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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Blue Jays will need better pitching to take flight

Dickey and Co. must improve significantly for Toronto to rebound in tough AL East

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Sometimes, you look back at offseason projections and see where you missed things. That wasn't the case with the Toronto Blue Jays, who are 10-19 and a whopping 10 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East.

The thing is, even in hindsight, the Blue Jays' plan made sense. They began Spring Training having added impressive quality and depth to their rotation and speed and power to the lineup.

Even if you thought the Red Sox and Yankees might be better than expected, and even if you thought the Orioles might have another magical run in them, the Blue Jays still looked like the best team in the division.

Were they better than the Tigers or Rangers? Were they better than the A's or Angels? On Opening Day, those seemed to be the more significant questions.

Their lineup was scary good. Their rotation had no holes. Here's how they were supposed to line up:

1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Melky Cabrera, LF
3. Jose Bautista, RF
4. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
5. Brett Lawrie, 3B
6. Colby Rasmus, CF
7. Adam Lind, 1B
8. J.P. Arencibia, C
9. Emilio Bonifacio, 2B

Here was the projected rotation:

1. R.A. Dickey
2. Brandon Morrow
3. Mark Buehrle
4. Josh Johnson
5. J.A. Happ

When manager John Gibbons first revealed he was thinking of putting Reyes and Cabrera at the top of his batting order, it sort of crystalized how good the Blue Jays were going to be.

To have Reyes and his 40 stolen bases and Cabrera and his .346 batting average in front of the big boys, especially Bautista and Encarnacion, who both have 40-home run power, gave Toronto a batting order every bit as impressive as the one the Angels were supposed to have.

Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson combined for 627 1/3 innings, 520 strikeouts and a 3.39 ERA in 2012, and there was little reason to think they couldn't repeat those numbers with their new team.

So what's the point in rehashing all of this? First, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulous had a terrific offseason regardless of what the standings say.

One of the things that makes sports different from most other industries is that sometimes correct decisions don't get the intended results.

This is a tough concept for those from the world of business. They're accustomed to lining up the spreadsheets, plugging in the numbers and forecasting the results.

They don't deal with many of the variables baseball teams deal with. For instance, the Blue Jays couldn't have predicted that Reyes would sustain a gruesome ankle injury in the 10th game of the season. (Lawrie began the season on the DL, but has since returned.)

Reyes' injury can't be underestimated, because he brings a dazzling presence to a club. It is difficult enough for the Blue Jays to fill the hole he left at shortstop. It's impossible to replace his energy.

Still, Reyes' injury did not sink the Blue Jays. After all, they still had all that starting pitching.

And this is where the wheels have come off.

Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson are 3-7 with a 5.76 ERA. That's more than two runs a game higher than their combined 3.39 ERA in 2012.

Who saw that coming? It's one thing to factor in that Johnson has an injury history, and another to point out that all three were not only switching leagues, but also going to the best division in the game.

Nevertheless, nothing explains how they went from being so good to struggling so badly. Scouts say Buehrle no longer trusts his cutter, and so he relies more on his fastball. They say knuckleballs are notoriously fickle things, and that so far, Dickey's has been more fickle than usual. As for Johnson, they say his velocity and pitch selection have been about the same as always.

During Spring Training, a couple of opposing hitters raved about Johnson's stuff, and the sinker or cutter he was throwing in addition to his 94 mph fastball. They apparently saw no problem.

From the beginning, nothing worked. There's not a single area in which the Blue Jays have excelled. Only the Angels have more errors in the AL. Only the Angels and Astros have a higher ERA.

There have been glimpses of offense. The Blue Jays are 12th among 15 AL teams in runs, but they've come in bunches. They've also scored three runs or fewer 17 times and gone 2-15 in those games.

There must be some part of the clubhouse that believes each day will begin the turnaround. Now, though, Johnson has joined Reyes on the DL. And in the AL East, there are very few easy days.

Pitching was supposed to lead the Blue Jays, and maybe pitching eventually will do that. Regardless, Toronto is a really good reminder of all the variables separating really good teams from all the rest.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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