MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Gibbons ready to compete in talent-packed AL East

Gibbons ready to compete in talent-packed AL East

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The last time John Gibbons managed the Toronto Blue Jays, he was looking for ways to sell the team as a legitimate contender. It didn't work.

He returned to the Blue Jays this offseason, 4 1/2 years after being dismissed, and now it's the outsiders who are talking about the Jays, picked by oddsmakers as the team to beat in the American League East.

"That's what this roster can do for you," said a smiling Gibbons, rehired to manage the Blue Jays during the offseason.

Things haven't been so upbeat in Toronto since two decades ago, when the Jays were reeling off back-to-back championships, the only team other than the Yankees to have done that since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.

Since then, the AL East had become the private battleground for the deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox. The two teams combined to win 16 of 18 AL East titles, and 11 Wild Card berths since the three-division lineup was created in 1995.

This year, however, has the makings of a new look in the AL East.

And the Blue Jays know it.

Nothing says that like the offseason shopping spree of general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

• For a seven-player package heavy on Minor Leaguers, Anthopoulos took advantage of the fire sale in Miami to land starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and versatile Emilio Bonifacio.

• He shipped three more Minor Leaguers, including prospect Travis d'Arnaud, to the financially-strapped New York Mets to acquire National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and the knuckleballer's primary catcher, Josh Thole.

• Anthopoulos' free-agent signings included left fielder Melky Cabrera, second baseman Maicer Izturis, backup catcher Henry Blanco and Mark DeRosa, who brings a leadership quality along with versatility.

"Look at what Alex assembled here," said Gibbons. "He saw a window of opportunity."

With the addition of the three veteran starting pitchers, Ricky Romero, last year's Opening Day starter, slips back to the No. 5 slot. Reyes and Cabrera provided depth for a lineup that finished seventh in the AL in runs scored.

"The other thing," said Gibbons, "is these are guys who are used to winning."

That's something the Blue Jays haven't done much of since those back-to-back championships. The only time the Jays have even finished in second place in the last 19 years was 2006, the second of the three full seasons Gibbons managed the team. They finished in third place the other two.

The 19-year postseason drought is the third longest in baseball, behind Kansas City (27 years) and Pittsburgh (20 years). Washington ended its 30-year absence last season.

This year, there is hope.

Toronto isn't overlooking Baltimore, which claimed an AL Wild Card spot last year for its first postseason appearance since 1997, and Tampa Bay, which won the AL East in 2008 and earned the AL Wild Card spot in 2010 and '11. The Orioles, however, didn't make an impact offseason addition, and the Rays continue to look for ways to enjoy champagne seasons on a beer budget.

The Yankees and the Red Sox, however, are the teams that grab the headlines. And both seem vulnerable.

The Yanks, given a directive to get the payroll below $189 million by 2014 to avoid a heavy luxury tax, were absent from the high-priced free-agent market last winter, settling for signing the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner.

Meanwhile, they suffered free-agent losses of catcher Russell Martin to Pittsburgh, left fielder Raul Ibanez to Seattle, right fielder Nick Swisher to Cleveland, third baseman Eric Chavez to Arizona, and the man who stepped in to save 42 games in the absence of Mariano Rivera last year, Rafael Soriano, who signed with Washington.

And then came the spring surprises. Already aware that Alex Rodriguez would miss at least half, if not all, the coming season because of hip surgery, the Yankees are now going to have to wait until mid-May for the return of center fielder Curtis Granderson, who suffered a broken right forearm in the first game of the spring, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, who strained his right wrist taking batting practice with Team USA in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.

That leaves second baseman Robinson Cano, shortstop Derek Jeter, left fielder Brett Gardner and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, an in-season addition from Seattle last July, who was re-signed as a free agent in December, as the only everyday starters returning from last year.

And it leaves the Yanks desperate enough that they are putting out feelers for the likes of Scott Rolen and Derek Lee, none of whom are even in Spring Training.

Boston, meanwhile, is trying to recover from last year's last-place struggles. The Red Sox lost 93 games, equaling the 10th-most losses in franchise history, their most since losing 100 games in 1965.

The Red Sox also underwent a major overhaul, but unlike the Yankees, it was completely by design, and began last August when they shipped the high-salaried package of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Carl Crawford, infielder Nick Punto and right-hander Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

And then came the offseason firing of manager Bobby Valentine, which led to convincing Toronto to let its manager, John Farrell, assume that role in Boston, where he had previously been the pitching coach. However, the free-agent additions of first baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, and outfielders Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino make the Red Sox another possible threat.

"There's one thing you know about those teams," said Gibbons. "They are not going to sit back and watch the rest of the world go by. They will do something."

But will it be enough to offset what the Blue Jays already have done?

"It all comes down to what you do on the field," said Gibbons.

That's the beauty of the 162-game regular season.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.