What Every Fan Needs to Know About the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays

James O'DonnellContributor IIJanuary 23, 2013

What Every Fan Needs to Know About the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays

0 of 10

    For the last five years, the only two things every fan needed to know about the Toronto Blue Jays were that they were in the American League East and that they weren't the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Tampa Bay Rays.

    For 2013, the most important thing fans need to know about the Toronto Blue Jays is that this isn't the same Toronto Blue Jays team of the last five years.

    For those of you who don't remember baseball before the 1994 strike-shortened season, the Blue Jays franchise most likely invokes thoughts of isolated mediocrity being played far away from everyone else north of the border. In a division of heated rivalries, the game's biggest superstars and excessive media attention, the Blue Jays were always just...there. They were harmlessly average—not good enough to be a serious threat, not bad enough to be a laughingstock.

    After nearly two decades in baseball obscurity, that could all change in 2013. Blue Jays fans have gotten their hopes up before about a potential return to the success of the glory years of the early 1990s, but the bar has been set higher than ever this offseason. And it's not just Jays fans.

    Albeit a meaningless designation, even the oddsmakers in Vegas have proclaimed the Blue Jays—the same team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1993—the favorites to win the World Series. We all know World Series aren't won in December, but Blue Jays fans will take what they can get for now. At least for 2013, the Blue Jays won't be an afterthought. This isn't the Blue Jays team to which most fans have become accustomed.

    And that's the basic theme for what you need to know about this year's Blue Jays squad. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has bet the farm (system)—dealing away some of the organization's premiere prospects, such as Travis D'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Jake Marisnick—if not just on 2013, then on the very immediate future. Now there appears to be a narrow window open in the American League East for a changing of the guard, and the new-look Blue Jays have been assembled in such a fashion as to take advantage of the opening.

    Can the Jays do it? You decide. Here's what every fan needs to know about the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays and their quest to return to the promised land of the postseason.

An Improved and More Experienced Rotation

1 of 10

    The Blue Jays' rotation in 2012 was bad. Really bad. There's no other way to put it. They went into last season with an unsettled, unimpressive rotation, and they ended it with an even worse one. The Blue Jays used twelve different starters, who went a combined 52-69 with a 4.82 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.

    They mixed and matched and tried to patch together a rotation over the course of the season that mostly included unseasoned and unprepared rookies and second-year pitchers, joined by converted relievers thrust into starting jobs. Not surprisingly, the end result was ugly.

    One good thing came out of the rotation last year, and that was Brandon Morrow. Though he missed two-and-a-half months with an oblique injury, when he was healthy, he was far and away the Jays' staff ace. After years of tantalizing fans with short spurts of brilliant pitching, Morrow was able to overcome his inconsistency issues and piece together a memorable career year.

    Morrow evolved as a pitcher; throwing more pitches in the strike zone, his strikeout rate dipped a bit but he posted a career-best 3.0 BB/9 IP, as well as personal bests in ERA (2.96) and WHIP (1.11). In 12 of his 21 starts, he went at least six innings and allowed one earned run or less.

    If the Blue Jays didn't make any changes to the rotation going into next season, he would've likely been their ace. He and former staff ace, lefty Ricky Romero—who is coming off his worst full season in the majors (5.77 ERA, 1.67 WHIP in 2012)—would've formed an intriguing, middle-of-the-pack one-two combination atop the rotation. But the rotation would've likely been a liability just as it was in 2012.

    Instead GM Alex Anthopoulos (herein, "AA") completely overhauled the rotation. Last year's rotation was unsettled with multiple spots still open for competition as the season started; this year, every rotation spot has been fixed since December. Last year, the opening day rotation did not have a single starter over the age of 27 nor any starter with postseason experience; this year, the rotation has an average age of 31.4 years and includes a battled-tested 38-year-old Cy Young Award winner and a pitcher with a World Series ring to his name.

    In two separate trades, AA acquired 29-year-old Josh Johnson and 34-year-old Mark Buehrle from the Marlins, as well as 38-year-old R.A. Dickey from the Mets. After Morrow looked to be the ace by default, the Blue Jays now have five starting pitchers, who, all at one time or another, were aces.

    R.A. Dickey's three-year period of dominance with the Mets culminated with winning the Cy Young Award last season after a virtuoso performance, in which he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and racked up 230 strikeouts in 233.2 innings. Dickey has been the ultimate feel-good story after going from your classic quadruple-A player to a bonafide ace.

    Sure, there are some red flags at age 38, moving to a less pitcher-friendly environment, but despite Dickey's sudden skyrocketing to success, he has been a very good pitcher now for 91 starts and he projects well into his 40s as a knuckleballer for the Blue Jays.

    AA also took advantage of the Marlins' typical payroll-slashing ways, netting one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball over the last decade in Mark Buehrle. Buehrle has made at least 30 starts in each of the last 12 years, posting an ERA under 4.00 nine times and a WHIP under 1.30 eight times in that span. He won't miss a lot of bats, but he's a savvy, finesse veteran lefty who can reliably churn out 200 quality innings from the middle-of-the-rotation.

