Injuries derailed a promising start to 2011 for the Cleveland Indians, but there's a lot of optimism heading into this season - even if that feeling may not be shared by outsiders.
The Indians open play Thursday against the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, who feel they can take another step toward better competing in the AL East.
Cleveland led the AL Central for 95 games last season after jumping out to a fast start. By May 23, the Indians were 30-15 and seven games in front of Detroit, but they stumbled over the next two months and finished 15 games behind the first-place Tigers.
A glance at their roster late in the year shows why they finished 80-82. Travis Hafner was limited to 94 games, Shin-Soo Choo to 85 and Grady Sizemore played in 71. The pitching staff also struggled with injuries.
The Indians may not be favored to win the division but feel that if they stay healthy they can be more competitive than last season, when young players like Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis earned valuable playing time.
"It is not a fluke when you lead a division for as long as they did last year," said veteran right-hander Derek Lowe, acquired in the offseason after three years with Atlanta. "This team can do it again, and hopefully go all the way."
One reason for the good feelings heading into 2012 is Asdrubal Cabrera, who is coming off a breakthrough year.
Providing a rare combination of production and durability for the Indians, Cabrera hit .273 with career highs of 25 homers and 92 RBIs in 151 games.
On Wednesday, Cleveland finalized a three-year deal with the shortstop, who avoided salary arbitration by signing a $4.55 million contract for 2012 this winter. He will make $6.5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014.
Cleveland hopes Cabrera avoids a dropoff in production as it opens the season without Sizemore, who will not be eligible to come off the disabled list until June 3 after undergoing back surgery last month.
The oft-injured center fielder hurt his back while fielding balls early in spring training. He was looking to bounce back after hitting .224 with 10 homers, 32 RBIs and 34 runs in 2011.
A strong rotation, highlighted by Thursday's starter Justin Masterson, also has the team excited and hoping to surprise people.
"A year ago, we were supposed to be the worst team in the world," said Masterson, who went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA last season. "Well, we believed in ourselves and snuck under the radar on some teams. We're out to do that again. Why not? It's like the NCAA tournament. A lot of the big teams end up losing to the guys who are hungry."
Last season's opening day starter, Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), remains in the Dominican Republic with visa issues stemming from using a false identity. It is uncertain if he'll pitch for Cleveland this season.
Masterson is 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 appearances - two starts - against Toronto. The right-hander pitched one scoreless inning in relief in his only appearance versus the Blue Jays in 2011.
Toronto's optimism for 2012 may be more tempered given the division it plays in. The Blue Jays have finished fourth in the AL East in four straight seasons, going 81-81 in 2011.
Still, despite being a perennial afterthought behind New York, Boston and Tampa Bay, at least one Toronto player doesn't think it's outlandish to discuss reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
"We still have a lot of work to do, and we understand that," Thursday's starter Ricky Romero told the Blue Jays' official website. "(But) this team is building that swagger that, in the past, we really didn't have.
"If we don't win, we're going to be sitting in October, scratching our heads and wondering what happened."
Toronto returns a strong offense, which ranked fifth in the majors last season with 186 homers and sixth with 743 runs.
The Blue Jays hope that Brett Lawrie can duplicate his production from late last season. After being called up in August, he hit .293 with nine homers and 25 RBIs in 43 games.
A big season from Lawrie and Adam Lind - who has failed to match his success from 2009 when he had 35 homers and 114 RBIs - could ease the pressure on Jose Bautista, who led the majors with 54 home runs in 2010 and 43 last season.
"I think we have a very real ability to increase upon what we did last year, and that's with a full year of Lawrie and some other guys," manager John Farrell said. "I don't think it's solely reliant on guys having career years. If they go out and perform to their capabilities, we've got a deep lineup."
Romero will anchor the rotation after going 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011.
The left-hander didn't face the Indians last season and is 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA in three starts against them.
The Indians won three of the first four meetings in 2011 before Toronto ended the season series with three straight wins in Cleveland.