Blue Jays feeling excitement of revamped roster

Blue Jays feeling excitement of revamped roster

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The long wait is almost over and soon enough the Blue Jays will find out whether the big offseason additions translate to an improved product on the field.

Toronto is set to embark on its most anticipated season in recent memory and easily the most important one to date during general manager Alex Anthopoulos' tenure.

Expectations haven't been this high since the Blue Jays' glory years in the early 1990s, and while the club has spent most of Spring Training trying to downplay the hype, there's no question that anything less than a spot in the postseason will be considered a major disappointment.

"There are a lot of good teams out there in the league," manager John Gibbons said. "We feel good going into the year, but you have to go out there and do it. You can talk all you want, but that gets you nowhere. We feel like we have as good of a shot as anybody, though, to be honest with you."

The level of anticipation for this coming season never could have been expected just five months ago. The club had just wrapped up what could only be described as a disastrous 2012 campaign and the disappointment had the danger of carrying over into the following year considering the long-term injuries to pitchers Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek and Luis Perez.

Toronto's depth took a massive blow, but the mood surrounding the Blue Jays completely changed in one fell swoop last November. That's when Anthopoulos orchestrated a blockbuster multi-player deal with the Marlins that brought Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio to Toronto.

Those additions were quickly followed by the free-agent signing of outfielder Melky Cabrera. Just in case that wasn't enough, the icing on the cake came in December when Anthopoulos swung another big trade by acquiring 2012 National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets.

In a matter of weeks, the Blue Jays went from an afterthought to a perennial contender in the competitive American League East. There's still plenty to prove and nothing is guaranteed, but overall there is plenty of optimism surrounding Toronto's aspirations for the postseason.

"You put a team together like this -- everyone comes in confident -- but obviously to know the kind of players that are on your team now, you know the chances are a lot greater," catcher J.P. Arencibia said.

"There's an excitement, there's more will to work hard and to push because ultimately every year you come in for the same goal, and that's to win the World Series. With the team we have this year, on paper it looks good, but now it's our job to execute on the field."

Anthopoulos' biggest challenge this offseason was finding a way to improve the starting rotation. The club was in desperate need of at least two proven starting pitchers, but in the end Anthopoulos exceeded that goal by acquiring three.

The likes of Henderson Alvarez, Carlos Villanueva and Aaron Laffey are long gone and have been replaced by a group that could turn into one of the game's best. Dickey headlines the staff while Buehrle provides a solidifying veteran presence and Johnson -- as a soon-to-be free agent -- embarks on his most important year to date as a professional.

The only holdovers from last year's rotation include Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ, who recently beat out left-hander Ricky Romero for the No. 5 spot. With any luck, Blue Jays starters should easily improve on their 4.82 ERA from 2012.

The club's weakness could potentially be found in the bullpen, where there aren't that many pitchers with a long track record of success. Casey Janssen is set to begin his first full season as a closer while hard-throwing righty Sergio Santos will attempt to put last year's shoulder woes in his rearview mirror.

Darren Oliver, 42, will attempt to defy the odds by having another productive year while Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers, Aaron Loup, Brett Cecil and Jeremy Jeffress round out the group.

The track record might not necessarily be there, but it's still a strong mix of power arms and one that could surprise some of its biggest critics.

"We have a lot of quality arms," Janssen said. "We have arms that can pitch late in games, we can be comfortable with them late in games. It will give Gibby a ton of options and then, I say this a lot, but if these starters do what they've done, it's going to take a lot off of us and keep everybody fresh and we pitch to our roles.

"I'm excited to see these starters work because I know the impact a great rotation has on a bullpen, and when guys are healthy in the 'pen they don't make as many mistakes and it just runs smooth."

On offense, the Blue Jays possess an interesting mix of speed and power. Reyes and Cabrera have the ability to get on base regularly and set the table for the likes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. It's a luxury Toronto hasn't possessed in recent years as the club seemed to rotate the top of its order on a semi-regular basis.

Following the heart of the order there is still plenty of depth. Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie -- once he returns from a right oblique injury -- Colby Rasmus, Arencibia and either Bonifacio or Maicer Izturis represent a solid mix of left- and right-handers to provide lots of balance.

Toronto has possessed plenty of power in recent years, but the additions of players with speed and high on-base percentages give the offense a much different look.

"The first half of the lineup and the second half of the lineup are different styles, but there's still a capability of scoring runs," Bautista said.

"I get excited when I talk about the offense because I think that we're going to be able to score a lot of runs. We did that for two months last year. We were at the top of the league in offense categories when we were all healthy and performing, and we have a much better and accomplished lineup now than we did last year."

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.