    Finally, the Jays added Josh Johnson, who despite a history of injuries and a slightly-disappointing 2012 campaign, has put up ace-quality numbers since 2009. In 101 starts over the last four seasons, Johnson has a 2.99 ERA and 8.3 K/9 IP. At 29 years old, entering a contract year, and fully healthy, Johnson is a bit of a wild card and could be the guy who—despite less fanfare—ends up the true ace of the staff.

    Regardless of who turns out to be the staff ace, the first thing you need to know about the Blue Jays is they have a much improved and more experienced rotation that is much better suited than last year's rotation to challenge the hard-hitting veteran lineups of the American League East. How often can you say your two best starters from last year are now likely your No. 4 and No. 5 starters?

    The Blue Jays had a potential budding ace in Brandon Morrow and a former ace in Ricky Romero, which would ordinarily be a nice start to building a rotation. Now they also have R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson—turning their biggest weakness into their biggest strength if all goes well in 2013.

A More Solidified Bullpen Led by Casey Janssen

2 of 10

    The Blue Jays' bullpen in 2012 was a lot like its rotation; there was a quite a bit of chaos, a number of injuries and the end results weren't that pretty. However, unlike the rotation, the bullpen showed signs of improvement down the stretch while the rotation continued to falter.

    The strides made by the bullpen toward the end of 2012 are a big reason why the Blue Jays felt comfortable overhauling the rotation while keeping their relief corps largely intact.

    The primary reason the bullpen received little attention this offseason is because of the man who took over as closer midway through May and enters 2013 as the team's undisputed closer. Casey Janssen took over as the ninth inning stopper, after an injury to Sergio Santos and an implosion by Francisco Cordero, and gave the team some much needed reliability at the back-end of the bullpen.

    Janssen recorded 22 saves (with only two blown saves during his run as the team's closer), while posting a 2.54 ERA, a miniscule 0.88 WHIP and boasting an impressive 67/11 K/BB ratio.

    Janssen had always pitched well as a reliever when healthy and did not disappoint in his first real stint as closer. Though he underwent surgery on his shoulder in November, the procedure was described as routine and just intended to relieve some discomfort. He is expected to be 100 percent in time for spring training.

    After going into last season with two newly-acquired closing options in a risky, shortstop-turned-reliever in Sergio Santos and an aging Francisco Cordero—both of whom flopped in 2012—the Jays enter 2013 with a familiar face, who has an established track record of success in Toronto, and proved to be an excellent full-time closer last season.

    Behind him, we'll see much of the same bullpen as we saw in the second half of last season, with more defined roles as the unit builds continuity. The bullpen is far from elite, but with the key pieces returning from last year and some new faces that were acquired or being shifted to the pen due to the depth of the rotation, there are a lot of options for putting together a solid group.

    Despite all the signings and trades, Blue Jays fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when veteran lefty reliever Darren Oliver announced he would return for 2013 last week.

    Oliver, at age 42, had a phenomenal season as the team's left-handed bullpen specialist, recording a career-best 2.06 ERA (his fifth straight sub-3.00 ERA) and a 1.02 WHIP, while dominating both lefties and righties at the plate. In a division full of lethal lefty hitters, Oliver is a huge boon for a Blue Jays squad who hopes to squeak out a number of close victories against their American League East rivals.

    Also returning to the bullpen in 2013 will be two players acquired midseason: Steve Delabar and Brad Lincoln. Delabar was a revelation for the Jays, striking out a whopping 46 hitters in 29.1 innings (putting him in the top ten for strikeout rate among relievers during that span), while Lincoln struggled a bit, posting a 5.65 ERA in 24 appearances.

    However, Lincoln still showed signs of why he was once a fourth overall pick, striking out 28 in 28.2 innings, and if you take away one dreadful appearance (6 ER in 0.2 IP against the Rays on September 22), he had a modest 3.86 ERA in 23 of his 24 relief appearance.

    Finally, the Jays will throw some new names into the mix. They acquired two power pitchers in Jeremy Jeffress (who can occasionally hit 100 MPH on the gun, but struggles with his control) and Esmil Rogers, who struck out 54 in 53.0 innings with a 3.06 ERA for the Indians after escaping a pitching death sentence in Colorado.

    They'll also have two former left-handed starters, J.A. Happ and Brett Cecil, who will vie for a long reliever role in the bullpen without spots available in the rotation.

    At the end of the day, what you need to know about the Blue Jays bullpen is that, although it is not perfect—for one, it could use a reliable and experienced right-handed set-up man—it will bring back its best pitchers from the second half of 2012 while adding an intriguing mix of hard-throwing young arms and converted starters who could thrive in reduced roles. They could also get back the man they expected to be their shutdown closer in 2012, Sergio Santos (who was limited to only six innings last year).

    Relievers are a fickle bunch and bullpen rankings usually change dramatically from year to year, so it's hard to know what to expect from any bullpen, but despite the Jays focusing their attention primarily on the rotation, they still have a respectable set of relievers.

    They may not be among the best in baseball, but they're deep, they're versatile, they have a good mix of experience and potential and they have a closer who showed he could thrive in the American League East.

Increased Speed and Flexibility at the Top and Bottom of the Lineup

3 of 10

    Two of the Blue Jays' biggest flaws outside of their starting pitching last season was that the roster was devoid of a true leadoff hitter and the team lacked speed among its starter-quality players. To remedy these issues, AA acquired Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio in the aforementioned poaching of the Marlins. He also signed Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis to multi-year deals.

