2013 preview: What the Blue Jays have to do to win the AL East

For the past 18 years, the Toronto Blue Jays have been a reluctant member of an unenviable club in Major League Baseball. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only three teams – the Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates – have failed to reach baseball’s expanded playoffs.

Over that span, and indeed since Joe Carter touched ‘em all in 1993, there have been glimmers of hope but no real breakthrough in the uber-competitive American League East.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos set out to change that following a dismal 73-win season in 2012. Recognizing that traditional powers New York and Boston are currently in a transitional phase, Anthopoulos oversaw a remarkable, rigorous overhaul of the Blue Jays roster.

A blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins brought in shortstop Jose Reyes, and pitchers Mark Buerhle and Josh Johnson and brought on comparisons between Anthopoulos and Pat Gillick, the architect of the great Blue Jays clubs in the early 1990s. Anthopoulos then signed Melky Cabrera, the 2012 All-Star Game MVP who was later suspended for PED use and missed out on the San Francisco Giants’ World Series run.

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Then, in his biggest coup, the GM made a trade with the New York Mets for R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. To top it off, he brought back John Gibbons to manage the new-look team.

Now that the off-field makeover is complete, and now that the Blue Jays “look good on paper,” as the saying goes, it’s time to put it all together on the field. Pundits and bookmakers like the Blue Jays’ chances of winning their division and even once again having Canada play host to a World Series.

If only it were that simple.

In 2012, it took 93 wins to make the playoffs in the American League. The Yankees won the AL East with 95 wins. Keeping in my mind this isn’t the same team as last year, nor is any other team, we can look at trends and recent history to determine a path to a first division crown since 1993.

Here are seven keys to the Blue Jays reaching the 90-plus win plateau in 2013:

1. Stay healthy

A promising start to the 2012 Blue Jays’ season came undone by the All-Star break. Brandon Morrow was having an All-Star calibre season before an oblique injury sent him to the 60-day disabled list. In the next week, the Blue Jays lost two more starting pitchers.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie and catcher J.P. Arencibia both missed significant time due to injuries. Then in late July came the harshest blow – two-time defending AL home run champ Jose Bautista went down with a wrist injury. Bautista missed most of the second half of the season as the Blue Jays limped to a 73-89 finish.

If the Blue Jays are to contend in 2013, that can’t happen again.

Bautista’s six home runs in Grapefruit League play this spring point to him being healthy, but his repaired wrist will be a concern early in the regular season. Lawrie opens the season on the DL and if his sometimes-reckless style of play continues he could land there again before the season is out.

New shortstop Jose Reyes, a four-time All-Star and 2011 batting champion, played in 150-plus games last season for the first time since 2008. He appears to be healthy but there is concern that playing on the artificial turf at the Rogers Centre could take a toll on his knees.

For the Blue Jays to be competitive in 2013, they need their best players on the field as much as possible.

[Infographic: 2013 MLB predictions]

2. Stars need to shine brightest

Remember one year ago when the Marlins looked good on paper and were considered World Series contenders? Before that season began they signed Reyes, Buerhle, and closer Heath Bell. Added to a lineup that already featured stars Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton and playing in a spanking new stadium, they were supposed to be NL East favourites.

It didn’t work out. Poor play, injuries, and eventually trades led the Marlins to a 69-93 finish and last place. The Blue Jays need to be wary of a similar fate in 2013.

Toronto’s Opening Day roster features four players from that last-place Marlins team. Those players know how expectations can weigh on a team.

Reyes needs to return to MVP form. Buerhle needs to be awfully close to the innings-eating guy who was a Clydesdale in the Chicago White Sox rotation for a dozen seasons. Johnson needs to build on a strong spring and find his All-Star form. Dickey, will be expected, at 38, to have another career year as the team’s ace.

Anthopoulos is banking on Cabrera putting behind him last year’s suspension and new rumours about PED use.

Bautista must bounce back from his injury and again be one of the top sluggers in baseball. With Reyes and Cabrera batting in front of him, Bautista could be in for a monster RBI year. Edwin Encarnacion took over as the team’s slugger after Bautista went down, hitting 42 homers and driving in 110 runs. Penciled in as the cleanup hitter, EE has to have another monster year.

