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Blue Jays' 2013 falls short of high expectations

Toronto unable to overcome injuries, shaky starting pitching after major acquisitions

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays thought this was going to be the season they would finally become relevant in the American League East, but instead the 2013 campaign will go down as the year of failed expectations.

Toronto was the talk of baseball following an eventful offseason that saw the likes of R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Melky Cabrera join an emerging core of players. Boston and New York appeared vulnerable, while a Blue Jays organization suddenly flush with cash was poised to take the division by storm.

The cruel twist of fate is that by the end of April, almost all of the shine was washed away and replaced with a last-place team struggling to stay afloat. Some people might have expected the Blue Jays would miss the postseason, but nobody could have predicted the season would end quite like this.

"I still believe we have the makings of a good team that needs work, that needs changes, that needs health, and we didn't play the way we expected to," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "I think almost everyone across the game expected us to be a good team, to what level, I don't know. But I think unanimously people thought it was going to be a good competitive team, and it didn't work out."

There is plenty of blame to go around, but the vast majority of it lies with the starting rotation. Toronto's starting staff was supposed to be one of the best in baseball, but instead ended up being the club's biggest weakness.

Johnson failed to live up to the hype, while Brandon Morrow's season was completely derailed by a right forearm injury. Dickey and Buehrle were the only consistent performers, but with three-fifths of the rotation missing either because of various ailments or poor production, there was little hope to contend.

The rotation consistently ranked near the bottom of the Major Leagues in wins, innings pitched and ERA. The lack of consistency eventually took a toll on the bullpen while the offense frequently found itself down and out after facing an early deficit.

"I've yet to see teams with the performance we've had in the rotation that you can win that way," Anthopoulos said. "That's not to say that our position players are perfect by any stretch, or we can't improve the offense in certain areas, or we can't improve defensively and all those things, but ultimately, I do think it starts on the mound.

"I think there's an impact to the bullpen, there's an impact to the offense, you're down four or five runs in the first inning or the second inning and you start to press. I think there's just a carryover effect in so many ways."

The one thing the Blue Jays won't blame this season on is the health of their roster. The club was decimated by injuries for the second consecutive year, but the expectation was this squad could overcome that type of adversity.

At the start of the season, it appeared to have more depth than at any point in recent memory. There were veteran backups at virtually every position and enough veterans waiting in Triple-A Buffalo that the club expected to remain competitive no matter what happened.

That turned out not to be the case, but it certainly doesn't mean the organization is looking for an excuse. The club simply didn't play up to expectations and that, more than anything else, is the main reason behind a last-place finish.

"There's no room for excuses this year," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "You can never use that, because we had a lot of talent out there and every team goes through injuries. Very rarely are you at full strength for the majority of the season, at least in this day and age. No excuses."

Now it will be up to Anthopoulos to right the ship. He is on record saying his top priority this offseason is to upgrade the starting rotation, while second base and perhaps catcher are also high on the list of things that need to be improved.

It won't be easy, but considering most of the core is locked up for at least another couple of years the Blue Jays won't be rebuilding. They'll instead be looking to re-stock with the goal of living up to hype, even if it's one year later than most people would have predicted.

Record: 74-88, fifth place in the AL East

Defining moment: The Blue Jays began their season in front of a sold-out crowd at Rogers Centre that seemed almost certain this was the year Toronto would return to the postseason. In the moments leading up to the first pitch, it was a party-like atmosphere, but after Dickey surrendered four runs, all life had been sucked out of the building.

Over the course of the next week and a half, the momentum from the offseason was gone after the club struggled out of the gate to a 3-6 record. Perhaps the defining moment was when Johnson couldn't even get out of the second inning during a start against the Tigers on April 11. At the time, it was supposed to be a minor blip on the radar, but in retrospect it contributed to a disastrous month of April that the club was never able to recover from.

What went right: Toronto's bullpen was expected to be its biggest weakness this season, but instead quickly proved to be its biggest strength. Brett Cecil went from barely making the team out of Spring Training to becoming an All-Star, and he was joined by the equally effective Steve Delabar. Right-hander Casey Janssen was relatively flawless in his first full season as a closer, and whenever the Blue Jays took a lead late in the game, it was almost always preserved.

Buehrle entered the season with plenty of question marks surrounding whether he still had enough in the tank to succeed in the AL East. The concerns only grew following an awful month of April, but after that he was everything the Blue Jays could have wanted and more. He avoided the disabled list yet again and surpassed 10 wins and 200-plus innings for a 13th consecutive season.

Colby Rasmus enjoyed a breakout season at the plate and had his best overall year since 2010, when he was considered an up-and-coming star with the Cardinals. His season was eventually derailed by injuries, but not before he established himself as one of the club's most reliable hitters.

Edwin Encarnacion proved he wasn't a one-year wonder by following up his 2012 campaign with an equally impressive season. He was the Blue Jays' most valuable hitter for the second consecutive year and has possibly surpassed Jose Bautista as the best hitter on the club.

Reyes missed an extended period of time with a severe ankle injury, but when healthy the Dominican native showed just how valuable he can be at the top of the batting order. His ability to get on base in front of the heart of the lineup is something Toronto has sorely missed in recent years and his production bodes well for the future.

What went wrong: Johnson's first -- and perhaps only -- season in Toronto was an absolute nightmare. He was dominant during Spring Training, but once the regular season began nothing seemed to go his way. Johnson battled a series of injuries, but even when healthy he wasn't nearly the type of pitcher the Blue Jays were expecting when they pulled off a blockbuster trade with Miami during the offseason.

Now he faces an uncertain future as a free agent and the only way the Blue Jays are expected to keep him is if they make a qualifying offer to the former No. 1 starter. With the expected price tag coming in around $14-million, that seems unlikely.

For the second consecutive season the Blue Jays were decimated by injuries. The only regulars to avoid a stint on the DL were Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia, while Dickey and Buehrle represented the only healthy starters. Overall, the Blue Jays were only able to field their projected Opening Day four times during the entire season.

Arencibia became the undisputed starting catcher when the Blue Jays traded away top prospect Travis d'Arnaud during the offseason. Arencibia was one of the few Blue Jays players to get off to a blistering start in April, but it was all downhill from there. Arencibia battled injuries and struggled for most of the year with a high strikeout rate while posting one of the lowest OPS marks of the modern era among qualified batters.

Toronto expected either Emilio Bonifacio or Maicer Izturis to solidify second base, but instead the position became a black hole for almost the entire season. Both players struggled to provide any type of production at the plate while providing well below average defense up the middle. Their frequent mental lapses early in the season became the perfect example of what was wrong with this apparently flawed roster.

Biggest surprise: That the Blue Jays didn't even do as much as contend for a spot in the postseason. Toronto was expected to -- at the very least -- play meaningful games in September, but the club was essentially out of the race before the end of July. Most experts had the Blue Jays as favorites for the AL East, and while a few may have said the organization would fall short of the postseason, nobody predicted the club would end up being this bad.

Anthopoulos will now spend the offseason attempting to fix the glaring weaknesses of his team, while at the same time hoping for bounce-back seasons from the likes of Dickey, Morrow and Cabrera.

Gregor Chisholm is areporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, andfollow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.
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