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After rocky 2013, Blue Jays still have pieces to go far

While many are counting out Toronto, a healthier lineup can open some eyes @philgrogers

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Were we that stupid?

Or are the Blue Jays baseball's best sleeper this season?

"There's no question that the focus is off us this year," manager John Gibbons said Friday. "But that doesn't affect how we feel about ourselves."

Agent Scott Boras continues to try to sell Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos and the team's Rogers Communication ownership on free agents Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales -- one or both -- and it's possible a late reinforcement could be added. But when you look around the field at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium or check the names on the lockers in the clubhouse, you can also see the Blue Jays becoming a contender without Drew, Morales or Ervin Santana, all of whom would cost Toronto the 45th overall pick in the upcoming Draft.

After trading for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey and signing free agent Melky Cabrera, the Blue Jays were consensus favorites for the wide-open AL East race a year ago. They wound up 74-88 and in last place, and now they're mentioned about as often as Pawtucket and Norfolk in 2014 forecasts.

But inside the sport, they're seen as deserving of the mulligan they're being given by a front office that has kept the core together.

"It's easier being the chaser than the chased," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's less complicated."

The addition of Dickey, the 39-year-old knuckleballer who won the 2012 NL Cy Young Award for the Mets, signaled how strongly Anthopoulos and team president Paul Beeston felt about the chances for the Blue Jays to end a playoff drought that dates back to Joe Carter's home run off Mitch Williams in 1993. But as the Angels have demonstrated since they added Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson, it's really tough for a baseball franchise to pick its time and place to win.

As has been the case for each of the last four World Series champions, the sneak attack can be the way to go, even if it defies marketing slogans.

"Hey, we're not that bad" probably won't sell tickets. But the reality is that with the exception of a handful of proven powerhouses and overt rebuilders, baseball is extremely difficult to forecast. The Blue Jays are counting on that.

"We were in the spotlight last year and it was a tough year for us," Gibbons said. "We really like this team. We didn't perform up to the way we thought we were capable last year, and hopefully we do that this year."

Gibbons, who managed the Blue Jays in 2005-08, returned for a second stint after John Farrell was released from his contract to return to Boston. He was given an overhauled roster for a chaotic Spring Training, when Dickey, Reyes, catcher J.P. Arencibia, third baseman Brett Lawrie and others came and went because of the World Baseball Classic.

"The WBC hurt them as much as anybody last year," Hurdle said. "They had all those new players and the job was to bring them together. They didn't have enough time to do that because they had players all over the place."

Catcher Dioner Navarro, who spent last season with the Cubs, agrees with Hurdle.

"The guys who were here probably don't want to talk about it, but it's not a secret," said Navarro, who signed a two-year, $8-million deal to replace Arencibia. "The WBC hurt this team a lot. With so many new players, Spring Training was very important and probably a lot of problems were caused, little stuff that you don't see in the papers. Being around the game long enough, you understand. I see a lot of talent with this team, lots of very good players, and I'm very excited about the season."

Injuries were a recurring theme for the Blue Jays, with no one playing more than 143 games and only Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion and the .194-hitting Arencibia playing more than 118. But this is a different year.

Jose Bautista, who homered in Toronto's first exhibition game, appears to have recovered from the bone bruise in his left hip. Reyes is running well, and so is Cabrera.

Cabrera was signed to a two-year, $16-million contract in November 2012 after his stint with the Giants ended with a PED suspension. The 2012 All-Star Game MVP was limited by a mysterious back injury that turned out to be due to a benign tumor. He's like a new man -- or the old one -- since having it removed.

Second baseman Ryan Goins is unproven and under the gun, especially since Boras made it clear that Drew would be happy to move to second base if he could get a multi-year agreement. But the biggest X-factor for the Blue Jays is a starting rotation that, with the exception of Johnson, has the same basic cast (Dickey, Buehrle, J.A. Happ and the often-injured Brandon Morrow) responsible for a 46-57 record and 4.81 earned run average last year.

How those guys bounce back from meh seasons and how much youngsters like Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek and Marcus Stroman contribute will tell a lot. Only the Twins and Rockies got fewer innings from their starters last year, and an overworked bullpen is never part of a formula for success.

An overworked catcher? Maybe.

The wide-bodied Navarro -- listed at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds -- was dripping sweat after catching Buehrle for the first time in a 4-2 victory over the Pirates.

Nobody works quicker than Buehrle, even in February, and the rapid-fire pace takes some getting used to for catchers accustomed to handling less decisive pitchers. It was a good thing for Navarro that it was only 63 degrees.

"On the positive side," he said, "I don't have to do my conditioning work now."

You've got to love guys who can always find positives. Could this be a time for silver linings in Toronto?

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Toronto Blue Jays, Jose Bautista, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, Brandon Morrow, Dioner Navarro, Jose Reyes