    The Jays primarily used four different players in the leadoff role last year, none of which were well-suited for the job. First, by default, they plugged Yunel Escobar into the role, but his lack of speed (five stolen bases) and inability to get on base consistently (.300 OBP) made him best-suited for a spot lower in the lineup.

    They then tried swapping Escobar with No. 2 hitter and second baseman Kelly Johnson, who offered a bit more speed and got on-base a bit more (.313 OBP), but his prolonged struggles at the plate (.225 AVG) forced him to also drop in the lineup.

    Next up was Brett Lawrie—who will be discussed in greater detail later on in the slideshow—who was never made to be a lead-off hitter but was forced into the role due to a lack of better options. Though Lawrie hit fairly well from the lead-off spot—seven home runs, four stolen bases, .274 AVG, .327 OBP in 61 games—it was obvious he would be more valuable hitting in the middle of the lineup, and a spot opened up in the outfield for Rajai Davis to play almost everyday.

    Davis has all the speed you could want in a lead-off hitter and even showed some increased pop, but as someone you'd feel much more comfortable with as a fourth outfielder, he just didn't have the bat to lead-off. Davis stole 46 bases in 2012, but his 102 strikeouts and .309 OBP in 487 at-bats showed that if he had to play everyday, he belonged hitting eighth or ninth, not leading off.

    Needless to say, the inconsistency and underperformance at the leadoff spot followed by more inconsistency in the two-hole (which was split mostly among the aforementioned struggling Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson, along with Colby Rasmus, who had a .289 OBP) held back the overall potential of the offense.

    Escobar and Johnson are out. Lawrie will hit lower in the lineup where he belongs. Rajai Davis is back to being the fourth outfielder–a role he can thrive in. Going into 2013, Jose Reyes gives the Blue Jays a true leadoff hitter–a switch-hitting table-setter who can steal 30+ bases a year and has a career OBP of .342. After him will likely come Melky Cabrera, who, prior to his suspension, had been the ideal #2 hitter for the last two seasons.

    Ostensibly, we must mention that Melky was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball for violating its banned substance policy and the Giants opted not to bring him back once his suspension was lifted, yet still won the World Series. Melky took a beating in the press for his actions and it certainly raises questions about his integrity, but the most important issue for Blue Jays fans will be whether he can return as the same player he was prior to the suspension.

    Melky, another switch hitter along with Reyes, hit .305/.339/.470 with 18 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 2011 with the Royals and was hitting .346/.390/.516 with 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 113 games with the Giants in 2012 before he was suspended.

    If Melky can pick up where left off–perhaps a big "if" given the circumstances–he would give the Blue Jays a prototypical #2 hitter: a great combination of power, speed, and contact hitting as well as another switch-hitter to cause match-up problems and create chaos on the basepaths.

    Then at the bottom of the lineup, the Jays will likely plug in potential second base platoon partners, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio, who will give the team a "second lead-off hitter" in the nine-hole. Izturis stole 17 bases and had a respectable .320 OBP in 2012. Bonifacio battled with various injuries all season long, but still stole 30 bases. A healthy Bonifacio in 2013, however, could look a lot more like the 2011 version, when he hit .296 with a .360 OBP and stole 40 bases.

    However it shakes out, what you must know about the 2013 Blue Jays is there will be a lot more speed at the top and bottom of the lineup and more available options that are capable of setting the table for the big bats in the middle of the lineup.

    Switch-hitting Reyes and Melky should give the Blue Jays the productivity and consistency they sorely lacked at the top of the lineup last year as opposed to the season-long experimentation with players not fit to hit first or second. Bonifacio, Izturis, and Rajai Davis will offer more speed at the bottom of the lineup or off the bench, as well, and could still lead off in a pinch.

    Fans should expect the Blue Jays to improve upon last year's rank of 25th with a .309 team OBP, and with it comes the potential for runs driven in by the heart of the lineup.

The Heart of the Lineup: Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion

4 of 10

    Three years ago, if I told you a World Series contender would rely on Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion as their #3 and #4 hitters–not to mention, R.A. Dickey as their staff ace–you would have likely laughed in my face. Yet here we are.

    By now, just about everyone knows the story of how Jose Bautista capitalized on an opportunity to play everyday and transformed himself into one of the game's best hitters.

    After he parlayed a hot September in 2009 into a starting job in 2010, Bautista has become one of the most feared right-handed bats in the game and his production during that span has rivaled that of Albert Pujols':

    From 2010-2012:

    Bautista: 124 HR, 292 RBI, 291 BB, 290 SO, .271 AVG/.400 OBP/.593 SLG/.993 OPS

    Pujols: 109 HR, 322 RBI, 216 BB, 210 SO, .298 AVG/.395 OBP/.550 SLG/.925 OPS

    Now, no one is going to say that Bautista is the better player or that they would rather have Bautista on their team than Pujols, but the fact that we can put the two in the same discussion shows just how far Jose Bautista has come in three seasons.

    Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Bautista suffered a wrist injury on July 16th after the club's 90th game of the season. The Jays were at .500 at that point (45-45), but not surprisingly, the downward spiral began shortly after he was placed on the DL.

    Bautista attempted to come back for two games in August before he re-aggravated his wrist injury and the Jays went 28-42 down the stretch without him.

