The trade with the Marlins wasn't enough to make them clear favorites. It improved the Blue Jays, sure, but there's an easy, built-in rebuttal to the argument that they're an unbeatable team with Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes. That rebuttal is this: Do you know what team had those guys last year? Yeah. The Marlins. As a way to improve a team, those three guys are swell. But they aren't a magic talisman.
Melky Cabrera was a great low-risk, high-reward signing for a team that was starting Rajai Davis and an overmatched Anthony Gose in left field. But there's no denying the causal link between Melky's sudden improvement and the reason he was so cheap in the first place. There was a Popeye/spinach thing going on, or so it would seem. There's no guarantee that he'll get back to being the player he was with the Royals, much less the player he was with the Giants.
But more than all that, the Blue Jays lost 89 games last year. Add 10 wins to that, and it's not enough. Add 20 to it. Does 93 wins take the A.L. East? Dunno, man. It didn't last year.
So how do you get 20 or 25 extra wins? You can't do it in one swell foop. You hope to get a couple with Melky instead of Rajai, and the same goes with Reyes instead of Yuñel Escobar. You lose a couple with Edwin Encarnacion falling back to Earth, but you hopefully gain those back with Jose Bautista playing a full season. Heck, you gain wins just by everyone playing a full season, including Brandon Morrow. At least, that's the hope.
Still, 20 wins is a tall order. That's not the kind of thing you can just wash away with a clever free-agent signing and a blockbuster trade or two. The Blue Jays got closer with the Marlins trade and Melky, but they didn't become the overwhelming favorites. No, that happened with two subsequent moves:
- R.A. Dickey isn't exactly a Jay yet, but he probably will be. Even if you don't expect him to win the Cy Young again, which you shouldn't, he's still better than J.A. Happ. You don't pronounce the initials as a single word like you do with J.A Happ, for one. It's not "Ray Dickey", and that's better for everyone involved. More importantly, Happ is close to replacement level, or he has been over the last three years. The 2011 version of R.A. Dickey is still a substantial improvement, anywhere from three to five wins.
- The Rays will be better in the long term with Wil Myers instead of James Shields, most likely, but for 2013, I'd wager they're worse. Maybe not substantially worse. But I can see Myers struggling in his initial trial (especially in a pitchers' park), with Alex Cobb falling short of the workhorse standards of James Shields. It's not like they're going from Mike Trout to Delmon Young in center field, but just because the Rays made smart moves, it doesn't mean they'll be better in 2013.
Those two moves -- combined with the Yankees' punting catcher and counting on a pair of almost-40 players at the top of their order -- put the Jays in the top spot of the preseason prognostications, at least temporarily. The Dickey trade was a tipping point. He doesn't have to be the ace of the staff. He just has to be good, which he is. What's going to go wrong, he tears a ligament? He's already missing one. Your move, baseball gods!
Toward the end of last season, the Blue Jays used the following five starting pitchers in succession: Chad Jenkins, Henderson Alvarez, Ricky Romero, Aaron Laffey, and Carlos Villanueva. How could things not get better when you've upgraded to Johnson/Buehrle/Dickey, with a healthy Morrow? How could they not improve by, like, 25 games?
Baseball doesn't work like that. One season's Edwin Encarnacion is next season's Edwin Encarnacion, and just because the Jays had 93 different pitchers hit the DL last year doesn't mean they'll avoid the same fate this year. But, considering the Yankees' current DH is Eduardo Nunez and the Rays' current DH is Ryan Roberts, I'll concede the point. After improvement after improvement, incremental as they might have been, the Toronto Blue Jays are probably the favorites in the A.L. East for the first time in two decades.
All they have to do is play the stupid games.