Jays should look toward 2014

In spring training, the Toronto Blue Jays were supposed to win the World Series. In April, they were one of the worst teams in the American League. In June, they won 11 straight games and moved above .500 for the first time.

Now, after losing eight of 11, they once again are last in the AL East. They trail the first-place Boston Red Sox by 11 games.

After more than three months of baseball, what, exactly, is this team?

“That’s a good question,” Darren Oliver, the 42-year-old Jays reliever, acknowledged this week. “I guess we’ll see here in the next couple months. We’re teetering around .500. We’re going to need to get hot again, like we did a couple weeks ago, to really get back in it.”

Oliver is one of the majors’ wisest players, having debuted in 1993 — the year of Toronto’s most recent World Series championship. After two decades in the big leagues and seven postseason appearances, he knows a true contender when he sees one. So when he says the Jays must be about five games over .500 by the end of July to have a realistic chance at the playoffs, the words carry weight.

To get there, the Jays must go 15-7 over their next 22 games.

I don’t believe they will.

And given all that has transpired with the team this season, I will be shocked if they are in serious playoff contention at the start of September.

The Jays remain intriguing, because of R.A. Dickey’s resurgence, Edwin Encarnacion’s power and Munenori Kawasaki’s magnetism. But after watching the Jays in person for three days this week, I’m increasingly skeptical of their ability to compete with the rest of the division. The roster lacks balance, and it will be virtually impossible for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to fix it before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Entering Friday, the Jays are 41-44. After the same number of games last year — with a smaller payroll and lower expectations — they were 42-43. And so they are stuck, having mortgaged a piece of their future for what remains an unfulfilling present.

That’s not to suggest Anthopoulos’ attention-grabbing offseason was misguided. In fact, I was a strong believer in his blockbuster moves for Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and the rest. The Jays haven’t reached the postseason since ’93, and, with the Red Sox and Yankees seemingly vulnerable, the time was right to trade prospects for All-Stars.

In making those trades, Anthopoulos bought himself a three-year window to reach the postseason. He’s about to go 0 for 1. There’s no shame in that, as long as the Jays assess their weaknesses candidly and prioritize the 2014 roster in any moves they make this month.

In other words: A controllable starter such as Houston’s Bud Norris or Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo would be fine, but not a rental like Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco or Ervin Santana. An AL East team with a 5.06 rotation ERA, this deep into the season, is not on its way to the playoffs. Period.

The good news for the Blue Jays is they have averaged roughly 31,000 fans per game this season at Rogers Centre, an increase of about 5,000 over last year. Team president Paul Beeston told me this week that those figures are in line with preseason projections. Beeston also said Anthopoulos would have financial flexibility to make in-season upgrades — an indication that the Jays won’t need to slash their payroll this winter.

So, Anthopoulos’ top priority must be assembling a reliable group of starters for 2014 — which, as of this moment, appears unlikely to include Johnson. The one-time Marlins ace has been perhaps the team’s greatest disappointment, with a 1-3 record and 4.89 ERA in 10 starts.

Johnson, 29, missed more than one month with right triceps inflammation and generally is failing to prove he can succeed in the AL. (If anything, Anthopoulos should consider trading Johnson back to the National League, where he has demonstrated value in pitcher-friendly environments.)

Johnson has lasted six or more innings against an AL opponent only three times all season — not the type of impression he wanted to leave on general managers in a contract year.

Lately, that has left manager John Gibbons with two dependable veterans — Dickey and Buehrle — along with revelation Esmil Rogers, who had a 2.18 ERA in six starts until the Tigers routed him Thursday night. At some point, the rotation crisis will exact a toll on the Jays’ bullpen — in diminished performance or workload-related injuries. Toronto relievers have combined for the second-best ERA in the AL, but that’s not sustainable when they’ve logged the most innings of any bullpen in the majors this year.

The Jays are carrying nine relievers on their 25-man roster, in order to cover all the starters’ short nights. Successful teams don’t need to do that.

Rotation help could arrive from within: Ricky Romero is still working on his control in the minors, while Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison are at varied stages of rehabilitation from injuries. But that group isn’t likely to contribute until August. By then, it will be too late. Anthopoulos, then, should focus on firm assessments as to which starters can be counted on in 2014 — in performance and health.

The everyday lineup has its share of questions, too. Only three players seem relatively certain to be in the 2014 Opening Day lineup: Reyes at shortstop, Encarnacion at first base and Jose Bautista in right field. Adam Lind’s power has returned in the designated hitter spot, which could solidify his place on the team at $5 million next year. But every other position is in flux.

Left fielder Melky Cabrera has hit for little power coming off his performance-enhancing drug suspension. Third baseman Brett Lawrie has been injury prone and relatively unproductive since the start of last year. The second-base committee — mostly Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis — has combined for the worst OPS at the position of any team in the majors. Center fielder Colby Rasmus and catcher J.P. Arencibia supply power, but at the expense of increasingly intolerable strikeout rates.

Anthopoulos traded away much of the organization’s prospect depth during the winter, so deals this month could involve players already in the major leagues. Anthopoulos doesn’t need to trade stars such as Reyes or Bautista or Dickey, but the supporting cast must change — if not this month, then at some point before the start of next season.

Call it “selling” if you must, but the Jays need to recognize the 2013 season for what it is — a well-intentioned but spectacular swing-and-miss. Now they should readjust their batting helmet and tighten the Velcro on their batting gloves for the 0-1 pitch. Toronto’s expensive at-bat is off to an inauspicious start. But it isn’t over.