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Blue Jays open Spring Training eyeing playoffs

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Blue Jays open Spring Training eyeing playoffs play video for Blue Jays open Spring Training eyeing playoffs

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The road to respectability and perhaps even contention officially began Tuesday morning at the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Blue Jays pitchers and catchers reported to the club's Spring Training complex for their physicals on Day 1 of Spring Training, and they will be joined by the position players Saturday.

It marks the start of a long journey and one that comes with expectations running high following an offseason in which Toronto boosted its payroll by almost 50 percent.

"I think the optimism is at an all-time high," Blue Jays No. 2 starter Brandon Morrow said. "We were, I think, hopefully optimistic last year, but this year we expect to win."

Those expectations sprouted after general manager Alex Anthopoulos made a series of bold moves during the winter to improve his previously underperforming squad. It started in November with a shocking multi-player deal that sent the core of Miami's roster north of the border.

That move was followed by a pair of free agent signings and yet another blockbuster trade -- this time with the Mets. When the dust had finally settled, Toronto found itself as the new home for the likes of R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Melky Cabrera.

The hope is that the new core of players will help turn the Blue Jays around following a drought of 19 consecutive years without making the postseason. Last year's biggest weakness was in the starting rotation, but this spring it is arguably the club's biggest strength.

Dickey leads the way, but the overall depth is almost remarkable with Morrow, Buehrle, Johnson and Ricky Romero rounding out the top five options. There are certainly no guarantees, but the names alone have those in attendance excited for the upcoming year.

"It's an opportunity is what it is," said Dickey, who was acquired from the Mets in December. "It's an opportunity for us to kind of put our stake in the sand, so to speak, as a staff. We have the names and the pedigree to be able to do that."

It seems almost fitting that on Day 1 of Spring Training one of the main topics of conversations was injuries. The Blue Jays were decimated by trips to the disabled list in 2012, and while the hope is that history won't repeat itself, multiple players will have to be monitored.

Closer Casey Janssen is coming off right shoulder surgery in the offseason, and while he is expected to be 100 percent by Opening Day, he is less than that right now. The veteran's offseason throwing program was delayed, and he will be forced to play gradual catchup during the early weeks of camp.

If Janssen is unable to go by April, the job would most likely be handed to Sergio Santos, who began the 2012 campaign in the closer's role but lasted only six games before he was shut down with a shoulder injury of his own. For now, Santos would have to be considered Plan B, as the goal remains to have Janssen on the mound and ready to go.

"Right now I'm in a little bit of the building phase, but at the same time I'm going out there and not thinking about my arm and just throwing, which is nice," Janssen said. "I'm a little bit behind but not far enough where I can't catch up.

"In years past I've come into Spring Training having thrown 4-6 bullpens, so it's a little different, but having a little bit of experience and a role now, I'm not coming here to blow the doors off the camp in my first bullpen."

The same situation will apply to slugger Jose Bautista. The 32-year-old's season was cut short in 2012 because of a left wrist injury, and while he has made great strides since then, the club is still opting for a cautious approach.

Toronto opted to not make Bautista available for the upcoming World Baseball Classic in March and will have its medical staff keep a close eye on his progress throughout the Grapefruit League season, which begins Feb. 23 with a game against Detroit.

"He looks good to me," manager John Gibbons said. "I've been watching him in the cage when he's doing his drills and I've seen him a little bit out on the field, and the reports you get from the trainers are there are no complaints, no soreness, any of that stuff. That's the big thing.

"You've still got to be smart with this guy, because he's a big, big part of it, and we want him ready Opening Day. So he may feel great when first game of spring rolls around, but let's be smart and ease into this a little bit, too."

It won't be easy to go from a 73-win season to the -- at least -- 90-win total it will take to get into the postseason, but that is exactly what the Blue Jays will set out to do this year.

More than a third of the roster has been turned over, and the opening days of camp will be as much about players getting to know one another than anything else. It's all smiles and laughs for the moment, but it will soon be time to get to work knowing that the Blue Jays will no longer be considered an afterthought in the American League East.

"Just like you guys build up expectations, so do we," Bautista said. "The sky is the limit for us, because I know how many good players we have. I've been on other teams where I felt like we've had a chance to go to the playoffs and contend, but we haven't for whatever reason.

"This is by far the best team I've played on. I just don't see where it can go bad for us. Because of those reasons, I think we should and we could be in the playoffs and the World Series."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }
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