DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays have made it no secret that they are building toward a better future. Underneath all the talk about long-term plans, high-ceiling prospects and philosophical changes, though, one very important question remains.
"I can't remember what station I was listening to," Blue Jays starter Shaun Marcum said. "They had us projected at like 65 wins. I couldn't believe it. I was just like, 'That's terrible.' I mean, it's hard to predict wins and everything, but I think we've just got to go out and play hard, and I think that will all take care of itself."
In the grand scheme of things, the coming season will be more about development than anything else for the Blue Jays. It would be hard to expect much more when a club trades the face of the franchise for a package of prospects, none of whom will be with the big league team on Opening Day.
Inside Toronto's clubhouse, though, the players don't view the situation that way. Ace Roy Halladay is gone -- dealt to Philadelphia over the winter for three highly touted Minor League players -- but the Jays do not feel that means all is lost. Expectations are understandably low, and rookie general manager Alex Anthopoulos is mapping out a long-term vision, but the players are not buying into public perception.
When all 162 games are in the books, the Blue Jays think they will have surprised a few people.
"Definitely," Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells said. "I think we're going to be a lot better than what people think. Maybe it's a good thing that pressure's not there of trying to live up to some expectation. Maybe it'll allow guys to kind of relax and enjoy their time here and get better slowly. Then, hopefully we'll creep up on some people."
It begins and ends with the starting rotation -- one filled with unknowns from top to bottom.
After missing all of last season with a right elbow injury, Marcum enters the year as Toronto's Opening Day starter, a role filled by Halladay in each of the past seven seasons. Behind him are two pitchers who were rookies last year (Ricky Romero and Marc Rzepczynski) and a pair of arms (Brandon Morrow and Brian Tallet) who have spent more time as relievers than as starters in the Majors.
Marcum understands that the makeup of the rotation is a big part of the low expectations. That doesn't mean he agrees with the prognosticators.
"We've got the talent here," Marcum said. "It's just a matter of us going out there and proving, not only to the fans, but to ourselves and this organization, that we belong up here and we can be a great starting staff for years to come."
With Doc Halladay out of the picture, Marcum has embraced his opportunity to step up as the rotation's leader. He has said throughout the spring that the players have "put Doc in the past," and Marcum believes it is important for the young rotation members to have strong communication as they begin to form their own identity as a group this season.
The sooner they can do that, the sooner they will be able to move out of Halladay's shadow.
"Getting off to a good start early will help not only give a lot of the guys confidence," Marcum said, "but also just make them feel more relaxed and feel like Doc's in the past and they can go out and just pitch and not worry about trying to fill his shoes. I don't think there's anyone in the game who can fill his shoes. He's that good."
Marcum might be right, but Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston sees potential in the young staff leader.
"We're always going to miss Doc," Gaston said. "You're talking about the best pitcher in the baseball, if you ask me. Here's the thing that happens. Now we don't have that crutch to lean on where if we lose four in a row and Doc's pitching, we've got a chance to stop that losing streak. One of those guys is going to have to stand up and be that guy.
"Marcum's got good stuff, great location and he's not afraid to be out there on that mound. Hopefully he's going to be that guy who steps up and takes the reins and move our young pitchers forward."
While the rotation as a whole may be relatively young, Wells is quick to point out that the Blue Jays still have plenty of veterans around. That being the case, Wells does not think players view the situation as a typical rebuilding process.
"When you really sit back and look at it," Wells said, "there's really not that many guys that are rookies or anything."
"I've never thought anything about rebuilding," he said. "Yeah, we traded Doc and we got some players back [Kyle Drabek, Brett Wallace and Travis d'Arnaud] who aren't going to be in the big leagues right away. That's the rebuilding part. But for right now, we've got a bunch of good guys in here -- some talent."
If Wells is completely recovered from the left wrist problem that hindered his production last season, he has the potential to change the look of an offense that already includes budding sluggers in second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind. Over the winter, Toronto added veteran catcher John Buck and shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and the Jays enter the year with Edwin Encarnacion at third base, Lyle Overbay at first and Jose Bautista in right field.
The youngest player in the lineup figures to be Travis Snider, and the Blue Jays believe he could be on the verge of blossoming into an impact player on the big league stage. If Snider does indeed have a strong season, and the rest of the hitters avoid injuries and produce to their abilities, Gaston also believes the results could surprise people.
"There's potential for about seven guys to hit 20 home runs here," Gaston said. "Boy, if it happens, it's going to be a lot of fun. It might not happen, but there's a chance that it could, and that's what's exciting. This has been a fun spring for me, and it's been fun because I can't wait to see what these guys are going to do."
There is the harsh reality of playing in the American League East, though. The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays each have playoff-caliber clubs, and the Orioles appear to have a young team on the rise. With Halladay last year, Toronto won 75 games. Without him leading the staff, it is understandable that expectations are not high for the Jays.
That said, Toronto does not believe it is far from being a contender again.
The coming season will be an important part of the process.
"It's about the future, but also it's about this year, too," Gaston said. "This year could be a very important year for learning how to win, wanting to win and doing things to win -- learning things. At the end of the year, you can come talk to me, but I think we're going to play a lot better than a lot of people think we're going to play."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.