Blue Jays couldn't sustain fast start to season

Drought reaches 21 years as capable club can't find winning formula

Blue Jays couldn't sustain fast start to season

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' 2014 season had plenty of highs and lows, but more than anything, it will be remembered for the golden opportunity that got away.

Toronto sat atop the American League East throughout June and early July for the first time since 1993. It seemed almost like a foregone conclusion that the Blue Jays would finally put an end to a decades-long drought without postseason baseball.

Unfortunately for the ballclub, that success proved to be rather fleeting as the club went into a tailspin during the second half and eventually fell out of the race. Instead of preparing for the playoffs, the Blue Jays spent the final weeks wondering where everything went wrong.

"I've said many times, the best teams get there and the lesser teams don't," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said in late September. "That's no secret in this business.

"Especially in this sport, 162 games, when you have your injuries, you have to weather the storm and you have to have some replacements step up and do a good job. But I think the best teams get there at the end."

Each month of the Blue Jays' season had a completely different feel. In April, the club got off to a relatively slow start thanks to a bullpen that looked completely lost without injured closer Casey Janssen. May was the month Toronto took the baseball world by storm with a 21-9 record, but it wasn't sustainable.

The downward slide began in early June when the streaky lineup started to cool off. The struggles carried over into July and were made even worse by injuries to key players Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind. Despite the disturbing trend the Blue Jays finished the month in possession of the second Wild Card spot and the hope was that another upward swing would be on the horizon.

Instead of making a strong push, the season was lost in August when the offense completely fell apart which resulted in a 9-17 record. There was a last-minute gasp in September, but by then it was too little, too late, and it is now 21 years and counting for Toronto without reaching the postseason.

"I think it was a disappointment," Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey said. "Having not gotten to the postseason, again, with a team that I felt was very capable. Of course we're all disappointed, and we should be. Everybody in here should be disappointed. You have to learn, you have to grow, you have to look for opportunities to see how you can improve and get better, otherwise the season is lost."

Here's a closer look at how everything unfolded for the Blue Jays in 2014:

Record: 83-79, third in the AL East

Defining moment: The Blue Jays arrived in Houston on July 31 with sole possession of the second Wild Card spot and 2 1/2 games back of Baltimore for first place in the AL East. The postseason dream was very much alive and the club appeared to have fully recovered from a late swoon prior to the All-Star break. The talk on Day 1 of the series in Houston was about the Blue Jays' decision not to make any major additions prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and it wasn't long before the product on the field suffered. Toronto won only two series and went 9-17 in August to all but completely fall out of the race.

What went right: The starting rotation was expected to be the biggest weakness on this year's squad, but instead it turned into a strength for long stretches of the season. Brandon Morrow was the only starter to sustain a significant injury, and for the first time in recent memory, health wasn't a factor on the staff ... Dioner Navarro proved to be a significant upgrade over former starting catcher J.P. Arencibia. Navarro provided a lot of upside with the bat, but even more impressive was the fact that he didn't fatigue in the second half despite setting a career high in games played ... Toronto received contributions from young pitchers such as Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris to provide a glimpse at the future ... Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Encarnacion and Lind -- when healthy -- were a formidible heart of the batting order that could be matched up against anyone in baseball.

What went wrong: The Blue Jays' bullpen wasn't able to find the same success as it did in 2013. Sergio Santos and Steve Delabar were expected to be major contributors, but instead found themselves relegated to the Minor Leagues by the middle of the season ... Injuries once again played a factor on the everyday lineup as Brett Lawrie had another injury-riddled year, while Lind and Encarnacion also went down for significant periods of time. The Orioles were able to overcome their injuries, but the Blue Jays couldn't ... Colby Rasmus' final season in a Toronto uniform was a borderline disaster. Rasmus struggled to make contact, and when he did, he wasn't finding very many holes. By September, he lost his starting job and spent the final month on the bench ... Second base turned into a black hole after the club declined to upgrade the position during the offseason ... Jose Reyes battled a shoulder injury and hamstring issues for most of the year, and it resulted in a noticeable decline in his range up the middle ... A lack of organizational depth in the high levels of the Minor Leagues meant there was a huge dropoff in talent when anyone went down with an injury.

Biggest surprise: Cabrera. The 30-year-old might have been snubbed at this year's All-Star Game, but he played at that elite level until a season-ending injury in early September. Cabrera will be a top candidate for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award after finishing with a .301 average, 171 hits and an .808 OPS. This wouldn't have qualified as a surprise a couple of years ago, but it does now after last season's disappointment.

Cabrera's 2013 came to an end when a tumor was discovered in his back, but he regained full range of motion this season and didn't have any of the leg issues that plagued him in the past. He re-established himself as one of the game's top corner outfielders, and the Blue Jays will now seek for ways to keep the pending free agent in the fold.

Hitter of the Year: Bautista. For the first time since 2011, Bautista was able to remain healthy for an entire season. He surpassed 30 homers and 100 RBIs for the first time in three years and proved there was still plenty left in the tank. There were times this season when Encarnacion was the club's best hitter, but from start to finish, nobody had a year quite like Bautista.

Pitcher of the Year: Dickey. Mark Buehrle was the club's best pitcher in the first half of the season, but Dickey was the most consistent of Toronto's starters. He finished the year leading the team in wins but most crucial was his consistent ability to eat up a lot of quality innings. He surpassed 200 innings for the fourth consecutive year, and more often than not was able to record a quality start. Stroman likely would have been a strong candidate for this honor, but the only thing getting in his way was that the Duke product didn't make his starting debut until the very end of May.

Rookie of the Year: Stroman. He didn't win a job out of Spring Training, but it didn't take very long for the hard-throwing righty to make his presence felt. Shortly after Morrow was lost to another serious injury, Stroman stepped right in and secured his spot as a potential cornerstone of the starting staff for years to come. Along the way, he picked up a pair of complete games, one shutout and added a two-seam fastball midway through the year that contributed to his strong finish. Stroman likely would have been a candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year Award if not for the performance of Chicago's Jose Abreu.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.