A real sense of optimism surrounded the Toronto Blue Jays last spring. The feeling vanished in mid-June after a spate of injuries and would not return as the team settled for yet another mediocre season.
The Blue Jays closed things out Wednesday with a 2-1 win over Minnesota and settled for a fourth-place finish in the American League East at 73-89. The focus now turns to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who will spend the off-season trying to build on a decent foundation via trade or free agency.
He has his work cut out for him.
The starting rotation needs a significant upgrade, questions have been raised about clubhouse leadership and there are several areas that need improvement for this team to be a contender.
What's clear is the days of banking prospects for the future appear to be over. Anthopoulos is prepared to be a buyer this winter and has confirmed the team's payroll will rise.
"It's not a bottomless pit," Anthopoulos said at his season-ending media availability. "It doesn't mean we can have everybody we want. We're going to have to be creative and make some things fit.
"But it's definitely more to work with than we did last year and that will certainly be exciting."
Manager John Farrell, who has one year left on his contract but nevertheless could draw interest from the Boston Red Sox, didn't hesitate when asked what he'd like to see Anthopoulos target in the off-season.
"Same as a year ago," Farrell said. "Starting pitching."
The starters were hammered by injuries this season. Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchinson all missed significant chunks of the season.
Making matters worse were inconsistent results from Henderson Alvarez and an off-year by ace Ricky Romero. The injury woes didn't help the overworked bullpen, which had to deal with major injuries to closer Sergio Santos and Luis Perez.
Toronto used 12 different starting pitchers and a franchise-high 54 different players over the course of the season.
"Stability and continuity always lend to the potential for more success," Farrell said. "But when changes were needed because of injury, we went to the next depth player and in some cases they might not have been fully ready or up to the same type of production to the player they were replacing."
Romero struggled mightily over the second half, finishing with a 9-14 record and a bloated 5.77 earned-run average. Morrow (10-7, 2.96 ERA), meanwhile, was one of the few bright lights in the rotation this season.
"There's no question that if the rotation can be shored up — and it needs to be — that's really going to dictate where this team goes," Anthopoulos said.
The GM does have several building blocks in place.
The farm system is considered deep and there are a number of prospects who might make for good trade bait. Edwin Encarnacion had a breakout season, Jose Bautista put up impressive numbers before going down with a wrist injury and Casey Janssen did a great job after taking on the closer's role.
Catcher J.P. Arencibia and third baseman Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C., have plenty of potential. Fellow youngsters Anthony Gose and Adeiny Hechavarria showed impressive flashes after being called up.
However, inconsistent performances were quite common. Centre-fielder Colby Rasmus had an up-and-down year and first baseman Adam Lind was sent down to the minors at one point.
It will likely take around 90-95 wins to book a ticket to the post-season next year. Farrell said the team's performance on the mound will be key in determining whether that goal can be attained.
"Who we add to our pitching staff will have a direct bearing on that," he said. "There are positional needs based on turnover and free agency and contract situations. So upgrades are needed there.
"But we're as far away as our additions in pitching will take us."
Retiring infielder Omar Vizquel said the Blue Jays may just be a few players away from contending in the always-tough East division.
"I think that we're pretty close," he said. "A little help here and there and I think this team can be one of the surprising teams of the American League next year."
The 2012 season really unravelled after a West Coast road trip in late July and early August. It was part of an ugly 5-21 swoon that snuffed the momentum from a decent spring.
"There's been a couple of times where I felt like this has been two different years," Farrell said. "Where there was a genuine sense of optimism, a genuine sense of confidence that displayed itself throughout I would say the first half of the year and even into late July.
"And because of events that took place — starting with injuries — that changed. As did our roster."
Other low points came later in the season, like the Yunel Escobar eye-black controversy and reports of leadership issues in the clubhouse. The absence of Bautista — out for most of the second half — likely didn't help matters on the leadership front.
"I really don't understand why everybody's making — again, in my eyes — a big deal out of that subject," Bautista said of the leadership questions. "It's not something that I think needs to be addressed in our clubhouse."
Canada's lone Major League Baseball team was still a popular draw in the Ontario capital.
Home attendance rose by over 15 per cent from last year to almost 2.1 million. It was the largest increase the club has seen since the first season at Rogers Centre (then SkyDome) in 1989.
Outfielder Rajai Davis feels there is a lot to build on for 2013. He likes the team's chances of rebounding next year.
"I think if we're healthy and we're playing up to our ability, there's no-one really that can stop us if we're all playing up to our capabilities, our talent," he said.
"We have a lot of talent on this team. If we add a little bit more experience in our rotation, who knows where we'll be."
The 2013 season will be the 20th anniversary of the Blue Jays' last World Series title. They haven't returned to the playoffs since winning it all in 1993.
The pressure is squarely on Anthopoulos to make the necessary moves to change that.
The Blue Jays cleared roster space on Thursday by outrighting left-handed starter Aaron Laffey and right-handed relievers Shawn Hall and Bobby Korecky.