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'On paper,' Toronto Blue Jays the team to beat in AL East

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey works

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey works out during spring training in Dunedin, Fla. (Feb. 12, 2013) Credit: AP

DUNEDIN, Fla. - Beasts of the East. The winners of the offseason. The team to beat.

Like this year's Toronto Blue Jays, all of the above was said about last year's Miami Marlins. An offseason spending binge had the Marlins as the predictors' preseason darlings -- until they failed spectacularly, finished in last place and traded away the players they had just acquired.

Some of those gutted Marlins will resurface right here this spring at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium as part of the new Jays.

Pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle came from Miami in a 12-player trade, as did former Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio. Toronto added NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey in a seven-player deal with the Mets. All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera signed on as a free agent, as did infielder Maicer Izturis.

Add those names to a nucleus that includes sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, emerging youngsters J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie and solid (when healthy) starters Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.

"This team is built to win," said Romero, Toronto's Opening Day starter the past two seasons who is battling back from elbow surgery to be the No. 5. "On paper, we're a great team. We've seen it a lot, not just in baseball, but in other sports. It doesn't matter what kind of team you have on paper. You've still got to go out there and play. If anything, the target's growing a little bit on us."

The Blue Jays, who went 73-89 and finished fourth in the AL East last season, haven't been to the playoffs since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93. Only Pittsburgh and Kansas City have longer postseason droughts. Toronto has to contend in the East with the Yankees and Orioles, who both made the playoffs in 2012, plus the perennially feisty Rays and retooling Red Sox.

As the Blue Jays assemble for spring training -- pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday and Bautista is already here after a season stunted by wrist surgery -- the specter of the 2012 Marlins will loom like thunderclouds in the Florida sky.

"That will help because Buerhle, Johnson, Reyes, Bonifacio -- all of the guys who came over -- they will know that it doesn't matter what the paper says," Dickey said. "That's cliche, but it's cliche for a reason. Because it's true. I think there's enough wisdom in here to help us hurdle over that pitfall that may be there when you take yourself too seriously on paper."

Another parallel: The Marlins (69-93) had a combustible manager in Ozzie Guillen who flamed out and was fired at season's end. The Blue Jays rehired former manager John Gibbons, who managed the club from 2004-08 and was fired after failing to get along with some of his players, most notably veterans Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly.

"I'm new coming back, so there's excitement there for myself," said Gibbons, a former Mets catcher and surprise choice of general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "The talent that Alex has assembled speaks for itself, but we've got to go out and play good baseball. You've still got to win a lot of ballgames.

"There's times you come in and you think, 'Boy, if everything goes right, we've got a shot at this.' But legitimately maybe you don't. But now, we feel we've got one of the better teams in baseball."

Morrow, who was 10-7 with a 2.96 ERA in 2012 but missed more than two months with an oblique strain, said: "I think the optimism's at an all-time high. We were hopefully optimistic last year, but I think this year we expect to win. That's the difference."

Blue Jays offseason moves

Nov. 8 -- Sign INF Maicer Izturis to a three-year, $9-million contract.

Nov. 19 -- Acquire SS Jose Reyes, RHP Josh Johnson, LHP Mark Buehrle, C John Buck and INF/OF Emilio Bonifacio from Miami for SS Yunel Escobar, SS Adeiny Hechavarria, RHP Henderson Alvarez, C Jeff Mathis and three minor leaguers.

Nov. 19 -- Sign OF Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16-million contract.

Nov. 20 -- Hire John Gibbons as manager.

Dec. 17 -- Acquire RHP R.A. Dickey, C Josh Thole and C Mike Nickeas from Mets for C John Buck, C Travis d'Arnoud, RHP Noah Syndergaard and OF Wuilmer Becerra. Sign Dickey to three-year, $30-million contract extension.

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