Jays suddenly have become very relevant again - NBC Sports

Jays suddenly have become very relevant again
Megatrade, big questions among division rivals, make Toronto an AL East contender
Reuters file
Which Melky Cabrera will the Blue Jays get? The one who tore up the NL before his PEDs suspension? The one who put together a 200-plus-hit season for the Royals in 2010? Or the underachieving fourth-outfielder type?
November 20, 2012, 3:11 pm

As strange as it may sound to the newest generation of fans, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when the Toronto Blue Jays carried the 'model franchise' tag.

They did it the right way - it figures, as Hall of Famer Pat Gillick was the architect - growing steadily from 1977 expansion franchise to perennial 1980s contender by emphasizing scouting and player development, and leading the way in Latin American talent.

And shortly after moving into the then-spectacular SkyDome, they had the resources to add key veteran free-agent pieces needed to win back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93.

Fast-forward two decades - through no more playoff appearances, only one finish as high as second place, and 10 managers (including two Cito Gaston runs) since 1997 - and the Jays suddenly have become very relevant again.

But let's not get carried away just yet. After all, adding Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and John Buck didn't do the Florida Marlins much good in 2012, now did it? And, the Jays are coming off a similarly bad 73-89 season, so they have a long climb up to the American League stratosphere.

As tempting as it may be to stamp the Jays as an AL title contender, consider this list of question marks still facing general manager Alex Anthopolous and Co. even as the list of additions keeps growing with Melky Cabrera's signing and manager John Gibbons' return:

  • Josh Johnson should be the ace they've lacked since Roy Halladay - if he can stay healthy. Johnson has pitched more than 200 innings only once in seven seasons, and that was in 2009. He also will be in the final year of a four-year, $39-million deal in 2013, so the Jays have him under control for only one season.

In contrast, there's a lot of money ($48 million over three years) tied up in Buehrle, who at some point during this deal figures to fall under the 200-innings-per-season mark.

  • As key as Johnson and Buehrle will be, the rotation's success will depend upon Ricky Romero bouncing back from an off-(injury-plagued?) year to something close to his 2011 form, and the perennial health question mark that is Brandon Morrow. This isn't a one-out-of-two proposition; both must make 28-plus starts and win in the mid-teens if the Jays are to be a playoff team.
  • Giving Gibbons a second shot carries an element of risk. He's a solid tactician who led the Jays to a 305-305 record in three seasons in his first go-round, but he's also is a forceful, love-him-or-hate him personality. While many liked his tenacious style, Gibbons publicly clashed with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly, and only time will tell if his style works with this clubhouse.
  • Which Melky Cabrera are the Jays getting for two years and $16 million? The one who tore up the National League before his PEDs suspension? The one who put together a 200-plus-hit season for the Royals in 2010? Or now that he'll have to play clean, the underachieving fourth-outfielder type who bounced around for a handful of seasons?
  • Buck - if he stays in Toronto - is nothing more than a $6-million-a-year platoon catcher. If one of the Jays' catchers is dealt as expected, the return likely will come in the bullpen, where there are depth concerns.
  • And we haven't mentioned Colby Rasmus' consistency, what to make of Adam Lind, and the returns from surgery of Sergio Santos and Kyle Drabek.

All that said, the Jays should make a significant jump in wins in 2013 - possibly to around the 90 mark - as there are legitimate concerns all around the rest of the AL East:

New York Yankees
At no time since they added CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira in the winter of 2008-09 have the Yankees needed to spend money more than now. They're very old, have holes in the outfield, rotation, behind the plate, and at DH, and who knows exactly what they will get in 2013 from 42-year-old closer Mariano Rivera.

But instead of spending, the Yankees are concerned about . another luxury-tax payment? These are not George Steinbrenner's Yankees, and that's not a good thing. The Dodgers are replacing them as the most-extravagant spending franchise, and a handful of other teams have narrowed the payroll gap.

But the problems aren't isolated on the financial side. When they desperately need another influx of homegrown talent, there is little there. No star-caliber talent is ready to step in - maybe a nice outfield bat in Slade Heathcott, later in 2013. But for the most part, the top organization talent was injured or backslid in 2012.

Maybe they'll land a free agent or two this off-season. Maybe they won't. Maybe they can get another season from their late-30s/early-40s types. And maybe not. The Yankees clearly are heading into a new era facing major obstacles, and no longer seem willing to spend their way to solutions.

Baltimore Orioles
While this season provided so many electric moments after a decade-plus of misery, let's face it, no team is more poised for a 2013 regression than the Orioles.

A 29-9 record in one-run games? A 16-2 mark in extra innings? Finishing 27 games over .500 with a +7 run differential? Only one starting pitcher with more than nine wins and 133 innings pitched? On and on we could go here, but you get the point. Don't stand pat, Dan Duquette. This collection of talent can't repeat what it accomplished in 2012.

And one more stat - in the last 50 years, teams that improved by at least 24 wins from one season to the next (as the Orioles did this season over last) have fallen back by an average of 11 games in the following season.

The most-recent example are the Arizona Diamondbacks. 2010: 65-97; 2011: 94-68; 2012: 81-81. After a totally unexpected 2011 NL West title, they traded for Jason Kubel and Trevor Cahill, and got a runner-up NL Rookie of the Year season from Wade Miley. But it still couldn't stop the regression.

Tampa Bay Rays
Carl Crawford goes away, the entire bullpen has to be rebuilt, and the Rays still win 90 games. It's an amazing testament to front-office talent evaluation, organizational development and Joe Maddon's managerial skills.

It will be more of the same this winter, with the loss of B.J. Upton in free agency and most likely, either James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson) for some desperately needed hitting. So maybe we should just expect the Rays to win 90 games and contend again in 2013, right?

But this endless cycle of building up only to tear down never gets any easier, and a down season mixed in certainly carries a high percentage of occurrence. Since they flipped the switch to success in 2008, the Rays have had only one 'off-year' - 84-78 - in 2009.

Boston Red Sox
After a drama-filled disaster, this is Ben Cherington's team now, and a longer-range plan has to supersede the 2013 won-loss record. The new pieces are being put in place - from manager John Farrell to pitching coach Juan Nieves with a hitting instructor to come. Stability and a unified organizational approach must come next, and they can only unfold in time.

The financial resources are there for a relatively quick return back to the 2004-2007 run of success.

There also was enough underperformance on last year's roster, particularly in the starting rotation, that a rebound of some sort is a reasonable expectation.

Keep some key pieces - Jacoby Ellsbury, Andrew Bailey, Cody Ross - in place, add in a few others - Mike Napoli, perhaps - and enough short-term progress would be made. But contending in 2013 likely will be a stretch.

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