Blue Jays show flashes of greatness in up-and-down '14
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays saw their postseason drought continue in 2014, but unlike a lot of the previous years there was some genuine excitement and cause for optimism.
Toronto was one of the best teams in baseball during the first half and appeared to be on its way to reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1993. In the end, it wasn't enough as injuries and a rough August ultimately cost the team a chance at October baseball.
There was noticeable disappointment within the team and the fanbase about how things ended, but it was also the type of rollercoaster ride that makes Major League Baseball so entertaining. Here's a look back at some of the year's top Blue Jays' storylines:
The month of May
The Blue Jays started the year off relatively slow, but all of that was forgotten by May. Toronto went 21-9 and took over first place in the American League East after one of the best months in franchise history. Edwin Encarnacion led the way by hitting 16 home runs and tying Mickey Mantle for the most homers by an American League player during the month.
Toronto won nine games in a row during a span from May 20-28 and the only series losses came against the Pirates, Royals and Angels. It seemed to be the start of something great and the performance peaked on June 6 when the club took a six-game lead in the division. The Blue Jays held on to the top spot until July 4, which marked the latest date of the season Toronto had been in first since the organization won the World Series in 1993.
The emergence of young pitching
The biggest question mark entering the season was whether the Blue Jays' starting rotation was good enough to compete in the AL East. Surprisingly enough, the staff wasn't a weakness at all and the arrivals of Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison were the main reasons why.
After a brief stint in the bullpen, Stroman made his debut as a starter in late May and never looked back. He was the Blue Jays' best pitcher in the second half of the season and finished the year with a 3.65 ERA.
Hutchison's numbers weren't as great, but he still exceeded expectations after missing all of 2013 following Tommy John surgery. There were flashes of brilliance, including a shutout victory over the Rangers and an 8 2/3-innings performance over rival Baltimore.
The next wave of talent arrived later in the year when Aaron Sanchez and eventually Daniel Norris made their respective big league debuts. Sanchez was nearly flawless out of the bullpen while Norris made a handful of appearances out of the bullpen and also got one big league start under his belt. The future appears bright for these four, and they represent the future of the organization.
The Trade Deadline
The Blue Jays were in possession of a Wild Card spot and trailed Baltimore for the top spot in the division by 1 1/2 games when the non-waiver Trade Deadline hit on July 31. There was an expectation that the club would add at least a couple of players to improve its chances over the final two months of the season, but in the end, the organization decided to stick with the status quo.
The only move prior to the deadline came when Alex Anthopoulos traded backup catcher Erik Kratz and right-hander Liam Hendriks to the Royals for infielder Danny Valencia. The rest of the flaws on the roster went unaddressed as the lack of payroll flexibility became a concern and appeared to prohibit some upgrades from taking place.
Toronto went on to win later that night after the 4 p.m. ET deadline, but the club's production quickly dropped after that. The Blue Jays came away with only two series victories in August and never quite recovered in the hunt for a Wild Card spot.
The race for the postseason
Even though the Blue Jays missed a golden opportunity in August, there was technically meaningful baseball played in Toronto down the stretch for the first time since 1993. Baltimore cruised to the finish line in the AL East, but the Wild Card was very much up for grabs over the final two weeks of the year as Seattle, Oakland and Kansas City struggled to close things out.
Toronto was four games back of the second Wild Card spot on Sept. 14 but couldn't find a way to get any closer. An untimely injury to Melky Cabrera loomed large as did a season-ending strained oblique to third baseman Brett Lawrie. In the end, the Blue Jays didn't have enough to make one last push and instead the final week of the year became a showcase for rookies such as Dalton Pompey and Norris.
Martin returns home
Anthopoulos promised changes at the end of the season, and it didn't take long for his words to prove true. Toronto made its largest free-agent splash in franchise history by signing catcher Russell Martin to a five-year contract worth $82 million. For Martin, it was an opportunity to return to the city where he was born and a short flight to the city of Montreal where he grew up.
Martin's signing proved to be only just the beginning as Anthopoulos caught the baseball world off guard by acquiring Josh Donaldson from Oakland. The cost in return was fan favorite Lawrie and three prospects, but Donaldson also provided Toronto with another powerful bat to pair with Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
The final big move of 2014 came when the Blue Jays acquired outfielder Michael Saunders for left-hander J.A. Happ. That led to the departure of Cabrera as a free agent and represented a partial makeover for an organization that needed a facelift after the disappointing finish. The work continues on the bullpen, but Martin, Donaldson and Saunders add to an already impressive core in the everyday lineup.