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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Rotation must improve for Blue Jays to bounce back

Toronto should be better than 2013, but to be contenders, club needs strong pitching

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The unofficial rallying cry of the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays appears to be:

"We're better than that!"

The "that," in this case, would be the Blue Jays' 2013 season, which ended with a 74-88 record and a fifth-place finish in the American League East.

That performance was a double-edged letdown because Toronto had made some notable and bold acquisitions prior to the season. The club was widely congratulated for these moves, and preseason predictions were dotted with the Jays winning the AL East, the AL pennant and even the World Series.

Those pleasant expectations came apart, first in some serious early-season rotation shortcomings, then in a series of injuries to important personnel. The Blue Jays have taken the view that the 2013 season was an aberration, a fluke, a one-time occurrence.

Thus, the Blue Jays have brought back last year's team nearly intact. Starter Josh Johnson isn't back, but he was hurt much of the time in 2013, and when he wasn't hurt, he posted a 6.20 ERA.

Shortstop Jose Reyes, who was limited to just 93 games by injury last season, made an early appearance at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Tuesday, wearing a form-fitting Superman shirt. Reyes lights up a room on an average day, so reporting that he is optimistic about 2014 is not a breakthrough scoop. But for the record, he was relentlessly upbeat.

"I'm very excited for this year, because last year was a tough year, not just for me, but for the whole team," Reyes said. "It was tough. But you have to put it in the past.

"We still have the pieces here. We just have to put it together on the field."

For success this season, Toronto will require Reyes to be much more of a full-time catalyst. The Jays could also use something more like a full season from slugging outfielder Jose Bautista, who played in 118 games last year.

This is still a club with a roster that obviously contains significant talent. The Blue Jays' lineup should be productive. Toronto's bullpen looks deep and sturdy, as it includes two All-Star setup men in Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil.

The leading question here is the rotation. Can the Blue Jays' starters pitch well enough to make Toronto into the genuine contender the club was supposed to be last season?

On paper, the Blue Jays look fine in the rotation. But they looked even better on paper at the beginning of 2013 with the talented Johnson on board.

Still, the Blue Jays have R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ. They all share the virtue of having pitched considerably better at some earlier point than they did in 2013. And there are eight legitimate candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation. Toronto should at least have more starting depth this season.

Still, there was the expectation in some portions of Ontario that this situation would be addressed with outside help. When Blue Jays manager John Gibbons stepped into his post-workout media session Tuesday, the first question that greeted him was: "When do you expect Ervin Santana to arrive?" The reference was to the leading starter still available on the free-agent market.

Gibbons, to his credit, smiled at this question. The question may have been asked only partially in jest, but Gibbons took the always sensible position that he is managing the people who are actually on his team.

"We're going forward with what we have unless something happens," Gibbons said. "And we like this group. [General manager] Alex [Anthopoulos] is working hard, and he's been doing it all winter and half of last season, looking at some different options. If something happens, nobody knows. We just approach it as, 'Let's get after it with what we have.'"

Gibbons remains confident that last year's performance was far from the true level of the rotation.

"You look at the guys in it, we're better than we pitched last year, so automatically we've got to improve on it," Gibbons said.

"You know, there are still some question marks, but depth is a big thing for us. If some guys falter, if we need to make changes, we've got some guys who we think may be pretty good Major League pitchers down the road, and they just may work their way into it. There's some depth there, with some better arms than we were looking at last year.

"There is no question that we struggled with our starting pitching last year, and we're looking to upgrade that. But it's not easy to do. There were a couple of deals that fell through; I'm talking in the trade market. And then with the free agents, there's a little bit of a bidding war going on. It's not automatic that you're going to get those guys.

"Me personally, I like this group in here, and we'll just approach it that way," Gibbons concluded.

The Blue Jays should be better than last year. How much better will be determined in large measure by the performance of the starting rotation.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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