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After rough season, rotation seeks turnaround

Blue Jays' starting staff struggled out of the gate and never recovered

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- If the Blue Jays are going to turn the page on a disappointing 2013 season and live up to those lofty expectations from a year ago, then it's clear the rotation will have to be much better.

Toronto began last season with what was supposed to be one of the best rotations in baseball. Not only did those early predictions not come true, but the club's starting five finished the year as one of the worst in the Major Leagues.

A slow start combined with injuries derailed any chance Toronto had of making the postseason. The goal is to move past that, but before that can happen, the Blue Jays are coming clean about where everything went wrong in what was expected to be a banner season.

"I think that definitely set the tone, we pitched like garbage," Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow said Monday morning. "The starting pitchers were awful for the first month, myself included. None of us were pitching like we wanted to. Whether it was just bad luck that all five of us were going through it at the same time or just putting pressure on ourselves.

"Then guys started getting hurt, knowing other guys were already barking and hurting. You were trying to keep it up and stay on the field. I think that was a big part of it, the slow start. Our pitching just didn't give us a chance in that first month."

The Blue Jays hoped the 2013 season would result in their first trip to the postseason in 20 years. Instead, the club essentially found itself out of contention by the middle of May with almost no chance of turning things around no matter how the rest of the season went.

When it was all said and done, Toronto had the second-highest ERA in the Major Leagues at 4.81. The club also finished ranked 27th overall with a .272 opponents' batting average and threw the third-fewest innings with 899 1/3. That's not going to get it done in any league, but especially not in a competitive American League East, where it's easy to get left behind.

Josh Johnson and his 6.20 ERA have since left town, but outside of him, the personnel has remained the same. So now the question is how does a team go from being one of the worst, to one of the best, with very little turnover.

"We said all last year, we like this ballclub," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "We still do. It was put together for a reason, to win. Last year didn't end the way we wanted it to, not even close. But we still like it as a group.

"The big question was what were we going to do with the rotation and nothing has happened there, but the way it is stacking up right now, we really like the depth that we have and we have some guys to choose from."

That depth is something the Blue Jays didn't have a year ago and should go a long way in helping to improve the overall numbers. When the likes of Morrow, Johnson and J.A. Happ went down to injury, there was virtually no one in the Minor Leagues to come up and take their place.

That won't be the case again this year as there seems to be an endless list of candidates for the final spot. Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, Dustin McGowan and Ricky Romero are all in the mix. Only one pitcher will come away with the job, but whomever doesn't end up on the roster will be waiting in the wings.

That alone will be a major upgrade considering the amount of starts that went to Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Laffey and Chien-Ming Wang in 2013. It won't guarantee success, but there are at least a couple of dark horses in the current group who could become difference makers.

"I think we have in our clubhouse a couple of real sleepers," knuckleballer R.A. Dickey said. "I don't want to mention them by name, but I will say that I think there's a couple of guys in that clubhouse … Look, when I came to the Mets in 2010, nobody expected me to do what I did. We need that.

"Every team has to have a guy like that if you're going to win a world championship. You're going to have a guy that you're not really counting on that steps up and does something. We've got some guys who are very capable of doing that."

So depth isn't an issue, but the overall quality of talent in the starting five still might be. That's one reason why general manager Alex Anthopoulos continued to explore the free-agent market deep into the offseason, but week by week, the club's options have continued to dwindle.

The Orioles reportedly agreed to terms with right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez on a four-year contract worth approximately $48 million on Monday night. That leaves Ervin Santana as the lone big-name pitcher who is still available on the market.

The Mariners and Yankees are still possible landing spots for Santana, and it remains to be seen whether the Blue Jays will ante up for the upgrade that seemed so likely at the end of last season. Toronto continues to insist it's fine with that, and while the fan base probably doesn't agree, the only thing that can silence the critics is improved results on the field.

"The only way you're going to change minds is to go out and play better baseball and prove what we thought going into last year was true," Gibbons said. "If we don't play well, maybe we're not that good. But we think we are."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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