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03/09/12 5:07 PM EST

Blue Jays can't be counted out in AL East race

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Joe Maddon happens to know a thing or two about upstart teams in the American League East. And he recognizes a little of his Rays in the Blue Jays.

"They've made a lot of great decisions, and the team on the field has a different attitude about them," Maddon said. "Once a team starts believing in themselves, they can become dangerous."

Dangerous is just what the Blue Jays are expecting to be in 2012.

No, they're not perennially backed by a prominent payroll like the Yankees and Red Sox (not yet, anyway). And no, their young core has not yet solidified itself to the point of being counted as a giant-slayer, like Maddon's Rays. But even in a division as bloated as this East beast, the Blue Jays plan to be pests.

"I don't want to say it's blind confidence or blind belief in themselves," manager John Farrell said. "But we have some young, athletic, energetic players who look in the room and get a genuine feel that this is a talented group. They feel like they're capable of a lot. And that's a real optimism."

Here in the land of mid-80s March temperatures, such optimism is not hard to come by. But on Friday afternoon, Farrell watched 21-year-old Henderson Alvarez toss two sharp innings against the Astros, another step in his bid to build on an impressive big league break-in in the late stages of 2011. And he watched Brett Lawrie stroke a run-scoring double to bring home an early run -- one of many RBIs Lawrie is expected to compile in what could well be a superstar career.

Yes, it all looks good under the Florida sun, but the Blue Jays have basically turned over half their roster in the past year, adding Lawrie, center fielder Colby Rasmus and second baseman Kelly Johnson (all of whom could become premier players at their position to augment the Jose Bautista-led lineup) midseason to one of the more productive offenses in the game, and then, over the winter, rebuilding what had been a bumbling bullpen.

For the Blue Jays to become legit contenders for their first postseason berth in nearly 20 years, it wouldn't take some gargantuan leap in the win column.

This is a team that went 81-81 with 25 blown saves last season. Give them just one-third of those late leads back, and they could have been a Wild Card contender. In 2012, that task will be in the hands of newly acquired closer Sergio Santos and eighth-inning hired hands Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver.

But while the external additions should improve the 'pen, it's the maturation of the rest of the roster that makes the Blue Jays true believers.

"The one thing," Farrell said, "is we came into this Spring Training with a lot more continuity than a year ago. Last year, we had a lot of firsts. We had a new [coaching] staff. We changed the culture of our offense, which was kind of a one-dimensional offense built around the home run. We became a more diverse, less predictable approach. So last year, while we started at ground level, this year, we start at the second or third rung of the ladder. So we feel like we're kind of able to build on some of the things we established a year ago and the foundation that was set."

In Tampa Bay, the foundation that puts the Rays in the company of the Yanks and Red Sox is the rotation. And perhaps that's the area that ultimately leaves the Blue Jays lacking in 2012.

Blue Jays starters did, after all, finish 11th in the 14-team AL in ERA last season, and -- despite an aggressive bid for Yu Darvish -- the rotation went untouched over the winter.

And so Toronto holds out hope that Ricky Romero continues to lower his walks and hits per inning pitched while also lowering his ERA -- something he's managed to do in each of his three Major League seasons to date.

The Blue Jays hope Brandon Morrow, no longer contained by an innings limit after a conversion from bullpen work, continues to lower his walk rate while averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

They hope a lighter Brett Cecil, who dropped nearly 40 pounds over the winter, is a better Cecil, after a 2011 season in which he lost his velocity and his starting job.

They hope they've only seen the beginning from Alvarez, who turned in a quality start in six of his first 10 big league appearances.

And they hope Dustin McGowan, who completed his long road back to the bigs after multiple shoulder surgeries cost him three seasons, is ready to flourish in the No. 5 spot. The coaching staff has been glowing about McGowan's stuff this spring.

Should the Blue Jays need to dip into their highly regarded system for help, there should be rotation options among Kyle Drabek, Chad Jenkins, Deck McGuire and Drew Hutchinson.

"We need a greater number of quality innings from our No. 3, 4, and 5 slots," Farrell said. "So while our optimism is real, there are some things that have to fall our way. I think our area to make the biggest impact and improvement over a year ago is clearly in our rotation, and we're confident in the people that are in it. We've changed two of the five guys from a year ago with the addition of Alvarez and the comeback story of McGowan. There's talent there. There are questions with that talent in terms of how consistent they can be. But we like the prospects that are here to answer those questions."

Are the Blue Jays ready to be taken seriously in terms of AL East contention? That's a question as yet unanswered.

But as Maddon said, "They are not to be taken lightly."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.