The Toronto Blue Jays hope to return to the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years. They haven’t made the playoffs since their back to back World Series championships in ’92 and ’93.
GM Alex Anthopoulos has been able to accumulate a strong nucleus of players and the Jays appear poised to take the next step.
If they are to contend for the division title however, they will need several things to go their way.
Here are 10 keys to winning the AL East.
Historically, the Jays have not played well during interleague play.
Since its inception in 1997, Toronto has posted a 115-132 record. Last season, they finished 8-10. They will have their hands full this season as they will battle the NL East.
The Blue Jays will need solid contributions from the bottom of their order, particularly Colby Rasmus.
In 2010, he hit .276 with 23 homers and 66 RBI with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was traded the following season after falling out of favor with Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa.
"No, he doesn't listen to the Cardinal coaches much now, and that's why he gets in these funks, in my opinion," said La Russa. "If he would just stay with [basically] what they teach, but I actually feel concern for him, because he hears it from so many places, he's got to be confused."
The Jays acquired him on July 27, 2011, shortly after La Russa’s outburst. He struggled after joining the Jays as he batted just .173 in 35 games.
The Jays will need much more from him.
Injuries are inevitable in professional sports and every team eventually loses key contributors at some point during the season.
Last season, Aaron Hill (prior to Kelly Johnson trade), Casey Janssen, Adam Lind, Jessie Litsch, Brandon Morrow and Jon Rauch were all placed on the DL at some point.
The Jays will need other roster players or minor league call-ups to step up and play well when injuries take place.
The Toronto Blue Jays boast one of the strongest bullpens in all of baseball and now have the ability to shutdown the opposition from the seventh inning on.
Without a doubt, the ninth inning belongs to flame-thrower Sergio Santos, who the club acquired during the off season in a trade with the Chicago White Sox.
Last year, he went 4-5 and recorded 30 saves in 36 opportunities. He registered 92 strikeouts in 63.1 innings, and the opposition batted just .181 against him.
Former Cincinnati Red’s closer Francisco Cordero will serve as the club’s set-up man. With 327 career saves, he offers the Jays plenty of experience and is another option to close out games if Santos is unavailable.
From the seventh inning onwards, the Jays can use one or a combination of Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor or Darren Oliver.
Last season, Janssen held the opposition to a .228 batting average, while posting a 2.26 ERA. He also struck out 53 batters in 55.2 innings.
Jason Frasor was reacquired from the Chicago White Sox for minor leaguers Myles Jaye and Daniel Webb.
In 64 games with the Jays and White Sox, he worked 60 innings and posted a 3.60 ERA. He struck out 57 batters and held opponents to a .257 average. However prior to being traded, he appeared in 44 games with the Jays and posted a 2.98 ERA in 42.1 innings.
Darren Oliver will be the club’s primary option to get tough left-handed batters out. The 41-year old appeared in 61 games for the Texas Rangers last season. He posted a solid 2.29 ERA in 51 innings of work and held the opposition to a .236 batting average.
He appears to be getting better with age as he’s been able to lower his ERA for five consecutive years. From 2007 to 2011, he’s posted ERAs of 3.78, 2.88, 2.71, 2.48, and 2.29.
"He's minimized the damage," said Blue Jays manager John Farrell. "The command to his breaking ball has gotten so good. He has been able to sink the ball in on left-handers a little bit more routinely. It's like anyone else, they continue to evolve and know themselves better as a performer, and that's clearly been the case that bares out in the stats."
Although they finished 81-81 last season, the Jays were just 68-77 in nine-inning games. It was their solid 13-4 record in extra innings that allowed them finish .500.
By comparison, Boston Red Sox were 83-66, Tampa Bay Rays were 82-66, and the New York Yankees were 92-53 under those circumstances.
Often, one bad inning is all it takes to cough up a lead and turn a potential victory into a sure loss.
The pitching staff must limit the "big inning."
Last season, the Jays were 37-15 when scoring between five and seven runs per game, and were an impressive 60-16 in games where they gave their pitchers five or more runs to work with. However, they were just 15-55 when held to three runs or less.
If the offense lives up to expectations, then it will improve their chances of playing meaningful games in October.
As mentioned in the previous slide, the Jays will need to provide their pitching staff with adequate runs to work with, but will also need some clutch hitting throughout the season.
The Jays will need Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson to reach base consistently so Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, and company can do their thing.
The club will need offensive production with two outs and runners in scoring position, particularly from the bottom of the order.
Timely hitting could take the Jays a long way.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation has little Major League experience after Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow.
Romero has been solid the past two seasons. In 2010, he went 14-9 while registering a 3.73 ERA, but solidified his grasp as staff ace the following season by going 15-11, while posting a career best 2.92 ERA. He will give the club a chance each time he’s handed the ball.
Brandon Morrow has the makeup to be dominating every time he takes his turn. Despite his 11-11 record last season, he managed to rack up an impressive 203 K’s in 179.1 innings. If his first start against the Cleveland Indians is any indication (7IP, 0ER, 3K), fans will have plenty to cheer about this season.
For the club to reach their ultimate goal though, they will need youngsters Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek to pitch to their capabilities. They will also need solid contributions from Aaron Laffey and Dustin McGowan once he returns from the disabled list.
The Jays will need roughly 90 wins for a shot at one of the two wild card spots and must improve their home and away record from last season (42-39 home, 39-42 road), if they to contend this season.
The New York Yankees won the division with a 97-65 campaign. They were 52-29 at home and 45-36 as the visitor, while Tampa Bay (91-71) won the wild card by going 47-34 at Tropicana Field and playing seven games over .500 on the road (44-37).
The Jays were 33-39 against their divisional counterparts last season, and combined to go just 21-33 against Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay.
In contrast, the Red Sox (38-34), Yankees (39-33), and Rays (42-30) all posted winning records. In fact, Toronto won just five more divisional games than the Baltimore Orioles.
With the additional wild card spot introduced, winning the division becomes much more significant as the two wild card winners will play each other in winner takes all single elimination playoff game where anything can happen.
In his "Expanded playoffs are good for baseball" piece, Ken Rosenthal indicated that Yankees GM Brian Cashman conceded the AL East title to Tampa Bay two years ago because capturing the division title meant “nothing more than a t-shirt and a hat.”
There will be none of that anymore as contenders will do all they can to win their division.
Games lost within the AL East will be more difficult to overcome.
Although the additional wild card will allow teams a better opportunity to get into the playoffs, winning the division will become much more significant under the new format. For that reason, the Jays will need to be much better against their AL East rivals.