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Can loaded Jays live up to hype?
He’s a fan of the most hyped team in another sport.
“Let’s just hope we don’t have the Laker drama this year,” the smiling Southern Californian said Wednesday morning.
“They’re too talented to be doing what they’re doing, but they’re starting to pick it up. They’re starting to gel. Hopefully we’re taking this time to gel and we’re ready to go when the season starts. They had a little mess at the beginning of the year.”
I saw no such messes Wednesday, while visiting the Blue Jays on their first official day of workouts. True, baseball seasons come with crises baked into the crust. Elite teams lose more than 60 games. So there will be turbulence, particularly with Toronto’s baseball hopes higher than at just about any point since Joe Carter’s drive cleared the left-field wall 20 years ago.
But these Blue Jays won’t turn out like the '12-'13 Lakers — or the dysfunctional '12 Miami Marlins, despite inheriting four players from that very team: Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio.
The Blue Jays are deep, talented and professional. They seem unbothered by reporters’ questions about how they will handle the burden of expectations. From the 2012 season-opening rotation to this year’s projected group, the Jays have swapped Joel Carreño, Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek for Buehrle (four-time All-Star), Johnson (two-time All-Star) and R.A. Dickey (reigning National League Cy Young Award winner). Among the important external factors, the rival New York Yankees are less intimidating than they have been in over a decade.
Another advantage: While Ozzie Guillen distracted and embarrassed the Marlins, the homespun John Gibbons is back for a second tour as the Jays manager.
“He keeps it loose, just lets the guys play,” said Janssen, who played for Gibbons in 2006 and '07. “He’s approachable, laid back, one of the guys at times, doesn’t have an ego.”
Could anyone say that about Ozzie at this time last year?
“It’s different,” Johnson said, when I asked if he might apply what he learned in Miami. “We had a new stadium, new manager … Well I guess there’s a new manager here, too … Different manager, I would say. There’s just a whole different situation this year. We’ve got a lot of veteran guys on this team, sprinkled in with some really good young guys. It’ll be fun.”
As with any team, the Blue Jays must hope for good health — the fickle byproduct of age, preparedness, athleticism and luck. Aside from that, there are some particularly encouraging signs:
Experience: Whether the ex-Marlins care to admit it or not, they received a valuable education in how not to handle sudden World Series expectations.
“There are some similarities,” said Dickey, and he would know: he won 20 games last year, five of which came against Miami. “I think it behooves us that you have some guys who have come out of that, knowing that on paper, ‘Hey, we should do this, this, and this,’ and they were not very good. So they can’t get caught up in what the expectation is for this team on paper. They know it’s much more than that. That’s a big deal.
“They were seemingly all in, much like we are, and it was a failure. So hopefully they have learned something from that experience and can speak to that here. You’ve also got some good veteran guys, like Darren Oliver and Henry Blanco and Mark Buehrle. You’ve got a good mix.”
Jose Bautista is back: The Jays’ greatest priority entering the offseason was to make certain Bautista would be recovered from left wrist surgery by the time camp began.
Bautista, a top-four finisher in the AL MVP voting in 2010 and '11, actually started swinging a bat earlier than usual this winter as part of his rehabilitation.
“I’m pretty much up to par, how it would be any other offseason,” Bautista said. “I’m fine. I’m good to go. I’ve been insisting on playing in the (World Baseball Classic), which the team has opposed. I feel like I can do that, because I’m ready. I’m a little bit upset — I’m not going to lie — about not being able to participate.”
Doesn’t sound injured anymore, does he?
The lineup: Let’s say the Jays’ Opening Day outfield is Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus and Bautista, with Brett Lawrie, Reyes, Bonifacio and Edwin Encarnacion across the infield, Adam Lind at designated hitter and J.P. Arencibia behind the plate.
Rasmus, Lind and Arencibia had disappointing 2012 seasons and should be better this year. Lawrie, one year wiser, will be more careful around the Yankee Stadium camera wells — and, one hopes, more mature at the plate. Cabrera, Reyes and Bonifacio are clear upgrades over Rajai Davis, Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson at their respective positions. Bautista and Encarnacion will be a potent 3-4 combination even if they perform at 80 percent of their recent career years (2011 for Bautista, 2012 for Encarnacion).
Collectively, that’s a dangerous team.
“Nobody’s got to do something spectacular,” Bautista said. “If everyone does their job, with the group we’ve got together, the team effort is going to be good enough.”
Bonifacio: Those who suggest Maicer Izturis should start ahead of Bonifacio at second base — or, for that matter, Rasmus ahead of Bonifacio in center – have not seen the dynamic switch-hitter play.
As lousy as the Marlins played last season, they were very much in the NL East race — 21-18 — when Bonifaco went down with a left thumb injury in mid-May and missed roughly two months. The Marlins never recovered, going a dismal 48-75 over the rest of the year.
Bonifacio stole 20 bases in only 39 games before suffering the injury, and yet he remains underrated by many in the industry.
“Having played against that guy, I’m not one of those,” Dickey said. “I think that guy is really good. He may even be the X-factor in this whole deal. He can do so much for us. He’s so pesky. Pitching against him, I’ve had some success, but it’s always a fight. I love the energy he brings, the speed. Playing on turf is going to be different for Jose. You’ve got Izturis and Bonifacio who can spell Reyes. We’ve got a lot of weapons.”
The bullpen: Amid Toronto’s splashier moves, one of the more significant was convincing 42-year-old left-handed reliever Darren Oliver to return for one more season. Oliver is coming off a year in which he posted the lowest full-season WHIP in his two decades as a major-league pitcher, despite facing the AL East gauntlet.
The Jays’ greatest spring concern relates to Janssen, who underwent a procedure to shave down the AC joint in his right shoulder. The team wants him to be its closer on Opening Day, but Janssen acknowledged his shoulder is “probably in the 70-80 percent range” at the moment. (Sergio Santos, who barely pitched last season because of his own shoulder surgery, is the backup option.)
“I’m getting there,” Janssen said. “It’s bouncing back. I’m challenging it every day. The trainers and myself are happy where I’m at now, knowing I’ve got 50 or so days left. The biggest thing is to not get too antsy and rush it to where a hiccup will affect the season. As long as we go with the throwing program and what we have laid out, I should be in a game sometime in middle of March and give me those last two or two-and-a-half weeks to fine-tune things.”
Janssen should have a busy season ahead of him: The closer for this team is going to be one of the busiest men in baseball.