    Now that Bautista has silenced just about every critic who proclaimed he was a flash in the pan, he'll have to once again prove that he can return to his upper-echelon level of production post-injury. For a hitter with such tremendous bat speed and strong wrists, any lingering effects from the injury could have a serious negative impact.

    However, early reports say Bautista should be back at 100% despite some controversy as to how the Blue Jays handled his injury and whether they downplayed its severity last season.

    If Bautista is back and ready to mash at the MVP-caliber level we've become accustomed to over the last three years, not only would it accomplish the obvious of making the Jays' lineup much more formidable against opposing pitchers, but it could have a very positive indirect impact on the continued success of Edwin Encarnacion.

    Though they took very different paths to reach their baseball crossroads, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista both experienced their career renaissances during their age-29 seasons. As a matter of fact, watching the maturation of Encarnacion, who went from being a player without a position and likely on his last shot with the team to one of the most prolific hitters in baseball last season, reminded many fans of the rapid rise of "Joey Bats."

    Encarnacion's end-of-the-year numbers actually improved each of the three seasons prior to 2012, but the growth had been extremely gradual and wasn't very noticeable on the field. So when Encarnacion opened 2012 with 8 home runs, 22 RBI, and a .322 AVG in April, most people tempered their expectations, assuming it was just another one of his extended hot streaks before he would cool off later in the season.

    However, the cool-down period never came. Encarnacion and Bautista kept trading paint atop the home run leaderboards, pairing up as one of the best power-hitting duos in the league through July of last season.

    Then the Jays lost Bautista. Funny thing is, Encarnacion kept hitting. Even without the protection of Bautista and the rest of the lineup struggling, the guy who could seemingly go cold on a moment's notice stayed red-hot right through September.

    Encarnacion finished 4th in home runs, 5th in RBI, 8th in OPS among all qualifying hitters and added 13 stolen bases. Now the important questions are: how did he do it and can he do it again?

    Most notably, Encarnacion cut back on his swings outside the strike zone and his increased selectivity led to a career-best 13.0 BB%. Swinging at better pitches, one could theorize that his true power was revealed by sitting and waiting on the right pitch to unload on, explaining his impressive 18.70% HR/FB rate that resulted in a career-best 42 home runs.

    It's very possible that Encarnacion was able to finally fix the flaws that plagued him in the past as he matures into a solid veteran on the verge of 30. Some guys just put it together later than others - just look at the aforementioned Bautista.

    And if Encarnacion has finally put it together, based on what he did in 2012 and what Bautista has done over the last three seasons prior to his wrist injury, this could be the most productive power-hitting duo in the game in 2013 despite the fact that both men were clinging to roster spots just three offseasons ago.

    Every fan needs to know about Bautista and Encarnacion because the overall potential of the lineup begins and ends with these two hitters. If Bautista's wrists are still giving him trouble and Encarnacion regresses back to his pre-2012 form, it could be a long season once again for the Jays.

    However, if they can live up to their most recent performances, they could combine for 70-80 home runs and 180-200 RBI and be the stalwarts of one of the best offenses in baseball in 2013.

Breakout Candidate Brett Lawrie

5 of 10

    One name every fan should remember when it comes to the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays is third baseman Brett Lawrie. I gave Lawrie his own slide not because he's more integral to the Blue Jays' success this season than Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion–he's not–but because he represents a wildcard-type hitter who could be the missing piece that solidifies the lineup.

    Like Josh Johnson, who could emerge as the staff ace despite the majority of the attention going to R.A. Dickey, Brett Lawrie could be one of the team's most valuable position players despite less fanfare and attention than he received going into 2012.

    The youngest starter on the team, Lawrie turned 23 this January and has just over a season's worth of playing time under his belt. The team acquired him from the Brewers for Shaun Marcum prior to the 2011 season, the year in which he would later make his major league debut. In 43 games in 2011, Lawrie showed early signs of the promise that made him such a coveted prospect, hitting .293/.373/.580 with 9 home runs, 25 RBI, and 7 stolen bases.

    That set the hype machine in motion for 2012 in which the pre-season projections probably exceeded realistic expectations. Though in the realm of fantasy, some may have dubbed Lawrie's 2012 season a disappointment, the Blue Jays have every right to be satisfied with his development after a very solid first full season in the bigs.

    Lawrie hit .273/.324/.405 with 11 home runs, 48 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 2012. It wasn't the type of year that'll win you any awards, but there were very positive underlying developments. He was a significantly better hitter before he suffered an oblique injury in early August–likely as a result of his all-out defensive style of play at the hot corner–and it was an injury which may have had lingering negative effects that persisted beyond his stint on the disabled list.

    Nevertheless, even though Lawrie was more aggressive at the plate in 2012, his rate of contact improved and he also posted a 6.5 UZR at third base.

    So what does this mean for 2013? To look to his future potential, we should also remember his past. Lawrie faced many of the struggles most first-year players face adjusting to major-league pitching, but he's the same player who prior to his debut in 2011 was ranked the 40th best prospect in the game by Baseball America and even evoked comparisons to one Ryan Braun.

    Now, no Blue Jays fan in his or her right mind would put Lawrie in the same class as a superstar such as Ryan Braun, but the fact that Lawrie's skill set has drawn such favorable comparisons bodes well for his future once he catches up to the game at the major league level.

