Going back to the days of John McGraw and Connie Mack, managers have never refused to make the offseason contention vow. Ask how their teams are going to do in the coming years, they will usually predict a first-place finish, or failing that, at least a strongly competitive one. "I think we're going to surprise a few people," that kind of thing.
Hunt around the Internet and you can probably find recordings of Mack, senescent but still verbal, predicting that his segregated, run-on-a-shoestring "Phil-a-del-phia Ath-uh-letics" (that's how he said it, as about 42 syllables) would win the pennant that year, whatever year it was whether his first baseman was Jimmie Foxx or Lou Finney. Or Albert Finney. or Finney the Carvel Mother's Day ice cream cake. There was, and is, a simple reason for going big during the offseason: It's a free chance to stoke ticket sales.
The most famous result of the contention vow came during the 1933-1934 offseason, when Giants manager Bill Terry was asked to assess his club's chances against various National League competitors and, when asked about the Dodgers, answered a question with a question: "Brooklyn? Are they still in the league?" The Dodgers then proceeded to knock the Giants out of the pennant race on the last day of the season.
I asked John Gibbons to assess the Blue Jays' chances given the state of the American League East -- the Red Sox are coming off a down year, the Yankees are going cheap (for them) and just lost Alex Rodriguez (again), the Rays potentially trading off pitching, and the Orioles seemingly unlikely to repeat. Is this Toronto's window? This was a chance for Gibbons to show real bravado, but he declined and gave a measured response: "We hope so."
Gibbons cited in particular the work the Red Sox have done to reshape their team. "There's too much pressure to do something to improve their team," he said, and cited the signings of Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli with approval. "They're beefing up their lineup, they're not going to sit back." Nor would he say that any of his competitors are noticeably weaker now than they were a year ago.
As for the Jays themselves, Gibbons is looking to improve the baserunning attack from a year ago, when the team ran into a lot of reckless outs (according to Baseball Prospectus's baserunning runs stat, the Jays were about average, but it's Gibbons' opinion that counts), but otherwise didn't want to discuss the past. "This is my chance to get to know [the team] and form my own opinions ... This is a new start for them and a new start for me."
"We have very good team speed, we've got pitching, we've got power. We have to play smart baseball. I can tell you that much now."