DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays are looking to make amends this season, but the only way that's going to happen is with a drastically improved starting rotation.
Toronto had one of the worst staffs in the Major Leagues last year. The rotation underachieved and injuries didn't help, but the bottom line is that expectations were not met for a team that envisioned being a contender for the World Series.
If things are going to be different this season, it's going to be up to the pitching staff. It's the great unknown on an otherwise strong team, and even the club's general manager concedes this year's hopes and dreams rely almost entirely on the starting five.
"I think we're going to go as far as our rotation," Alex Anthopoulos said during the final week of Spring Training. "I think the other components of the team are in place, I think the bullpen is strong, the offense is strong; defensively, I expect us to be improved and I think the upside of the rotation is there. If we can have a healthy rotation, like we would expect, I would expect us to be a contending team all year."
The Blue Jays entered last spring among the favorites to win the World Series, and one of the main reasons was their rotation. On paper, it was an impressive group led by 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, hard-throwing Brandon Morrow, innings-eater Mark Buehrle, former NL ERA champ Josh Johnson and former No. 1 starter Ricky Romero.
The problems, though, began almost immediately. Romero had a rough spring and didn't make the team at the end of camp. Johnson got hurt three weeks into the season, and Morrow went down not long after that. Dickey and Buehrle eventually went on to have very strong seasons, but they, too, had Aprils to forget.
Toronto's issues on the mound resulted in a 10-18 record during the first month of the season, and a 10-game deficit in the American League East to make up almost immediately.
"Starting pitching is going to carry you or hinder the season, and that's what it did to us last year," Morrow said of a staff that ranked 29th in baseball with a 4.81 ERA. "We put ourselves in a hole in the first month and then Johnson had to go on the DL. When he came back, I was done for the season.
"By the time R.A. and Buehrle were locked in, unfortunately, we had already dug ourselves too big of a hole to come out. But this year we're planning on starting fast, and pitching is going to be a big part of that."
The Blue Jays are set to begin the year with Dickey, Drew Hutchison, Buehrle, Morrow and right-hander Dustin McGowan as their starting five. Dickey and Buehrle are known commodities. The other three have question marks.
Hutchison hasn't pitched in the Major Leagues for the past year and a half following Tommy John surgery. Morrow has suffered injuries in each of the past two seasons. McGowan has thrown just 46 2/3 innings dating all the way back to 2009 because of seemingly endless shoulder issues.
But there's also plenty of upside. Hutchison was emerging as a future cornerstone of the rotation prior to his injury in 2012. Morrow was one of the more dominant starting pitchers in the league two years ago, until a torn oblique derailed his season. McGowan, while a huge injury risk, is a pitcher who still throws in the mid-90s and has a devastating slider.
"The talent is there with all five guys," Anthopoulos said. "With any rotation, you have risks. But I think you have to be most excited if you feel good about the talent, and I think we all feel good about the talent that all five guys have."
There are far fewer questions surrounding other aspects of the team. The Blue Jays should once again possess one of the best bullpens in the league. Casey Janssen returns as the closer of an impressive relief corps that also includes Sergio Santos, All-Stars Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar and Aaron Loup.
Even if a couple of pitchers get hurt or struggle, there are contingencies in place at the Minor League level, with John Stilson, Neil Wagner, Chad Jenkins and possibly even Marcus Stroman waiting in the wings. From the Blue Jays' bullpen, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond should also be able to pitch a lot of innings.
The offense also should be a strength, especially if it can stay healthy. Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion form the heart of the order, and there's some depth in there with the likes of Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and Dioner Navarro all possessing the ability to become difference-makers.
With the exception of Navarro, those are returning players from last season, and that's a good thing according to a lot of players in the Blue Jays' clubhouse.
"For us, keep the same guys and run them out there," Lawrie said. "We just didn't have a lot of opportunities to have everybody on the field at the same time. The more chances that we get to do that, our team's going to be a lot better off. I'm sure we'll have a few more wins if we're able to do that ... If everyone stays healthy and throws strikes and takes care of the baseball, we're going to be all right."
The stakes are high, and there won't be room for any excuses. The Blue Jays kept most of their core in place because Anthopoulos still believes in it, but that could change if things don't go the right way.
"Guys really know that this is a big year for us, collectively," Dickey said. "We're kind of getting a mulligan this year. Last year, a lot of things went wrong. This year, we're pretty much all healthy, we're here, we've been here all spring, we've been able to do relationship with one another and now we're in a much different place than we were last year, and it's a much more comfortable place."