Disappointing Blue Jays looking for starters
The Blue Jays thought they'd built a starting staff that could carry them into the playoffs.
Turns out they couldn't have been more wrong.
''I would have never expected the rotation to be the weak link on this team,'' general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Sunday, hours before a team once pegged as World Series contenders finished a distant last in the AL East at 74-88.
''Obviously we didn't perform the way we hoped,'' Anthopoulos said. ''We need to get it right and get better.''
Toronto fans were hoping for big things after their team made twin splashes on the trade market last winter, bringing starters R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson across the border to team up with Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and J.A. Happ. All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes and free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera also arrived to boost the lineup.
While Dickey and Buehrle combined for 26 wins and almost 430 innings, nothing else worked out quite right. Morrow went 2-3 in 10 starts before missing the rest of the season with a sore forearm and Johnson was a dismal 2-8 in 16 outings before suffering a similar fate.
''Morrow and Johnson were guys that we expected to be impact starters for us,'' Anthopoulos said. ''We thought they really had a chance to both be All-Stars and lead the rotation.''
Happ missed 77 games, and was fortunate to avoid a more serious injury, after being hit in the head by a line drive and spraining his right knee in the resulting fall. Romero continued to regress from his past All-Star status, spending the bulk of the season in the minors.
Blue Jays starters finished next-to-last in the majors with a 4.81 ERA. Only Minnesota (5.26) was worse. Dickey went 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA after Toronto acquired the reigning NL Cy Young knuckleballer from the New York Mets.
''I can't stress enough that with the rotation performance that we had this year, a great offensive team wouldn't have gotten us to the playoffs,'' Anthopoulos said bluntly.
Toronto wasn't a bad offensive team: Manager John Gibbons' team was ninth in the majors with 712 runs. But it also led baseball in a more unfortunate category: games lost to injury, with more than 1,300 in all.
Less than two weeks into the season, Reyes went down for more than two months after he severely sprained his left ankle on an attempted steal. Sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion also missed time, as did third baseman Brett Lawrie, outfielders Colby Rasmus and Cabrera, and infielder Maicer Izturis.
After returning from a strained muscle in his side, Rasmus' season ended early when he was hit in the face by a warmup throw he never saw coming.
Some of the injuries, although not all, have been attributed to Toronto's artificial turf surface. In the final week of the season, the Blue Jays announced an intention to install grass sometime after the 2017 season. Toronto and Tampa Bay have the only two remaining artificial fields in the majors.
No such groundskeeping solution exists on the mound, where the Blue Jays most need improvement if they are to end baseball's second-longest playoff drought, now 20 years and counting. With Pittsburgh winning an NL wild-card berth, only Kansas City's 28-year postseason absence is longer than Toronto's void since it twice won the World Series in the early 1990s.
''The focus will be the rotation,'' Anthopoulos said of his offseason work. ''It needs to be. Everything is going to be geared towards how can we make that rotation as good as it's going to be.''
Making that happen won't be easy. Anthopoulos conceded that starting pitching is ''one of the hardest things to acquire, either in free agency or in trades.''
But after sending salaries soaring over the $100 million mark for the first time this season, he insists there's still room to grow. A GM who once sent fans fretting with talk of ''payroll parameters'' could spend more than $130 million on his roster in 2014.
''We're certainly not going to go backwards on that front,'' Anthopoulos said. ''We'll continue to move forward. I still think we have quite a bit of flexibility overall.''
The high spending is justified, he said, by turnstile totals that have spiked in each of the past two seasons. Toronto boosted its average attendance to more than 31,000 this year, eclipsing the 2.5 million mark for the first time since 1997.
''The one thing we can take away from this season is the debate over whether Toronto is large market, small market, mid-market, I think that has been answered,'' Anthopoulos said.
The question of whether the Blue Jays can become a winner remains murkier, but Anthopoulos insists he's confident.
''There's upside with what we currently have in the rotation,'' he said. ''Not certainty, necessarily, but certainly there's a lot of upside there. If we can add to that, with what has the chance to still be a very strong offense and a good bullpen, I think we can definitely get it turned around fast.''