In this four-part series, I’ll explore where each of the Toronto pro sports teams stand going into the future, and what we can reasonably expect from them:
Before Masai Ujiri re-signed with the Raptors to remain as club president on a multi-year deal, I asked Matt Cauz (host on TSN 1050) and Mike Richards (host of the Raw Mike Richards Show on Newstalk Sauga 960) which Toronto team was in the best position going forward. Both of their responses were: the Blue Jays, not only because of the uncertainty surrounding the Masai situation, but also because of the Jays’ young, talented core and the lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball. Expectations shot up going into last season after the Jays signed George Springer to a 6-year, $150 million deal. But, just as the Leafs discovered, a hot young core plus an all-star doesn’t necessarily equal instant success.
The big issue this season for the Jays was their bullpen. While there were a couple standouts that came to pitch in relief (Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza), they also had to send out struggling pitchers such as Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood and Anthony Kay in high-leverage situations, most of the time costing the Blue Jays very winnable games. Even with some bullpen additions that Toronto made at the trade deadline, it was still their Achilles’ heel, and the big reason as to why the Blue Jays eventually missed out on the postseason.
The Blue Jays had the fifth highest run differential in the Major Leagues (3rd in the American League), yet somehow finished fourth in the A.L. East, nine games back of the Tampa Bay Rays for 1st. Even worse, the Jays missed out on a wild card berth, finishing just a game back of division rivals Boston and New York. Naturally, manager Charlie Montoyo came under fire for the team’s pattern of blowing winnable games and throwing out pitchers in situations they had no business being in. While I’m not the biggest Montoyo fan, he was working with the limited tools he had and the bullpen problem should have really been blamed on upper management. The bullpen struggles took some of the shine off the real big story for the Jays this season: their young star finally living up to the tremendous hype surrounding him.
When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. first stepped onto a Major League field as a rookie two seasons back, he had already tore through the minor leagues as one of the highest rated prospects in the history of baseball and it seemed inevitable that he would be the game’s next superstar. Turns out things didn’t go his way immediately. He failed to have an OPS above .800 in his first two seasons and was forced to change positions after his play at third base failed to register much hope in Jays management and it was quickly becoming apparent that his weight was a problem.
Jump to this season: he settled in as a first baseman, and after losing over 40 pounds, he looks like the player we were initially promised. He led the American League in on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, runs and home runs, while among the leaders in batting average, hits, RBI’s and walks. For much of the season it looked like a strong possibility that he could be the first player to capture the batting triple crown since Miguel Cabrera in 2012. This put Guerrero right in the middle of the chase for the American League Most Valuable Player award with the two-way superstar (and unicorn) Shohei Ohtani. The latter looked to have the award wrapped up in mid-August, but Vladdy’s strong play down the stretch had some thinking Ohtani didn’t have the award in the bag just yet. At the end of the day, Ohtani would win the AL MVP unanimously, with Vladdy receiving 29 of 30 second-place votes. Regardless, Guerrero’s game has turned a huge corner direction enroute to the 1B Silver Slugger and the Hank Aaron Award for best offensive player in the American League. Of course, Vladdy wasn’t the only youngster on the team worth noting.
When Alek Manoah was first called up last year, there was legitimate concern that the move was made too quickly and was just a response to the lack of pitching options in the Jays clubhouse. Boy, were those concerns out of line! In his 20 starts, he’s looked spectacular, not allowing opponents to get on base to go alongside a healthy amount of strikeouts and walks. I look forward to seeing what the soon-to-be-24-year-old is able to bring to the table in the coming years. Bo Bichette’s numbers looked like they were on the decline, but he finished with a strong September and October, finishing with a .298 average and leading the American League in hits. Though for someone without extraordinary power, he strikes out often and doesn’t draw too many walks. His play in the field has also raised some concerns and have people questioning if he should be moved over to second base. TSN 1050’s Matt Cauz still thinks Bichette will become a star, but will likely play out a lot of his career at second base. You would like him to show some improvement this coming season.
Last season, Cavan Biggio was largely the second baseman for the club and looked very comfortable there. However, he made the move to third base and has looked nowhere near as comfortable playing there everyday. Since his pretty awful start, he had faced injury issues in early August, missing much of the rest of the season, except for some limited action in October. While he has never been the greatest hitter for average, he hit just .224 this season with and OPS of .678. It’s clear that he’s most comfortable filling in as a middle infielder or outfielder and should be viewed as a utility-man which can be very valuable, but shouldn’t be counted on everyday, especially at third. Lourdes Gurriel had been hot-and-cold for most of the season, owning an OPS of just .784 playing outfield, which is a position that demands good, if not great, offensive production. At one point he was thought of as a potential core piece of the team, and now his future on the team could be in jeopardy as he could be used as a trade piece to shore up the team’s weaknesses.
