TORONTO -- Wasted season or expensive experimental test run?
The much-vaunted 2013 Toronto Blue Jays returned to the drawing board after a season rife with underachieving closed Sunday. Questions abound after the dismal campaign.
"We got off to a slow start and obviously it continued the entire year," GM Alex Anthopoulos said by way of understatement.
The season opened April 2 with a home sellout of 48,857 fans at Rogers Centre for a 4-1 loss to Cleveland.
Fast forward to Sunday and only two players -- shortstop Jose Reyes and catcher J.P. Arencibia -- remained in the starting lineup. And Reyes missed some 66 games inbetween with an ankle injury while Arencibia came into the season finale batting .195 with 21 home runs and 147 strikeouts in 473 at-bats.
It seemed fitting that prior to the ceremonial first pitch Sunday, the PA system played "Pick Up the Pieces" by the Average White Band.
The Jays finished last in the American League East at 74-88, compared to 73-89 last season when they finished fourth in the division. Fan Appreciation weekend closed out with an exciting but failed comeback in a 7-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays before a loud crowd of 44,551.
Despite Sunday's six-run rally, it's has a been a rocky road for the Jays -- and a long long way from the optimism of spring training.
"It's an exciting season. Everybody's seen the moves," star outfielder Jose Bautista said back in February. "All the bodies are here now. It's all on us now to perform.
"We love that challenge and we have a confident, good group of players together. I think we're going to go out and have a lot of fun and hopefully we remain healthy. If all that happens, the season should take care of itself. We should be in the playoffs and hopefully the World Series."
Manager John Gibbons was slightly more circumspect back then.
"We expect to win some things this year ... We've just got to step up and answer the bell and fulfil those things. But that won't be easy. There's a lot of good teams in the league."
Owner Rogers dug deep into its expansive wallet to fund the new-look Jays, with the 2013 opening day roster coming in at a season salary cost of US$119.3 million (up from $83.7 million) the previous year.
The expected starting rotation -- R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson and Ricky Romero -- cost $46.75 million alone.
It went south quickly, finishing with a combined 30-36 record -- with Dickey and Buehrle accounting for 26 of those wins.
"I never would have expected the rotation to be the weak link on this team coming into the year. I would probably have said the bullpen was the area we were most exposed in," said Anthopoulos.
Johnson's 2-8 season came at a cost of $13.75 million. Anthopoulos hardly mentioned the big right-hander Sunday, which suggests a qualifying offer might not be forthcoming.
He did speak optimistically of Morrow making a return, however.
The Toronto GM said he expects to learn his payroll number in October, although the figure will be fluid with case by case re-evaluation.
"We're certainly not going to go backwards, from that standpoint," he said of the salary total. "We'll continue to move forward."
In his end-of-season media meeting, Anthopoulos kept returning to stability of starting rotation, or lack thereof.
"Right now we have (pitching) volume. The question is is the quality of that volume enough? .... We're going to look to improve, no doubt about it. We have to."
For Anthopoulos, even with great everything else, the team wasn't going to get to the playoffs with the kind of starting pitching it got this year.
The Jays' starting ERA (4.77 going into play Sunday) ranked 29th in the 30-team majors. And it seemed somehow fitting that pitching coach Pete Walker made a trip to the mound after just two outs in the first inning to speak to Todd Redmond, with a reliever already warming up in the bullpen.
The bullpen was far better on the season, ranking 10th in the majors with a 3.39 ERA.
Toronto ranked 16th in hitting in the majors, with a .252 average prior to Sunday. The team ranked fourth in homers, with 185.
In addition to shoring up the starting rotation, help is needed at second base while the verdict may be out on catcher. And the team needs depth. Its bench was threadbare many games.
Injuries certainly cost the Jays.
Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera, Brett Cecil, Maicer Izturis, Johnson, Morrow and Colby Rasmus, almost a third of the opening day roster, finished the season on the disabled list.
Some of the injuries were of the rare or freak variety. Doctors found a benign tumour on Cabrera's spinal cord. Pitcher J.A. Happ was sidelined after getting hit on the head, injuring his knee as he toppled. Rasmus exited after talking an accidental ball in the face from a teammate.
The season also started on a disconnect with players missing a chunk of spring training due to the World Baseball Classic.
Anthopoulos has decisions to make. He said the team will likely look to improve via trades more than free agency, saying the available menu does not look that strong. He said he has bullpen assets that could be used in trades.
Nothing seems off the table. "No one has a no trade clause," the GM noted, adding "If we can improve in any area ... we'll look to do that."
The team has options on Adam Lind, Mark DeRosa, Munenori Kawasaki and Casey Janssen.
Topics up for discussion include what can be done to reduce the injuries that have ravaged the team the last two seasons. Also whether anything can be done to improve the artificial turf before the plan to replace it with natural grass is put into place.
On the plus side, Gibbons will return as manager with a vote of confidence from Anthopoulos.
"His in-game (management) is outstanding. That's always been a strength of his. I think it comes down to myself as a general manager giving him a better rotation to work with."
Ryan Goins and Anthony Gose showed like they belonged in the final weeks of the season. And Toronto has a choice of arms when it comes to fifth starters and beyond. But while there is an upside to those pitchers, says Anthopoulos, there's isn't a level of certainty.
And there was a buzz about the team, with Kawasaki becoming an unlikely fan favourite for his quirks and occasionally timely hitting.
Season attendance at the Rogers Centre was 2,536,562, up 436,899 from 2012.
"Support has been great ... What's been proven to everybody is this is definitely a baseball town," said Anthopoulos. "It has tremendous interest in the game."
The question is what will the team need to do next year to keep the fans coming back?