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After rough start, Blue Jays need strong second half

Despite big offseason, Toronto marred by inconsistency, injuries, starting pitching

TORONTO -- Expectations for the Blue Jays couldn't have been any higher this season, but now more than halfway through the year, the club faces an uphill battle just to become relevant again in the American League East.

Toronto was crowned champion of the offseason by just about every critic following a series of blockbuster trades and signings. By the end of April, though, none of that seemed to matter.

The Blue Jays got off to one of their worst starts in franchise history and have been trying to re-establish themselves ever since. There's still plenty of time left, but there is little margin for error the rest of the way, and everyone in the organization seems to know it.

"We know it's not going to be easy, because the division is so tough," shortstop Jose Reyes said. "But if we play consistent baseball and take it one game at a time, I think we'll be fine. We need to turn it around right away, because after the All-Star break the season is going to go quick."

The Blue Jays exit the All-Star break 11 1/2 games behind Boston for first place in the AL East and 8 1/2 behind Texas for the second Wild Card spot. Toronto is currently four games below .500 (45-49), which is the franchise's worst record coming out of the break since 2004.

It's not even remotely close to where the organization anticipated being at this point of the season, and a dreadful first two months is the main reason why. Toronto went 10-17 during April and 15-17 in May. The lowest point came on May 10, when the club found itself 11 games under .500 with seemingly little hope of getting back into the race.

That would eventually change as the Blue Jays went 17-9 during June to give themselves a fighting chance. An 11-game winning streak put the club two games above .500 for the first time all year and finally there was a glimmer of hope.

First-half awards
MVP: Edwin Encarnacion Encarnacion picked up right where he left off last season and leads the Blue Jays in virtually every major offensive category.
Cy Young: Bullpen The bullpen was supposed to be a major weakness but instead it turned into a major strength and at least somewhat offset a rough first half by the starters.
Rookie: Neil Wagner Wagner is 29 years old but entered the year with just six big league games under his belt and he has been relatively flawless since being called up in late May.
Top reliever: Brett Cecil Cecil didn't even have a guaranteed job in Spring Training but is now an All-Star and went through a span of 45 batters earlier this season without allowing a hit -- he has been borderline dominant in middle relief.

The problem is that in the ensuing 20 games after the streak, the Blue Jays once again fell back down to earth. They went just 7-13 to lose a lot of the ground in the standings and now find themselves in desperate need of some prolonged success. It's certainly not impossible, but it won't be easy.

"Play consistently," right fielder Jose Bautista said when asked what his team needs to do. "More than anything just talk about what I need to do, because it's hard to pinpoint as a team everything that needs to be addressed. I just need to be more consistent, more of a steady approach, stay swinging at strikes and try to contribute on a day-to-day basis [in the] second half."

The main reason behind the Blue Jays' woes this season can be directly tied to their underperforming starting rotation. It was supposed to be one of the best in baseball but instead entered the All-Star break as one of the worst.

Toronto's rotation has the second-worst ERA (5.07) in the Majors, has thrown the second-fewest innings (515), owns the sixth-worst opponents' batting average (.274) while also issuing the eighth-most walks (186). For a group that includes big names such as R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow, things were supposed to be a lot better.

The positive news is that help is at least on the way. Morrow is expected to return by the middle of August after being out since the end of May with soreness in his right forearm. Left-hander J.A. Happ could be back even sooner than that after missing most of the year with a knee injury.

As for Dickey and Johnson, the Blue Jays expect better results in the second half. Combine that with the emergence of right-hander Esmil Rogers, and there's still a possibility for a strong starting five, which is the main reason general manager Alex Anthopoulos thinks his team still has a chance to get back into the race.

Players to watch in second half
Josh Johnson Johnson is set to hit free agency at the end of the year and will need a strong second half to re-establish his value after missing six weeks with a right triceps injury and then struggling upon his return.
Brett Lawrie Lawrie is finally healthy and recently transitioned to second base where the Blue Jays hope he will regain some of his previous form that once had him as one of the top rookies in the game.
Esmil Rogers Rogers went through a lengthy stretch where he was the Blue Jays' most reliable starting pitcher, but after beginning the season in the bullpen it remains to be seen whether he can keep up his level of production.

"We have half of July left, we still have all of August left, and we know how quickly things can change," Anthopoulos said. "I still believe in the talent level. ... We have guys that we expect to be back like Morrow and Happ. I do think guys like Josh can only be better. I think R.A. can only get better.

"You still don't know when it's going to happen or when it's going to come together, but you can make up six games [with] 70 games left or whatever it might be, it absolutely can be done."

Morrow and Happ aren't the only ones nearing a return to health. Brett Lawrie came back just two days before the break, while Melky Cabrera is expected to be ready for the first game of the second half.

Toronto will need all hands on deck to get back into the race. It's an uphill battle, but stranger things have happened, and since the talent is certainly there, no one is giving up hope.

"There's just been too many examples of teams in September that have overcome being down eight games and nine games," Anthopoulos said. "If you were asking me this question at the end of August my answer might not be the same, but a lot can happen in a month and a half. We were 11 games under .500 at one point, there's still time."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.
Read More: Toronto Blue Jays, Josh Johnson, Neil Wagner, Mark Buehrle, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil, Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Esmil Rogers