    Lawrie may still be a few years away from entering his peak; it took fellow former third base prospects such as Alex Gordon and Chase Headley to reach their mid-to-late 20s before they finally put it all together. Lawrie, however, has already received just as much seasoning as they did when they reached their peaks, but has achieved success at a much younger age as he was drafted straight out of high school.

    It is possible we could see the beginning of Lawrie's arc as an above-average player–both offensively and defensively–in 2013.

    Lawrie is still rough around the edges; his intense personality can rub veterans the wrong way and can cause him to lose focus. But the tools are there and they're gradually being sharpened as Lawrie gets to see more and more major-league pitching. He tore through the minors, showing the capability to hit for .300 along with 20/20 power and speed, and has held his own thus far in the majors.

    Brett Lawrie is a name you must know. Maybe he doesn't put it all together in 2013, but even if he continues to gradually improve, Lawrie should be an impact player for the Blue Jays this season.

    He's the ultimate wildcard, and with his untapped potential, he could be the player that gives the Jays that added boost to get them back to the playoffs.

Hitters on the Hot Seat: Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus

6 of 10

    In addition to the table-setting types at the top and bottom of the lineup in Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and the anticipated Emilio Bonifacio/Maicer Izturis platoon at 2B, the big bats in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and potential phenom Brett Lawrie, the 2013 Blue Jays' Opening Day Lineup will likely include a pair of hitters who will face added scrutiny to perform this season.

    For various reasons, 1B/DH Adam Lind and CF Colby Rasmus have found themselves on the "hot seat," so to speak, and will face the pressure to improve upon last year's numbers or perhaps find themselves on a new team.

    Despite the established veterans–new and incumbent–the Blue Jays' lineup has a pair of players who are facing make-or-break campaigns and will be expected to produce in supporting roles. Whether or not they help give the Blue Jays a solid one-through-nine in the lineup or continue to put added pressure on the likes of Bautista and Encarnacion is yet to be seen.

    First up is Adam Lind. Lind has been a Blue Jay since the organization drafted him in 2004, but at age 29, in his last guaranteed year of his contract, it could be do-or-die for the maddeningly inconsistent but talented hitter. The Blue Jay faithful are hoping for the same age-29 season magic to work its way on Lind as it has with Bautista and Encarnacion, but the third time may not be a charm.

    Lind already had his coming out party at age 26 in 2009 when he hit .305/.370/.562 with 35 home runs and 114 RBI. He followed it up with two solid but disappointing campaigns until last year, when things got so bad he was demoted to AAA.

    Lind was recalled after a month of shredding minor league pitching, but even hitting .304/.343/.441 with 4 home runs in 46 at-bats after the all-star break isn't anything to get too excited about.

    If it weren't for the money owed, the Blue Jays probably would have moved on from Lind one way or another by now, but with the team shifting focus to other areas of priority this offseason, Lind will be back for his 8th major league season with the club.

    What can we expect is anyone's guess. The status of his contract and the possibility of finally reaching the playoffs should be all the incentive he needs. He showed better contact hitting ability upon being recalled from the majors, but it came at the expense of a dip in his power numbers.

    What you need to know about Lind is that the Blue Jays are right-handed-heavy when it comes to the heart of their lineup (Bautista, Encarnacion, and Lawrie) and the left-handed Lind will be given the all-important task of splitting them up.

    He knows the pressure is on to succeed or the Blue Jays could finally cut ties with him as they nearly did last season.

    Next up is Colby Rasmus. Rasmus came over from the Cardinals in a blockbuster trade in mid-2011 and has yet to fulfill the promise of his high upside and talent. Rasmus is a typical case of a player who has all the tools but has yet to turn them into productive assets on the field.

    After his first two solidly impressive campaigns in 2009 and 2010, Rasmus began to remind me of a pre-injury Grady Sizemore–a hitter who may never hit .300 but could be an all-star caliber player due to his power, speed, and defensive skills in centerfield.

    Unfortunately for Rasmus, his first two years have been his best two years. After clashing with Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols and a disappointing first half in 2011, Rasmus was sent to the Blue Jays at which point he became a trendy pick to "put it all together" after a "much-needed change of scenery."

    Turns out, however, the change of scenery hasn't helped Rasmus. Perhaps it has even hurt him, because Rasmus was abominably bad in his 2011 debut with the Blue Jays, hitting .173/.201/.316 in 35 games. Many expected the change of scenery effect to kick in after getting to spend the entire offseason with the Blue Jays going into 2012, but Rasmus was almost as bad as before.

    Rasmus had one good month–a month where he flashed that all-star caliber potential, a month almost productive enough to salvage his end-of-the-season numbers and mask just how bad he was overall in 2012. In June, Rasmus hit .291/.331/.547 with 8 home runs and 25 RBI.

    In the five other months of the season combined, Rasmus hit .207 (including a dreadful .180 in July and August, when the team needed him the most) with 15 home runs and 50 RBI. Rasmus got on base at a dismal .289 clip and slugged an uninspiring .400 to give him a .689 OPS on the year (just .002 higher than Rajai Davis).

    The Jays still see the promise in the 26-year-old Rasmus, as they agreed to a $4.675 million deal to avoid arbitration this winter, but another season like last year and he could be non-tendered prior to his final year of arbitration rather than given another raise.

