By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - A season that promised so much and delivered so little for Toronto Blue Jays fans came to a dreary end on Sunday with the city's World Series dreams buried under the rubble of a last place finish.
Labeled championship contenders after a lavish off-season spending spree, the Blue Jays never came close to living up to the hype or expectations heaped on them.
They finished bottom of the American League East, a shocking 23 games behind division champions Boston.
Long before the Rogers Centre dome closed and emptied for the final time this season, the same people who had predicted greatness for the Blue Jays had reversed course and confirmed them as the campaign's biggest disappointment.
As Toronto signed off with a 7-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays their only parting gift to dejected fans were Blue Jays hats that will help keep them warm through a long, bitter winter.
The season began with only two other teams in all of North American professional sports having gone longer without reaching the playoffs than the Blue Jays, and the Pittsburgh Pirates scratched their name off that dubious list this year.
Only the Kansas City Royals, who last made baseball's playoffs in 1985, have gone longer than the Blue Jays without making it to the postseason.
Two decades after Toronto's last World Series appearance, general manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled out the Blue Jays credit card and flashed the cash.
He plundered the Florida Marlins for All Star pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and Joes Reyes, perhaps the best short stop in baseball, along with Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck for a boatload of prospects.
Another blockbuster deal with the New York Mets brought in National League Cy Young knuckleballer R.A. Dickey while drug tainted slugger Melky Cabrera's big bat was added to a powerful line-up that already featured Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
Blue Jays owners Rogers Communications watched the team payroll swell from $83.7 million to $117 million, ninth highest in Major League Baseball, and basked in the buzz that washed over a city normally consumed by ice hockey.
Despite the shopping spree the Blue Jays finished with a 74-88 record, the $34 million bump in payroll producing just one more win than last year.
"I knew what the expectations were going to be for our team in general, not just me but our team," said Dickey, who followed up his 20-6 Cy Young season with a 14-13 record.
"There is some hope from what has happened this year from a personal standpoint and from the team.
"I think it's important that we are able to identify what we do well and keep doing that well as fixing what we don't do well."
Anthopoulos and fans will now spend their time until spring training sifting through the wreckage of a disastrous season searching for clues to what went so drastically wrong.
On a long list of disappointments, Johnson would rank as the biggest, the two-time All Star posting a 2-8 record with a 6.20 ERA, while spending a good part of the year injured.
Injuries were a factor.
A big part of the Blue Jays opening day roster finished the season on the disabled list including Johnson, fellow pitchers Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil, sluggers Bautista, Encarnacion and Colby Rasmus, along with Maicer Izturis.
Despite a cringe worthy season, the Blue Jays will stay the course with Anthopoulos looking to add a few new pieces rather than tear the house down and begin anew.
A quality starter, a second baseman and an upgrade behind the plate will be high on Anthopoulos's shopping list.
Manager John Gibbons will be back and so will the core of a team that Dickey believes will be stronger and better for the experience.
"There's a lot of positives going into next year, we've played a year together, that's a big deal," assured Dickey. "Having all these pieces come into the fold at once who haven't played together.
"We played together for a year now, now we know what to expect out of each other, how to challenge each other, a little bit more about how to hold each other accountable.
"All those things are very important on a team. I'm very optimistic about next year."
While the Jays struck out on the field they hit a home run off it as attendance and television ratings soared.
Hungry fans gobbled up the Blue Jays hype with more 2.5 million passing through the turnstiles, a jump of 436,899 from last season.
But with little return on their time, money and emotional investment there must now be some concerns about how much fans will be willing risk next year.
"You don't make excuses, you have to be accountable," Anthopoulos told reporters. "Things happen and there must be things we can do to better as an organization.
"Obviously we didn't perform the way we hoped. We need to get it right, get it better."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)