The Blue Jays would also like to see continued improvement from youngsters Lawrie, Arencibia and Colby Rasmus.

3. Beat the AL East

In 2012, the Blue Jays had a 29-43 record against their division rivals and had a winning record against only the Boston Red Sox. Even if the Red Sox and Yankees are showing signs of serious decay with aging rosters, the AL East will again be one of the toughest divisions in baseball, and the Blue Jays need to improve on that record.

It starts with beating the Yankees. If you believe the doom and gloom coming out of the Bronx, the old, banged-up Yankees are in line for a huge drop-off in the wins column. And Toronto plays 10 of its 19 games against New York in April and May, when it should be at its weakest.

The Yankees opened play Monday without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Cutris Granderson – an All-Star disabled list. The Blue Jays must take advantage of the seven April games and three May games against New York and jump out to a lead before the stars return.

The Blue Jays’ biggest competitor for the division title, according to the pundits, is the Tampa Bay Rays. Toronto struggled against Tampa with a 4-14 mark last season. Each game against the Rays this season could eventually mean the difference between a division title and a wild-card berth, or worse.

4. Fast start, strong finish

For the 2013 Blue Jays, it is April that comes in like a lion.

Consider that in the first month the Blue Jays will face: the Indians (3 games); Red Sox (4); Yankees (7); Tigers (3); White Sox (4); Royals (3); Orioles (3). That’s three playoff teams from 2012 (including the AL champion Tigers) and three division rivals. And that’s not to mention improved teams in the Indians and Royals.

The Blue Jays will need a good start to build confidence – and maintain fan momentum in the city.

Even though injuries were an obvious problem last season, the Blue Jays’ first-half and second-half offensive splits were ugly. They hit 127 home runs in the first half of 2012 compared to 71 in the second; 401 runs-batted-in in the first half, just 276 in the second.

Things aren’t much easier in September, either. The Blue Jays have games against the Angels, Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox, and in a final regular-season homestand that could have major playoff implications, three games against the Rays.

5. Improve interleague play

Now that the Houston Astros have moved to the American League, interleague play will be an everyday occurrence in Major League Baseball. It also means more interleague games for each team, and interleague series later in the season.

The Blue Jays had very mixed interleague results in 2012, going 9-9, including getting swept by the Nationals and sweeping the Phillies. They need to be better in 2013, but it won’t be easy as they have a tough schedule against the senior circuit.

The Blue Jays have home-and-home series’ with the Giants and the Braves. They also visit the Padres and Diamondbacks, and host the expensively retooled Dodgers, and the Rockies.

6. Beat up the little guys

Speaking of the Astros, they’re not very good. And the American League is poised to take advantage of the rebuilding team with a payroll of under $25 million. The Astros’ AL West competitors will be the biggest beneficiaries of the move, but the Blue Jays get seven games with them as well.

The Astros are expected to lose 100 games again in 2013; the Jays could help themselves by adding to those loss totals.

The Blue Jays also have games against the Twins (66 wins in ’12), the Rockies (64 wins in ’12) and the Padres (76 wins in ’12). The Padres have improved, but the 19 games against those four foes offer a golden opportunity to pad the win column.

Of course, if the Red Sox don’t improve on last year’s 69-93 record and the Yankees are as bad as many thing, there will be extra chances for important wins within the division.

[Infographic: MLB Opening Day payrolls]

7. Be better on the road

The Blue Jays were an unimpressive 32-49 on the road in 2013. Playoff teams generally excel at home and play .500 or better ball on the road.

Last year, only the Tigers and Cardinals made the playoffs will playing under .500 on the road, both winning 38 games. However, it’s worth mentioning both teams also made the playoffs with just 88 wins.

There are two road trips on the schedule that stand out as potential season-changers. First, the Blue Jays have a seven-game interleague trip at the end of May that takes them from Atlanta to San Diego to San Francsico. Three good teams and a cross-country trip will be tough to overcome.

From July 29 to August 7, the Jays go from Oakland, to Anaheim and finally to Seattle, a 10-game road trip on the West Coast in the dog days of summer.

The home/road splits for Toronto in 2012 were surprisingly even, both batting and pitching. With an improved and healthy team, a better road record – and perhaps a long-awaited playoff berth – should be in the cards.

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