Arms lift Blue Jays in strong 2016 campaign

Rotation, bullpen surprises bolster Toronto's second straight postseason run

Arms lift Blue Jays in strong 2016 campaign

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays went into this season with a "World Series or bust!" mentality, and they almost got there, but who could have predicted that their star-studded lineup would ultimately be the main culprit as they fell short?

Toronto entered this season with a core of players from last year's American League East division title run, but there was still plenty of uncertainty about the pitching staff. Would the starters be good enough? Did the bullpen have enough reliable options?

There were a lot of questions before Opening Day, but none of them surrounded the everyday lineup. With a batting order that included Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, this team was expected to score early and often, just like it did a year ago.

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Things didn't go exactly as planned. Toronto still had its moments at the plate, but this year's run to the postseason focused squarely on the pitching staff. The Blue Jays caught everyone off-guard by piecing together the best starting rotation in the American League, but in the end, there wasn't quite enough offense to go all the way.

Here's a look at what went right and wrong following Toronto's second consecutive appearance in the AL Championship Series:

Record: 89-73, tied for second place, AL East.

Defining moment: The Blue Jays entered September with a two-game lead over Boston in the AL East, and the expectation was another division title. That quickly changed over the coming weeks, as Toronto's lineup went into a deep slumber, and the ensuing 11-16 record in September had the club in serious danger of missing the postseason. The defining moment came during the final regular-season series of the year in Boston, when the Blue Jays had to win their final two games to clinch a Wild Card spot.

Must C: Blue Jays clinch WC

The Blue Jays bounced back from a potentially devastating loss in the series opener to take the final two games. Lefty J.A. Happ allowed just two runs over 6 1/3 innings on Saturday, Aaron Sanchez surrendered one run over seven innings in Game 162 on Sunday, and Toronto celebrated clinching home-field advantage over Baltimore for the AL Wild Card game, which proved to be pivotal just a couple of days later.

What went right: It seems kind of funny now, but Toronto originally was expected to win in spite of its starting rotation, not because of it. The hope surrounding this starting five was that it would be good enough to keep the Blue Jays in a lot of ballgames, and then the offense could take care of the rest. In the end, this team won 89 games because of its rotation, which turned out to be one of the best in baseball. Toronto starters led MLB in innings (995 1/3); led the AL in WHIP (1.22), opponents' batting average (.236) and ERA (3.64); came in fourth in the AL in strikeouts (842); and they allowed the second fewest home runs (119) in the Junior Circuit.

Happ's solid start

Toronto finished the year with the oldest (in average age) roster of any team in baseball. This was a team filled with mostly veterans, but injuries did not have much of an impact during the regular season. Yes, Bautista, Kevin Pillar, Tulowitzki, Devon Travis and Marco Estrada hit the disabled list at various times, but the injuries did not come in bunches and were manageable for the most part. The biggest success story was that the Blue Jays got through the entire season using just seven starters.

Michael Saunders struggled in the second half, but he helped carry the team at times prior to the All-Star Break, hitting .298 with 16 homers and 42 RBIs.

Saunders' two-run jack

The mid-season additions of Joaquin Benoit and Jason Grilli solved a lot of the issues Toronto had been experiencing in the bullpen, while Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini became a saving grace for manager John Gibbons.

Travis returned from left shoulder surgery in late May and established himself as a plus hitter and reliable leadoff man until his injury problems returned during the postseason. Martin faded late in the year, but he still finished with 20 home runs and a .733 OPS while providing plus defense behind the plate.

Travis extends hit streak

What went wrong: On paper, Toronto's offense in 2016 looked relatively strong, based on 759 runs, which ranked fifth in the AL. But that only tells part of the story. The Blue Jays averaged 4.7 runs per game, which was down from 5.5 in 2015, and they scored the fewest of any team in the AL during September. Sure, the expectations were high and possibly even unrealistic going into the season, but this club was still expected to do a lot more with its bats. Toronto also grounded into an MLB-high 153 double plays in 2016, which was the third most in franchise history.

Chris Colabello was suspended for 80 games in April after testing positive for a banned substance, and he never recovered. Last year, Colabello and Justin Smoak combined to hit 33 home runs with 113 RBIs as a platoon at first base, but this year Toronto was forced to play Encarnacion every day at the position while using a rotating cast in the designated hitter spot. The loss of one slugger went a long way in weakening the bottom half of the order.

Drew Storen was expected to become an elite eighth-inning reliever for the Blue Jays, but his stint was brief and unsuccessful. Toronto continuously gave Storen opportunities to pitch in high-leverage situations, but he posted a 6.21 ERA and was designated for assignment by the end of July. The only good news was that he was used to acquire Benoit, who became a key contributor.

Benoit fans Escobar, earns save

Toronto finished the year with a 21-25 record in one-run games. The winning percentage drastically improved a lot over the course of the season, but some early struggles from the bullpen dragged this number down. The Blue Jays finished 12th in the AL with 4.11 ERA from their relievers.

Franklin Morales was supposed to be the second lefty out of the bullpen, but in the end, he only made five appearances because of a shoulder issue, while earning $2 million.

Biggest surprise: The decision to move Sanchez into the starting rotation turned out to be an overwhelming success. At the start of Spring Training, the Blue Jays considered using him out of the bullpen or perhaps even beginning his year in the Minors to work on his secondary pitches. He broke camp with the team, though, and ended up becoming an All-Star while leading the AL with a 3.00 ERA and tossing 203 2/3 innings combined during the regular season and postseason. There have always been high expectations for Sanchez, but very few people could have predicted he would make just a quick and flawless adjustment to becoming a full-time starter.

Sanchez earns win in Game 4

Hitter of the Year: Donaldson takes this category for the second consecutive year. Encarnacion also deserves some consideration for this spot, but Donaldson finished with a better OPS (.953 vs. .886) and had a higher WAR (7.7 vs. 3.9). Donaldson likely won't win the AL MVP after a prolonged late-season slump, but he'll still receive a lot of attention after finishing the year with a .284 average, 37 home runs and 99 RBIs.

Donaldson's solo homer

Pitcher of the Year: Happ's three-year, $36 million deal raised a few eyebrows, but it ended up being one of the best free-agent bargains over the last several years. He set career highs in wins (20), innings pitched (195) and had his lowest ERA since 2009 (3.18). Sanchez is a worthy pick here as well, but Happ tossed a few more innings and won multiple big games for this team down the stretch.

Rookie of the Year: Biagini was not even expected to make the team out of Spring Training, let alone become an important piece in the bullpen. The Rule 5 pick started out the season as a long reliever, but he quickly moved into a setup role and never looked back. He did fatigue a little bit down the stretch, but the quirky reliever tossed a lot of quality innings and helped keep things afloat when the bullpen struggled early. There's a strong possibility that Biagini will transition to a starter's role next season.

Biagini strikes out Perez

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.