    There aren't any excuses left for Rasmus not to produce. He got his change of scenery, he has been around long enough to adjust to major-league pitching, and he'll play 2013 in an environment very conducive to succeed offensively.

    Like Lind, this could be Rasmus's last shot in Toronto and perhaps the last time he'll still be held in such high regard should he fail to at least return to his level of play in 2009-2010.

The Return of John Gibbons

7 of 10

    Perhaps the most important thing to know about the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays is who will be at the helm and held responsible for the overall success of its revamped roster and that man is John Gibbons. Yes, that John Gibbons. As the Blue Jays dealt away some of their future to focus on the present, they looked back to the past to find who they believe is the right manager to usher in a new era of Blue Jays baseball.

    John Gibbons, affectionately known as "Gibby" (by the few who actually got along with him during his first stint in Toronto), managed the Blue Jays for parts of five seasons from 2004-2008. During his tenure as manager the Jays were (exactly) a .500 team going 305-305 in 610 games under Gibby's leadership.

    Despite a record that would indicate the Blue Jays were a quietly average team during Gibby's first stint as manager, things were often anything but tranquil in the clubhouse.

    Before Gibbons' Act I ended and Cito Gaston's Act II began, Gibby's era as manager had been defined by his confrontational, intense style of management that clashed with a number of his veteran players. His time in Toronto may be best remembered–or, perhaps, marred by–his player-manager feuds with Shea Hillenbrand, Frank Thomas, and Ted Lilly.

    Despite these controversies, his baseball acumen, ability to lead, and in-game management were rarely questioned. He had earned the full support of his then well-respected catcher and clubhouse leader, Gregg Zaun, and even now-retired Shea Hillenbrand has supported the Jays' re-hiring of Gibbons.

    Perhaps as a former minor league roommate and friend of then-GM J.P. Ricciardi, who was only hired as the team's bullpen catcher two years prior to being named manager, Gibbons was rushed through the system and was unprepared to handle the baseball politics that go into managing.

    It's very possible that although Gibbons had all the knowledge and ability to successfully manage a team–as he often showed with his handling of the lineups and bullpen–his lack of experience at the helm of a team or in a significant leadership role left him mentally unprepared for the rigors of managing that occur outside of the foul lines.

    He certainly could have handled himself more professionally when it came to diffusing tense situations with his players and addressing the media, but Gibbons still managed to guide the team to a .500 record and lead them to their only 2nd place finish since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

    Now, Gibbons' Act II begins. Gibbons was given teams during his first stint as manager that had more of a veteran influence than the Blue Jays teams of the more recent past, but he failed to get over the hump with them. The Blue Jays splurged in the free agent market prior to the 2006 season, but Gibbons was only able to guide the team to an 87-75 record in 2006 and 83-79 record in 2007.

    However, despite the optimism created by the signings of A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, those Blue Jays teams didn't get near the pre-season expectations and excitement generated by this 2013 club.

    One thing that will almost certainly change is the clubhouse culture. Blue Jays beat reporter Shi Davidi put it best, claiming "[i]n three minutes, John Gibbons shows more personality than John Farrell did cummulatively in two years."John Farrell came highly recommended, but it almost seemed like he never wanted to be in Toronto in the first place.

    There were rumors that GM Alex Anthopoulos was secretly disgusted by John Farrell's lack of loyalty to the club–something that didn't come as much of a revelation to those who watched a seemingly apathetic, if not uninterested Farrell manage the team over the last two seasons.

    Even seasoned veteran and player-ambassador Omar Vizquel critiqued management at the end of last season. Vizquel called his only season in Toronto a personal disappointment, believing the team ran too loose of a ship and that management didn't do enough to "jump on mistakes" made by players.

    Vizquel also alluded to communication issues, which is consistent with the observations made by many of the fans and media about Farrell during his tenure as manager.

    Farrell may one day be one of the best managers in baseball if he is aptly motivated and perhaps the incentive wasn't there for him in Toronto. Whatever the case, the Blue Jays weren't that bad to begin with–they certainly underachieved under Farrell's watch.

    Gibbons' fiery personality certainly has a chance to catalyze the motivation that was lacking under Farrell, but Gibbons will also need to learn from the mistakes that caused him to nearly lose the respect of his clubhouse on numerous occasions the first time around.

    What you need to know about Gibbons is that in many ways, the organization probably views him as the antithesis of Farrell. He comes not as a former division rival, but as someone who knows the organization internally. He is not a low-key guy, but the type of in-your-face personality that won't tolerate lackadaisical play or repetitive mental errors by players.

    Whether the end-result will be different than the middling record of Farrell is yet to be seen, but Gibbons will certainly bring about a serious change of culture, which is a necessity for a team that has been mired in mediocrity and obscurity since Gibbons last managed the team.

The Roster Still Has Some Holes

8 of 10

    With all of the excitement and hoopla due to the bevy of talent acquired by AA this off-season, it is easy to get carried away and overlook some of the team's remaining flaws.

    The Blue Jays appear to be a much better team than last year's squad, but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Like every other team in the league–contemporary World Series favorites or not–the Blue Jays still have some holes and weaknesses on their roster that may or may not be addressed before the season begins.

