -- making the playoffs.

That was one of the main reasons Ryan decided to sign with the Blue Jays.

"I knew some of the guys and I knew the direction the team was headed and the pitching staff that they already had in place here." Ryan said recently." [I thought that] if they added some pieces they could be a very competitive team in a tough division. [I wanted] to be part of something special. I thought it was a good fit for me here."

Another part of the team that players have enjoyed is the way Gibbons runs the show. His style of managing is as relaxed as the clubhouse and, according to Wells, his approach is beneficial to the younger players.

"Gibby allows us just to go out and play the game. All he asks is that we play hard," Wells said. "He knows, being a former player, that you're going to struggle. For a manager to understand that and still stick with you, and let you get through it, it's huge, because you know he's behind you 100 percent."

Gibbons may be patient with his players, but he knows that more is on the line this year. The last few seasons in Toronto have been building blocks towards a return to contention. Gibbons feels that this year might be when that comes to pass.

"I think they all know the expectations. The last few years that I've been here, you came in just hoping you would improve on the previous year," Gibbons said. "This year, we made some key additions, and you add that to what we did last year, and there's some optimism."

Gibbons is right. There is plenty of optimism in the lively Toronto clubhouse. But the players aren't getting too far ahead of themselves.

"Obviously, now, with the talent that we have, things have changed a little bit," Wells said. "But you can't get to excited until hopefully we're in the mix come August and September."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.