MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Busy offseason has Blue Jays poised to take AL East

Justice: Blue Jays poised to take AL East

The Toronto Blue Jays have won the offseason, so let's go ahead and crown 'em. Now comes the fun part.

At this point, I'm supposed to warn the Blue Jays about the burden of expectations and how they'll suck the fun out of the clubhouse. Yes, Toronto will be under some pressure. Yes, every slump will be met with all kinds of overreaction.

Hey, that's life in the fast lane. The Red Sox and Yankees have lived the life for years, and done quite well most of the time. No team has improved itself as much as the Blue Jays, and after 19 years out of the playoffs, these next 12 months should be a fun ride.

Here's guessing Toronto manager John Gibbons will do a terrific job creating the right environment. Here's guessing he'll have the time of his life. Gibbons has stepped into a great situation, far different from the one he had before.

Once upon a time, the Blue Jays had virtually no hope of passing the Yankees and Red Sox. Now, they're absolutely loaded. Presuming they'll finish the proposed deal for R.A. Dickey, it'll be almost impossible to make a case for any other team winning the American League East.

The Rays still have a deep pitching staff and arguably the division's best player in Evan Longoria. They've got the most exciting rookie, too, after acquiring outfielder Wil Myers from the Royals in the James Shields trade.

Joe Maddon might be the best manager in all of baseball, and Andrew Friedman might be the best general manager. Together, they've constructed a winning culture, and even with the departures of Shields and B.J. Upton, the Rays are headed for another 90-plus victory season.

The Yankees? That's a tougher sell. But they still do have a deep rotation and a very good bullpen. At the moment, though, there are just too many holes in the lineup to pick them.

That's also true for the Red Sox. If John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester have career years -- or very good years -- the Red Sox are good enough to contend. But they don't have the firepower the Blue Jays have.

There's a case to be made for the Orioles if the young pitchers -- Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz -- take a step forward. General manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter did a masterful job juggling the pieces in 2012. They're not to be overlooked.

Still, none of the other AL East teams appear to be as good as Toronto. If the Dickey deal gets done, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos will have added 627 innings, 424 strikeouts and 66 quality starts this offseason.

Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Dickey had a combined 3.46 ERA last season. They're a dramatic upgrade for a team that had a rotation 25th in the Major Leagues in ERA (4.82), 26th in innings and 27th in strikeouts.

Those 66 quality starts are just nine fewer than the entire Toronto staff had in 2012. The new guys are all veterans happy to step to the front of the rotation and create competitive spots behind them.

Even if Anthopolous hadn't made another acquisition, he would have done enough. But that big trade with the Marlins also got the Blue Jays one of baseball's most dynamic leadoff hitters.

If Jose Reyes stays healthy, he'll be on base about 35 percent of the time, steal 40 bases and leg out a dozen or so triples. With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of the order, Toronto could be fun to watch.

There obviously are things we can't know. Injuries? There are some question marks up and down the lineup. Expectations? Dickey, Johnson and Reyes don't have a lot of pennant-race experience, so who knows how they will react? Slumps? Players sometimes struggle when they change teams, and even though players say they'll ignore the outside noise, they seldom do.

See? If you look closely enough, you can find a reason not to believe in the Blue Jays in 2013. But there are far more reasons to believe. They've got a terrific front three in their rotation and quality depth after that. They've got a dazzling leadoff hitter in Reyes and a solid middle of the order in Bautista and Encarnacion.

The Blue Jays have been close in recent years, finishing with a winning record five of the last seven seasons. It's just that the AL East was baseball's best division, and it was almost impossible to crack the front three owned by the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

Now the Blue Jays have had one of those offseasons fans dream about, and the AL East appears to be theirs for the taking. Anthopoulus paid a high price in terms of prospects, but if Toronto is playing October baseball, it will have been worth it.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.