    I touched upon what I considered to be–and still remain–the two biggest needs of the Blue Jays in an earlier article here. I still believe the Blue Jays would be smart to add a right-handed platoon partner for Adam Lind at DH as well as to acquire a quality bullpen arm with late-inning relief experience.

    Right now, it seems likely that Jose Bautista will see most of his action in right field with Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind splitting time between first base and designated hitter. Things could change or Bautista could see more time than expected at DH to keep him fresh, but this more or less appears to be the set-up going into the season.

    This set-up would seem to work, at least against right-handed pitching. Bautista and Encarnacion's bats should be in the lineup each day regardless of the match-up, but the Blue Jays are relying quite heavily on Lind–who, as discussed before was demoted to the minors last year and was almost outright waived–as an everyday player at one of two premium offensive positions.

    Case in point: against lefties, Lind hit .202/.250/.303 in 89 at-bats in 2012.

    Even in 2011, when Lind warranted everyday playing time, he still could only muster .243/.275/.364 with three home runs in 140 at-bats against lefties. As it stands, however, Lind is expected to hit somewhere between 3rd and 6th in the lineup on a daily basis, even against lefties.

    The Blue Jays attempted to add Russ Canzler to the mix but were unable to keep him on the roster shortly after claiming him. The Blue Jays just recently showed their desperation for another right-handed hitter who can fill-in at 1B and DH by adding 38-year-old Mark DeRosa to the mix.

    The Blue Jays still could use another hitter who could add some pop and has the ability to handle one or more corner position and I'm not optimistic that DeRosa–who has been a non-factor for the last three years as he has been hampered by injuries–is the answer.

    The Blue Jays' bullpen is also still a bit of a question mark. The relievers who performed well down the stretch in 2012 will be back for 2013, but that doesn't settle the bullpen. As mentioned, Casey Janssen underwent minor shoulder surgery in the offseason and there isn't a clear-cut reliable set-up man behind him.

    Darren Oliver will be 42 this season and though he's coming off a career year, he's not exactly the pitcher you want to close games in the event Janssen is unavailable. Sergio Santos was close to establishing himself, but after a disastrous start to 2012 followed by an injury that sidelined him for almost all of last season, he is also a question mark.

    There's a good bit of depth behind these three, but again, is it anyone you feel safe pitching the 8th inning in a tight game or having to step up into closer's role?

    The bullpen could be boom-or-bust, which as I'll soon discuss, is a prevalent theme on the Blue Jays roster. Having one more reliable, veteran reliever in the mix would have likely assuaged the concerns of a bullpen meltdown, the likes of which the team witnessed at the start of last season.

    One final thing I noticed the Blue Jays are missing–which I did not discuss in the previous article–is they don't have a "rock." A guy the team can rely on to produce at a high level each year, no matter the situation. Jose Bautista was well on his way to becoming that guy, but after only 2 1/2 seasons of dominance and coming back from a wrist injury, there is some concern that he won't be able to carry the team as he did.

    The Yankees have Jeter, the Red Sox have Ortiz, the Angels have Pujols, the Tigers have Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, but the Jays don't have that premiere hitter who has been doing it at a high level for a long period of time. Maybe they don't need one. The A's and the Orioles made the playoffs last year without that type of reliable, battle-tested star hitter, but they relied heavily on good pitching, good fundamentals, and a quite a bit of good fortune.

    Maybe the Jays already have that guy in Jose Bautista; time will tell. It would just be nice to know that there is someone the Jays can turn to and comfortably rely on to carry the lineup if Bautista is still feeling the lingering effects of the injury.

    The bottomline is that while the Blue Jays have made vast improvements to their roster from a year ago, they are still far from a perfect team.

High Risk, High Reward: A Boom-or-Bust Team

9 of 10

    The Blue Jays have many dynamic elements going into 2012 and one theme that should have become obvious is that the roster is loaded with high-risk, high-reward players.

    Of course no one knows for sure what any player will do the following season, but a large number of players on the 2013 roster will be of the unpredictable variety–the type of players who could achieve their all-star potential or struggle mightily.

    This theme is apparent across the board for the Blue Jays; from the lineup to the rotation to the bullpen to the manager, there is a lot of potential for success, but almost everyone has something to prove.

    The Blue Jays franchise itself is emblematic of this theme. The bar has been set high by the oddsmakers in Las Vegas and will continue to be set high as writers' predictions start to roll in with the Blue Jays a popular candidate to make the playoffs in the American League.

    There appears to be some chatter that Toronto may be the best team in the American League, and if they aren't the best, they aren't too far behind.

    Yet on the flip side, we're talking about a team who has spent the last two decades in obscurity and without so much as a playoff appearance. The organization itself will have to live up the hype and finally breakthrough or they will be considered a bust after they mortgaged part of their future on 2013.

    The team is getting more attention than it is used to, but will a roster full of players who have little-to-no postseason experience–with few exceptions–be able to handle that pressure?

    There's plenty of "boom" in the rotation. A reigning Cy Young winner, one of the most consistent starters of the last decade, and a pitcher in Josh Johnson who has shown ace potential in the past will join a pair of young holdovers trending in opposite directions, but both who have the stuff to be aces in their own right.

    However, there is also a large potential the rotation busts. R.A. Dickey pitching in the AL East worries some scouts. For the last few years, there has been talk that Mark Buehrle had lost a step and he–like Dickey–saw his numbers benefit from pitching in a weak NL East last season. Josh Johnson's name will always be synonymous with injury.

