DUNEDIN — The last time expectations were this high for the Blue Jays, Joe Carter was joyously jumping around the bases on a magical October night in 1993, his home run clinching their second straight World Series title.
They haven't sniffed the playoffs since, but it's more than nostalgia that has some predicting Toronto will return in the 20th anniversary season of that championship.
With one blockbuster trade and several key free-agent signings this winter, the Jays quickly became the most made-over and hyped club in baseball. MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds calls them the "team to beat" in the wide-open American League East.
They acquired several All-Stars, including reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, left-hander Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Melky Cabrera, raising their payroll over $100 million for the first time. One Las Vegas oddsmaker lists them as World Series favorites (15-2).
"The sky is the limit," All-Star outfielder Jose Bautista said. "This is the best team I've been on in my career. I don't see where it can go wrong for us."
But as those Jays acquired in a 12-player November deal with the Marlins can attest, bold moves don't guarantee success.
A year ago, Miami "won" the offseason, netting Buehrle and Reyes in a free-agent spending spree that raised hopes but failed miserably, resulting in a last-place finish and fire sale. As Dickey says, "At this time last year, (Miami) was singing the same song we're singing now, and it ended up very badly."
"We have a good team on paper, but you can't crown a team in spring training because it looks good on paper," Buehrle said. "All the experts who pick us going to win the World Series, I don't think I've ever seen anybody have the exact two teams that were actually in it. Obviously, I like our chances with what we've got on paper, but we've got to gel together and stay healthy."
The Jays have several reasons for optimism. Their best player, Bautista, a two-time home-run champ, is healthy after last year's wrist surgery. And their rotation, which has lacked depth for several years, is now arguably one of the strongest in the league, with Dickey leading a group that includes All-Stars such as Buehrle and Johnson, followed by Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.
"The teams that win, they're thick with pitching," said new manager John Gibbons, who is entering his second stint with the club (2004-08). "They prove that year after year. Now, we feel good."
The Jays, coming off a 73-89 season, have finished in second place just once since 1993, struggling to top the Yankees and Red Sox as well as the Rays during Tampa Bay's recent five-year run. The Orioles took a huge step last year, earning their first playoff berth since 1997.
But Toronto's big offseason splash put them right back in the conversation. Romero said it was "surreal" to see all the new names, with third baseman Brett Lawrie adding, "It was very surprising."
"I think it was time," said DH/first baseman Adam Lind, one of the longest-tenured Jays. "We had a lot of prospects and that's great. But you never know how they're going to perform at the big-league level. You need some big-leaguers in order to win this division."
Buck Martinez, a former Jays player and manager as well as longtime broadcaster, said the trade with Miami was the franchise's "biggest jolt" since it acquired Carter and Roberto Alomar in 1990.
It made a believer out of fans, with ticket sales reportedly up dramatically. Each spring training game will be broadcast on radio or online.
Whether it nets the same postseason ending remains to be seen.
"I think we have everything in place," Gibbons said. "But we've got to do it on the field."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]