It’s a beautiful time of the year – spring training has arrived! Watching the Jays play the Yankees on TV yesterday made me almost forget that it was still freezing cold outside, with snow and ice everywhere. I could almost feel the warm Florida sunshine.
It’s only spring training, and one should obviously view spring results with caution, but it has been a solid start for the Jays, enough to potentially breed cautious optimism back into the fan base. While most Jays fans (me included) grumbled and griped about the lack of moves made to improve a last place ball club over the offseason, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second and say this: I think that the Toronto Blue Jays just might be in a better place heading into 2014 than they were last season.
That’s right, you read that correctly.
Before getting all bent out of shape and calling me stupid, let me explain.
In the winter of 2012/2013, Alex Anthopoulos remade the Blue Jays into what he though was a World Series contending team by making two huge trades and a few shrewd free agent signings. Toronto, so used to being a baseball afterthought, was suddenly the toast of the league. The Jays were discussed heavily on American media outlets, with ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, and even MLB.com picking the team to either win the World Series or at least qualify for the postseason.
But the Jays didn’t just become the talk of baseball – they became the sports focal point in the city of Toronto. As Opening Day approached, downtown was painted blue. Blue Jays logos hung from the street corners and from light posts. Photos of players appeared on bus shelters, streetcars, and buildings. The hype was through the roof.
And why wouldn’t it be? The Blue Jays were poised to bring respectability back to a starving and depressed sports town. In March of 2013, the Maple Leafs were clinging to a playoff spot, trying to reach the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Raptors were an overpaid and uninspiring team, mired in another miserable season near the bottom of the standings. And Toronto FC was still stubbornly clinging to its reputation as the worst professional sports team on Earth.
So it was under those heavy and crushing expectations that the Toronto Blue Jays embarked on the 2013 season and promptly collapsed. But was this team really ready for the spotlight? Maybe not.
Only 11 players on Toronto’s 25-man roster on Opening Day 2013 were also on 2012’s Opening Day version. Of the 14 new faces, 11 were acquired in the offseason, meaning they had never suited up for the Jays (Delabar, Loup, and Happ joined the club during the 2012 season). Of the seven most prominent names brought in, six (Dickey, Buehrle, Reyes, Johnson, Bonifacio, Izturis) were AL East rookies, and the seventh (Cabrera) was coming off a 50-game PED suspension. Add to that the World Baseball Classic, which interrupted training camps, and an injury to Lawrie, and you had a team that never – not even once – had the chance to play together before the season began.
Although baseball is the most individual of all team sports, it is still a team sport. Players need time to jell together. It takes time for a double play combination to get used to each other; it takes time for pitchers to learn and trust defensive tendencies, and for outfielders to learn how to co-exist. The Jays didn’t get a chance to develop that.
Fast forward to 2014, and you have largely the same team. By my count, at least 17 players on the Opening Day roster are returning, and of the other eight, Dioner Navarro and maybe Erik Kratz (if he beats out Thole) are the only true newcomers, as players like Goins, Sierra, Santos, McGowan, and Kawasaki all spent time with the club in 2013. That has to count for something.
But by far the biggest thing going for the Jays this season is this: they are no longer the headliners. After a last place finish and a quiet offseason they are as far under the radar as a team can possibly be. Nobody in baseball is picking them to win the World Series anymore. Vegas no longer lists them as the favourites. The team isn’t being covered by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, or Fox Sports.
Maybe even more importantly is that the Blue Jays have quite possibly slipped to fourth place in their own city. The Leafs are winning again, and playing an exciting brand of hockey with Phil Kessel lighting up the league. The Raptors have pulled an incredible turnaround and sit comfortably in first place in their division. And craziest of all is Toronto FC, who pulled a Jays-esque makeover of their own by adding international All-Stars in Julio Cesar, Jermaine Defoe, Gilberto, and Michael Bradley, transforming themselves from laughingstock to serious contenders. On top of that is the fact that the Canadian hockey team just won Olympic gold, and the FIFA World Cup is coming this summer, both offering further distractions.
Those crushing expectations of a year ago? Long gone.
Will the Blue Jays contend in 2014? Who knows. What is certain is that the team is no longer expected to, which just might be a blessing in disguise.