Toronto Blue Jays: Stealth Contender

It's been almost two decades since the Blue Jays have been in the postseason. Toronto has the talent to begin to make a run at October again.

The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993, their second consecutive World Series title.

That's also the last year in which the Blue Jays made the postseason, as the AL East has been dominated since then by the Yankees, Red Sox, and over the last four years, the Rays.

In the 18 seasons since, Toronto has had eight winning seasons, nine losing ones and one .500 season -- last year. They've never been really good -- 88 wins is the most they've had in that span -- but never been really bad, either, losing more than 90 just once since 1993.

This year, though, the Blue Jays could surprise everyone in the AL East in 2012, contend for the division title, and possibly even make the playoffs -- especially if Bud Selig's extra-wild-card proposal is instituted this year.

Why is this so? The Jays were linked to a number of big-name free agents this offseason -- Prince Fielder, Carlos Beltran, Yu Darvish, Roy Oswalt -- but they signed none of them (although Oswalt is still out there, unsigned). Now, they're considering signing Manny Ramirez, as we reported here at Baseball Nation last Friday. So far, their "biggest" offseason move has been trading for former White Sox closer Sergio Santos (unless you count a "big" move as re-signing second baseman Kelly Johnson).

The Blue Jays have baseball's top home run hitter, Jose Bautista, who's smashed 97 of them the last two seasons. But quietly, they have also put together a team that has considerable run-scoring prowess; they were fifth in the AL in runs and home runs in 2011 and have at least five players who could hit 20 or more homers this season: Bautista, catcher J.P. Arencibia, first baseman Adam Lind, Johnson, and third baseman Brett Lawrie, who is the pick of many to be the next breakout star in the American League. Lawrie, who just turned 22, had an outstanding debut for the Jays in 2011, hitting .293/.373/.580 in 171 PA, just enough to disqualify him for Rookie of the Year consideration in 2012.

And Lawrie is a native Canadian, something that could help the Jays start to fill the empty expanses of the Rogers Centre. Toronto drew over four million fans three straight years in the early 1990s when they were winning World Series, but attendance dropped to barely a third of that by 2010. Last year, the Jays averaged 22,446, less than half capacity.

The reason the Jays didn't contend last year with all that firepower was a less-than-stellar pitching staff that allowed the fourth-most runs in the AL. Management has attempted to address that by shoring up the bullpen, first with the acquisition of Santos, second with the signing of former Reds closer Francisco Cordero, who can close if Santos can't handle the job. Santos saved 30 games in 2011, but also blew six save opps, three of them in September when the White Sox were trying to hang on as contenders. Toronto's bullpen had 25 blown saves in 2011, tied for third-worst in the majors. The Blue Jays also reacquired former setup man Jason Frasor, who they had shipped to the White Sox last summer, and signed lefty specialist Darren Oliver, who has been in the postseason the last six years.

It won't be easy with the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox in the same division. But there are cracks in the New York/Boston facade: The Yankees get older each year and the Red Sox have to overcome the worst September collapse in baseball history. The Rays might be Toronto's toughest competition.

I've saved perhaps the biggest enigma for last. That's Colby Rasmus, exiled from St. Louis to Toronto, ostensibly in part because he and manager Tony La Russa weren't getting along. Rasmus was the Cardinals' No. 1 draft pick in 2005 and has considerable talent; his 2010 numbers (.276/.361/.498, 132 OPS+) at age 23 suggested stardom. He regressed considerably in 2011, but if he can recover his 2010 level, or even have a breakout season at age 25, the Jays will have yet another 20-HR potential bat in center field.

The Jays have a spiffy new retro-style logo and uniforms that hark back to their success in the 1980s and 1990s, when they made the postseason five times in nine years and barely missed a sixth (1987, when they were eliminated on the last day of the regular season). They have the talent to make the AL East -- much like the NL East might also be this year -- a four-team race.

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