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Franchise will surprise many on way to playoffs this season

Photo credit: Paul Gorbould (CC)

The look on Jose Reyes’ face on April 13 last year after awkwardly sliding into second base summed up the Blue Jays’ highly anticipated season: agony.

The severe ankle sprain limited the shortstop to only 93 games for the season, and was one of many injuries to the team’s key players that contributed to its 74 and 88 finish, good enough for last place in the difficult American League East division.

Despite a quiet off-season, the one-day signing of Roy Halladay to retire with the team was their most significant pitching acquisition; the Blue Jays will be contenders in 2014. And what is even more shocking is that their success will come from a forgotten core of players who were part of the organization long before last year’s major off-season overhaul.

It’s hard to believe, but before R.A. Dickey’s misbehaving knuckleball, Melky Cabrera’s hobbling defence, and Reyes’ flick of the bat ever made their way to Toronto, there was optimism surrounding Canada’s sole professional baseball team. Baseball is all about pitching, and the 2012 Blue Jays were predicted by many as a sleeper pick to make the playoffs primarily because of a talented pitching rotation centered around the hard-throwing arms of Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison, and the often injured Dustin McGowan.

Things didn’t go quite as planned, and injuries to all three of these players for the next two seasons severely limited the team’s chances for success. But all three of these pitchers are back and healthy, despite the fact that many have forgotten the excitement and promise they once offered a generation of fans who weren’t even alive for the team’s last playoff appearance in 1993.

Not only are these three key pitchers back and ready to perform, but they’re now joined by seven all-stars, one of the league’s best bullpens, and a batting line-up that — outside of second base — can compete with any major league team.

What fans forget about last season is that when injuries hit key players in the pitching staff, there were no strong candidates within the organization to replace them. The Blue Jays had 13 different starting pitchers last year, only six of whom finished with a sub 5.00 earned run average (ERA) and only three of whom started more than 18 games. By comparison, the World Series Boston Red Sox only needed 29 starts from men who weren’t in their opening five-man rotation. And no starting pitcher on the team outside of Steven Wright, who played in only one game for the Red Sox, had an ERA above 5.00.

But this year the Blue Jays have prized prospects Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez ready and waiting should injuries strike their starting pitchers. They have also improved at the catcher position with the subtraction of J.P. Arencibia and his bravado, and at defence with plans for a full year out of defensive wiz Ryan Goins at second base.

It may be hard to believe, but things can go wrong with this team, and they can still win. Despite the money that Jays’ American League East rivals dished out this off-season on big-name free agents, the Jays are actually positioned with a younger and arguably more talented core of players than all of their division rivals. The New York Yankees have the weakest bullpen in baseball, as well as the oldest infield; the Red Sox are due to regress; the Baltimore Orioles pitching rotation remains thin; and the Tampa Bay Rays have the weakest pitching rotation they’ve had in years.

It may sound crazy to hear, but these Blue Jays will be in the playoffs come September. Just make sure you’re ready to adjust your class schedule accordingly during the fall.