TORONTO -- The Blue Jays fully expected to be playing meaningful baseball at Rogers Centre in late September, but they didn't anticipate the importance being solely felt in the visitors' clubhouse.
While Toronto's final game of the season was crucial in the American League Wild Card race, it was the Rays, not the Blue Jays, who had everything on the line.
The Blue Jays were considered one of the odds-on favorites for the World Series heading into Spring Training following an eventful offseason that was the talk of baseball. The expectation was that a 20-year playoff drought would finally come to an end, but when it was all said and done, general manager Alex Anthopoulos found himself having to explain where everything went wrong instead of where everything went right.
"Paul Beeston was joking to me today that we wanted to play meaningful games in September, and this is a meaningful game," Anthopoulos said in his year-end news conference prior to his club's season finale. "It's not for us necessarily, but for Tampa Bay it is.
"You don't make excuses; you have to be accountable. Things happened and there must be things we can do better as an organization to avoid some of [that]. Obviously we didn't perform the way we hoped -- we need to get it right and get it better."
Toronto's last-place finish in the AL East presents a series of new problems. Anthopoulos must find a way to improve a roster that will remain mostly intact next season, unless another blockbuster trade presents itself this winter.
The first offseason priority will be to upgrade the starting rotation. Toronto's staff was supposed to be one of the best in baseball this year, but it finished with the second-worst ERA in the Major Leagues. Beyond the expected returns of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow, there are some serious question marks.
Depth is no longer an issue, with numerous candidates in the mix to compete for a job. But considering the way things went this year, a back-end arm isn't what the club needs. The Blue Jays are searching for at least one middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Beyond the starters, Toronto also needs a second baseman and starting catcher. Anthopoulos will have to find a way to address those issues while dealing with the fact that his Minor League system isn't what it used to be after a series of top prospects was dealt away last offseason.
"I don't know that I can peg how it's going to go," Anthopoulos said of his first steps for the offseason. "I'll definitely get on the phone with clubs first -- the ones that aren't in the playoffs -- call and just see who's available, what needs they have and where we line up. We've already started to go through a lot of the free agents; we have a good feel for it.
"I don't know that it's a strong market with respect to free agency. There's certainly going to be a player or two that will perform above what people expect, but I think we're going to be open-minded to both. But if I had to guess [how we'll improve], more likely through trade."
The news wasn't all bad for the Blue Jays this year. Last offseason's activity led to increased ticket sales and an outpouring of support from the community. Toronto enjoyed one of the largest jumps in ticket sales of any team in Major League Baseball, and there is no longer much doubt about the appetite for baseball in the city.
The Blue Jays surpassed the 2.5-million mark in attendance while averaging well over 30,000 fans per game. It's a remarkable accomplishment considering just three years ago, the club had a total attendance figure of under 1.5 million. It has steadily increased every season since and the latest number was the most since 1997.
Now the challenge is keeping those fans engaged and buying tickets in the aftermath of such a disappointing campaign.
"I think 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 debate of whether Toronto could be back to where it was from an attendance standpoint, that certainly has been answered.
"If we had been in the playoffs, or we had been in the position Tampa Bay was in right now, I think we could have easily achieved three million fans, if not more. The upside is there, the fanbase is there and it's obviously up to us to give them that winning team."
Perhaps the biggest benefit of this year's spike in attendance is the effect it will have on the club's payroll. The Blue Jays have more than $110 million in guaranteed contracts for next season, and that number is expected to rise to approximately $130 million after dealing with club options and arbitration.
That figure is approximately what the Blue Jays spent this season, and there was an expectation it might not be able to go much higher than that in 2014. The high number of paying customers has likely changed that, and Anthopoulos was adamant he will have the necessary flexibility to make some upgrades this winter.
"We're certainly not going to go backwards -- we'll continue to move forward," Anthopoulos said. "Our payroll number will be given to me at some point in October, but it's always fluid. There has never been a hard-and-fast number, it's always been this is an area we'd like you to stay in.
"But if something comes up that makes sense, I have the conversation with Paul, he has the conversation with ownership and we go from there. The right transaction, the right names -- we'll definitely be open-minded."