    Then, there is a risk that the talented but inconsistent Brandon Morrow can't duplicate his career year, while Ricky Romero, who looked lost at times last season, may duplicate the worst year of his career.

    I've already evaluated the bullpen and it should be clear that–just like every other bullpen–for every positive development, there is a risk it could implode.

    Janssen pitched great in his first year as closer, but can he do it again coming off off-season shoulder surgery?

    Can Darren Oliver duplicate last year's magic at 42 years old? Can Segrio Santos return to the type of pitcher he was in 2010 and 2011 with the White Sox or is he a bust?

    Can young, power arms like Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers, and Jeremy Jeffress strikeout hitters and be successful without making untimely pitching errors and losing their control?

    Finally, can the rotation cast-offs such as J.A. Happ and Brett Cecil make an impact in the bullpen or will they just become glorified mop-up men?

    Every bullpen is a gamble, but the Jays shouldn't be overly comfortable with their relief situation. Janssen, Santos, and Oliver all complement each other well and could make a great trio to close out tight games or they could end up being injured, inconsistent, and worn down. Like the rest of the team, it's boom or bust.

    Finally, there's the lineup. Melky Cabrera went from a fourth outfielder to a budding superstar to a pariah universally castigated for testing positive for a banned substance and attempting to cover it up.

    Which Melky will we see in 2013? The one who was barely a starter-quality player prior to 2011, the one who played like an all-star in 2012, or will we see a brand-new Melky–one somewhere in between, who has developed as a hitter but lacks the same edge of recent years without whatever banned substances he was using? He could be the perfect #2 hitter or he could find himself rounding out the bottom of the lineup.

    Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion as previously discussed have each shown in their most recent full, healthy seasons that they are capable of being premiere power hitters. However, each has a risk going into 2013. Bautista will be recovering from an injury that cost him the final 70 games of the season while Encarnacion will have to prove last year's career was no fluke.

    They could be the most prolific home run hitting duo in 2013 or they could both struggle with the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued them before their sudden breakouts.

    The Blue Jays have plenty of talent–perhaps their most talented team since their World Series-winning squads of 1992 and 1993. They have players capable of dominating and being the best at what they do at every position and facet of the game. However, almost all of these players also have some major red flags and risks associated with them.

    The biggest boom or bust candidate may be manager John Gibbons, and whether he has developed into a more seasoned and wiser team leader or is still the incendiary provocateur he was during his first stint as manager may be the determinative factor as to whether the Blue Jays are more boom or more bust in 2013.

The Time Is Now: Win-Now Mentality Changes Clubhouse Culture

10 of 10

    The final theme–the one that changes everything for the Toronto Blue Jays going into 2013–is that there is now some pressure on the organization to win.

    Of course, every season jobs are on the line and there is a standard of success that must be achieved for a franchise not to consider a season a failure, but that standard has been set a lot higher for the Blue Jays in 2013.

    It's been a long time since Toronto was in "win-now" mode; the focus was usually on developing the farm to make a run at some indeterminable point in the future. Well, it turns out that point in the future is now. That's not to say that all is lost if the Blue Jays fail to make the playoffs in 2013, but the consequences of not doing so this year would be a lot more damning than the eighteen times prior to this year.

    It's a theme that will underlie every decision the Blue Jays will make this season; it's why John Gibbons was brought back to light a spark under a quiet, low-key team from a year ago. You can throw away the cliches we usually hear from middle-of-the-pack teams about how every year they expect to make the playoffs.

    This year there is some sort of real hope that the Blue Jays can end their 18-year postseason drought.

    Optimism has to be tempered; right now the Blue Jays are only better than they were a year ago on paper. The games still have to be played. But with a team more focused on the here and now than they have been since the strike-shortened season of 1994, what every fan needs to know about the Blue Jays is, despite the annual rhetoric, this year the team–both the players and management–truly believes this is their best opportunity to be a legitimate contender.

    It's this win-now mentality–perhaps ushered in by an apparent regression by the Yankees and Red Sox while the Rays and Orioles have stood by idly for most of the offseason–that will put immediate pressure on John Gibbons to quickly shake off the rust of not managing and get the most of this veteran-based franchise.

    It's why this year's rotation consists of guys with much more impressive resumes than the hodgepodge cast of starters of a year ago.

    There has been a similar arc to most Blue Jays seasons of the past: stay competitive for as long as you can and once you fall out of contention, sell off the veterans now deemed expendable and replenish the farm system for a theoretical run at the crown in the future.

    That storyline changes in 2013 as–forgive me for the cliche–but the future is now. Almost every move the Blue Jays have made for the last half-decade was done with some eye toward being competitive at a later date.

    That later date is 2013. Now the pressure is on to finally accomplish the goals that were many years in the making, for a failure to do so could revert the organization back to the familiar arc of rebuilding for a new undetermined point in the future with nothing to show for it.

    That's why the last and perhaps the most important thing you need to know about the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays is that there is more pressure on the organization to make the playoffs in 2013 than ever before.

    It is this win-now mentality that should ultimately result in a strikingly different style of play this season as the organization intends to emerge from obscurity and return to the postseason for the first time since that memorable Game 6 of the 1993 World Series–nearly two decades ago.