While many hoped Nate Pearson would have an opportunity to make a major league impact, things hadn’t gone his way early in the season with a disastrous start, allowing three earned runs in just two-and-a-third innings of work. However, when Nate was called up in September to pitch as a reliever, he looked a lot more comfortable, earning 20 strikeouts in 12-and-two-thirds innings of work, and slowly lowered his inflated numbers from that horrible start. One would hope that next season he will be able to make the transition to full-time starter out of training camp in 2022, but that’s all up to his development and how management views his progress.
The catcher position was also been a point of interest last season, with three players battling for the everyday catcher’s job. The job was Danny Jansen’s at the start of the season, but injuries, and struggles on both sides of the plate have severely hurt his chances of having a major role with this team going forward. It wouldn’t surprise me if Toronto looked to move away from him this offseason, despite his upside. Alejandro Kirk is undeniably the best offensive catcher the team has but his play behind the plate leaves some to be desired. Reese McGuire is the more well-rounded of the catching options and possesses a great arm for throwing out runners trying to steal second. He is just as capable as Kirk when it comes to batting for average, but lacks the power Kirk has. Both McGuire and Kirk should be on the roster for next season and having Kirk come off the bench to pinch hit (or even for use as a DH) is a tremendous asset. You could argue that each player has about the same value to a Major League ball club. The competition between the two should be one to watch for in the future.
A lot of the Jays success last season came from their veterans on the team. Marcus Semien was found money, and while his production slowed from his marvelous start, he was the best second baseman in the American League (and possibly the entire Majors). His 45 homeruns this season is an MLB record for most HR’s by a second baseman in a season. Predictably, Semien was named the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner at his position, but less predictably he was also one of the three nominees for the AL MVP award. Unfortunately, we would leave Toronto the first chance he got to sign with the Texas Rangers, leaving a very large hole at second base for the Blue Jays.
While Teoscar Hernandez didn’t have the monster season like he did the year prior, he still performed as one of the best offensive outfielders in the American League, though most Jays fans would probably feel more comfortable with him as the DH rather than patrolling right field. Either way, his .296 average, .524 slugging % and 32 homeruns earned him one of the Silver Slugger awards for outfielders for the second year in a row. Even though George Springer had spent most of the season on the IL, he was amazing in the lineup and is just a perfect piece for the Jays to have, not only leading off, but also patrolling center field. Despite limited action, he still managed to hit 22 homeruns and we look forward to what he can bring if fully healthy in 2022. And then of course, there’s the starting pitching.
Robbie Ray turned heads (not only with those tight pants) with his play on the mound. He turned himself into a Cy Young nominee in a crowded field for the award, finishing first in the AL in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and innings pitched, and second in the AL for opponent’s batting average. Ray would almost unanimously win the Cy Young with 29 of 30 1st place votes, blowing by Gerrit Cole to become the fourth Blue Jays pitcher to capture the prestigious honour. Like Semien, he left town the first opportunity he got, opting to sign with Seattle. Though, the Jays didn’t wait long to bring in his replacement in Kevin Gausman. The nine-year veteran has always been a solid starter and he should become a key piece in the Jays starting rotation. Hyn-Jin Ryu wasn’t as strong as he was in his first season with the Jays, but could still be counted on once every five games. One can only hope he can find his top form again next year. Matz added stability to the end of the pitching rotation and was able to largely get away with allowing a high amount of baserunners while maintaining a sub-4.00 ERA. The Blue Jays also added Jose Berrios to the rotation at the trade deadline for the price of top prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods. The good news is that Berrios has been all we were promised when he came to Toronto and now has a seven-year extension to show for it.
This Blue Jays team looked like it was on the cusp of its own 2015 moment, making a strong postseason push in the month of September, but fell just short. While this team is young, and there is time to grow and improve, it’s becoming apparent that in major sports, you have to find success while your young players are signed for cheap before half of your salary is dedicated to just a few players. This is less prominent in baseball because of the lack of a salary cap, but the luxury tax is usually enough for teams to not want to over spend on their players. When Springer was signed to a 6-year deal, it signaled that the Blue Jays would be going for it for those six seasons, and we should expect them to be in the playoffs for those years. Here’s hoping that the next five are just as fun, and maybe come with a BIT more bullpen stability.