TORONTO — Right from Day 1 of spring training, manager John Gibbons looked to keep his feet on the ground about the 2013 Blue Jays.
“There’s something there, we think,” he said of the revamped Toronto roster. “But of course we haven’t played a game that matters. Nothing’s hit the fan yet.”
“But I think it’s going to be good. I think there’s something special about this group,” he added.
More than a month later, after several storms in a spring training teacup, Gibbons hasn’t changed his mind.
“I sense something special about this group, you don’t always get that,” he said this week. “They’re just a tight little group. Sometimes you have a ton of talent but they all go their own way.”
Expectations have been sky high in Toronto since Blue Jays ownership opened the vault and general manager Alex Anthopoulos started wheeling and dealing.
A team that went 73-89 to finish fourth last season in the American League East is projected to make the playoffs and possibly the World Series, bringing back memories of the glory days of 1992 and ’93.
All-star shortstop Jose Reyes, right-hander Josh Johnson, left-hander Mark Buehrle and infielder Emilo Bonifacio arrived via a blockbuster trade from the Miami Marlins.
NL Cy Young-winner R.A Dickey came over from the Mets.
Outfielder Melky Cabrera, whose run for the NL batting crown with the Giants was derailed by a drug suspension, and infielder Maicer Izturis signed as free agents.
Slugger Jose Bautista, meanwhile, has recovered from the wrist surgery that cut his 2012 season short.
Put it all together and the Jays have a well-stocked toolbox. An expensive one, as well.
“All the bodies are here now,” Bautista said early in the spring. “It’s all on us now to perform.
“We love that challenge and we have a confident, good group of players together. I think we’re going to go out and have a lot of fun and hopefully we remain healthy. If all that happens, the season should take care of itself. we should be in the playoffs and hopefully the World Series.”
Those sentiments don’t come cheap.
The off-season moves bumped Toronto’s salary commitment in 2013 to more than US$122 million, up from $83.7 million at the start of 2012.
In Bautista, Johnson, Buehrle and Reyes, the Jays have four $10-million-plus earners this season. Cabrera, first baseman-designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and pitcher Brandon Morrow make $8 million.
Left-hander Ricky Romero and his $7.75 million start in the minors.
The 50-year-old Gibbons was reinstalled as manager, replacing John Farrell who took over his beloved Boston Red Sox. Gibbons was in charge from 2004 to 2008 before being fired.
While Gibbons had a few well-publicized run-ins with players in his first stint in charge, he is an easy-going manager whose style fits in well with the veteran talent in his clubhouse.
Gibbons is the polar opposite of his predecessor.
The well-starched Farrell looks like you could probably bounce a quarter off his bedding. The stubbly, tanned Gibbons looks like he slept in the back of a pickup truck.
But under the simple exterior is a canny baseball man, who has managed to keep a cap on several spring training storylines that could have spiralled out of control.
Initially the spring training questions were simple: Who will catch Dickey, who will play second base, can Adam Lind find his bat, and who would fill out the two bullpen places up for grabs.
But the storylines grew during a pre-season complicated by the World Baseball Classic.
As Romero stumbled, J.A. Happ threw consistently. And as Lind connected with his bat, outfielder Colby Rasmus stumbled at the plate.
Closer Casey Janssen, coming back from off-season surgery, was slow out of the gate.
J.P. Arencibia’s puppy-dog desire to catch Dickey and play on Opening Day inflamed the debate on whether the knuckleballer would get a personal catcher.
Other Jays were more accommodating or subtle. Sergio Santos gracefully yielded the closer’s role to Janssen while Happ was dignified in maintaining he belonged in a major leagues as a starter.
But the biggest story was Romero, the former Opening Day starter who was expected to be the Jays’ fifth starter in the retooled rotation. It soon became clear that elbow surgery had not fixed his arm issues. While his arm no longer hurt, his knees still ached from tendinitis. His control, speed and confidence were clearly off.
While Romero works on new mechanics in the minors after going 1-1 with a 6.23 ERA in five outings this spring, Happ has been rewarded with a $8.9-million, two-year contract after going 1-1 with a 1.90 ERA in seven Grapefruit League appearances.
Cabrera has quietly fitted in with a .379 spring training batting average gong into play Thursday. His 22 hits included 10 for extra bases.
With the Romero issue resolved for the time being, the Toronto rotation will consist of Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle, Johnson and Happ. Buehrle and Happ are left-handers.
Gibbons sees the glass-half full when it comes to the Romero situation.
“A lot of teams we’ve had in the past, you’re looking for that third starter (not the fifth),” he said.
The bullpen features left-handers Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Darren Oliver and right-handers Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers, Jeremy Jeffress, Santos and Janssen.
At 42, Oliver has yet to slow down. Loup, named the Jays’ rookie of the year last season, continues to impress. And if Janssen stumbles, Santos can move back into the closer role.
The Jays will open with eight relievers given that third baseman Brett Lawrie (rib injury) will begin the season on the disabled list. It’s expected either Cecil or Jeffress will give way once Lawrie returns.
The outfield is expected to feature Cabrera, Rasmus and Bautista.
With Lawrie injured, veteran Mark DeRosa and Izturis will share third with Reyes at shortstop, Bonifacio at second and Encarnacion at first. Arencibia catches, with veteran Henry Blanco as his backup, and Lind at DH.
Speedy outfielder Rajai Davis comes off the bench.
Once Lawrie returns, Izturis and Bonifacio look likely to share second base.
The Jays batting lineup will open with speed followed by power with Reyes and Cabrera followed by Bautista and Encarnacion.
Encarnacion’s spring was interrupted by a jarred right index finger in his final at-bat of the World Baseball Classic on March 19. X-rays on the finger were negative, and he returned to action Thursday after letting the swelling subside.
Upgrades were needed all over after 2012. The Jays ranked 11th out of 14 AL teams with a .245 batting average, although they ranked fifth in home runs with 198. The injury-ravaged pitching staff ranked 11th with 4.64 ERA and gave up a league-worst 204 home runs and 574 walks.
Chemistry in the Jay’s clubhouse seems smooth.
Bautista remains a major player in the clubhouse. And opera aficionado Dickey, who is worth listening to every time he speaks, adds a certain ’je ne sais quoi’ to the Toronto mix.