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Complete circle would fit Blue Jays just fine

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Once upon a time, the Toronto Blue Jays were baseball's model organization, and that's one of the things that makes this 2013 season even more interesting. It's a chance to put a really good team on the field, but it's more than that, too, a hope of lifting a franchise back to places it hasn't been in two decades.

"We have a very rare opportunity," said 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, one of the new Blue Jays. "We can be the group that ushers back in this championship mentality. You don't get these kinds of opportunities very often. These fans are hungry for a winner. It's been a long time coming. To have that opportunity is a big responsibility, but it should be fun."

It's not just that the Blue Jays have undergone a dramatic overhaul, with general manager Alex Anthopoulos adding 627 innings and 66 quality starts to the starting rotation and two impact bats to the lineup. It's not even that the Blue Jays brought back John Gibbons, a smart, tough, no-nonsense baseball lifer, to manage the club.

It's all that and more. It's that the three new starting pitchers -- Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle -- are veteran guys, respected for both their maturity and production. If there's an easy way to dramatically change the mix of players, having veteran, quality people ought to make the job that much easier.

And the biggest difference, perhaps the thing that could end up being the biggest factor of all in the dog days of August and September, is that the Blue Jays have Jose Bautista. There are few players in the game more respected for how they go about their business AND how they produce on the field. His leadership is both spoken and unspoken, and his fifth Opening Day with the Blue Jays begins with a combination of expectation and optimism.

"The most important thing is the guys we have," Bautista said. "We have quality players that are at the same time quality people. It's easy for everybody to get along and enjoy their time together and come together as a club for a common goal. Obviously, we all want to play in the playoffs. When everyone is pulling the rope the same way, it's easy to get everything done."

OK, what can go wrong? With ownership increasing the payroll from $84 million in 2012 to around $123 million this year, there's a very good rotation, with quality depth. There's a terrific lineup after the addition of Jose Reyes to top of the order and Melky Cabrera to the middle. There's a quality closer in Casey Janssen and nice depth -- Darren Oliver, Sergio Santos -- in front of him. Is there anything wrong with this picture?

"There are a lot of good teams out there," Gibbons said. "But we feel good going into the year. You've got to go out and do it. You can talk all you want. But we feel we've got as good a shot as anybody. Everybody is expecting this to be automatic, but you look around the league. There are a lot of teams that can win this thing. You know what, we haven't done it before here. The teams that have been through it and expect to win have the advantage. With so many new guys, you hope it comes together. But you never really know for sure."

Health could be an issue. Johnson has had two seasons pretty much wiped out by injuries, and even Bautista missed virtually the entire second half of last season with a wrist injury. On the other hand, if they're both healthy, if Dickey and Buehrle produce as usual, the Blue Jays would appear to be as good as any team in baseball.

"I'm very excited, just like all the fans and the front office," Bautista said. "We've got a great team on paper. We realize we've got to go out on the field and perform. That's a challenge I look forward to."

The Blue Jays haven't been to the playoffs since 1993 and have finished fourth in the American League East four years in a row. But even right here at the beginning of Spring Training, there's a sense that this is going to be a special baseball season in Toronto, that a franchise that drew 4 million fans three straight years in the '90s is in for another spectacular ride.

"We mentioned when we first got down here that it's important you come together as a team," Gibbons said. "The way it's starting to shape up, there's something there we think. Of course, we haven't played a game that matters. Nothing has hit the fan yet, haven't had a bad stretch. We don't know how everybody's going to act, but that's always the question when there are so many new guys. I think it's going to be good. I think there's something special about this group."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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