Blue Jays know it will be the post-season or bust this season
DUNEDIN, Fla.—Expectations surrounding this year’s version of the Blue Jays are already sky high. With the right move or two, they might become even higher.
The Jays officially opened spring training Monday with their first full team workout, knowing full well how much pressure will be on them this season. Meaningful baseball in September is no longer good enough. With the way this group is built, it’s post-season or bust and everyone around the team seems to know it.
The Jays have one of the best rosters in the American League on paper. Their starting rotation should be a strength, the offence still features a promising young core of stars and, after last year’s mid-season turnaround, there’s renewed hope that the bullpen should be good enough to get the job done.
Even more encouraging is that the Jays aren’t done shopping. They still have room to add another infielder, or maybe an outfielder who could take some at-bats out of the designated hitter slot. With money to spend and prospects to trade, almost everything is on the table for general manager Ross Atkins to improve his ball club.
Adding a prime free agent like Freddie Freeman or Kyle Schwarber would make this team even more dangerous than it already is. The same could be said for trade targets like Oakland’s Matt Chapman, Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez or Arizona’s Ketel Marte.
This team might not be a finished product quite yet, but the message on Day 1 was that, no matter what the front office ends up doing between now and opening day, the goal is to be playing deep into October. Manager Charlie Montoyo made that clear to the players during his first speech of the year.
“Such a young, promising team that I think got better over the off-season,” said Jays starter Kevin Gausman, who signed a five-year contract worth $110 million (U.S.) during the off-season. “I think Charlie did a good job on the first day (saying) we expect to win and anybody here who doesn’t expect that, there’s the door kind of thing. That’s good.”
Gausman is new to the Jays scene but, for those who were here before, there is some unfinished business to take care of. This was a group that came within two wins of the post-season, one that felt like it was good enough to make it, maybe even good enough to win the whole thing.
A missed opportunity like that can linger, especially when key members such as Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz hit free agency. Finding ways to improve isn’t easy with so much talent heading out the door and yet the Jays appear to be in the process of doing just that.
The Jays essentially swapped Ray and Matz for Gausman and lefty Yusei Kikuchi in their rotation. When combined with José Berríos, Alek Manoah and veteran Hyun-Jin Ryu, there might not be a better starting staff, one through five, in the AL. Equally impressive are the options the Jays have to back them up in Nate Pearson, swingman Ross Stripling, right-hander Thomas Hatch and lefty Anthony Kay. It’s a level of added protection the Jays haven’t always had.
The bullpen doesn’t come with as much certainty, but there are some intriguing options for Montoyo to use late in games. Jordan Romano now has a full season of closing experience under his belt while mid-season acquisitions Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards will be around for a full year. Tim Mayza, Yimi Garcia, David Phelps, Julian Merryweather and Andrew Vasquez provide alternatives. More crucially, Tyler Chatwood and Brad Hand, two of last year’s disasters, are in different area codes.
Offensively, the Jays hope a healthy George Springer will offset some of the lost production from Semien. Elsewhere, the lineup should look like last year with another upgrade expected in the coming days. A lefty bat would be ideal for a team that lacks balance, but even if nothing is done before opening day, a team that finished third in the majors with 846 runs isn’t suddenly going to forget how to score.
“First full year for Vlad and Bo, and those guys, now they know what it feels to have 500-600 at-bats,” Montoyo said. “That’s the first thing Bo said when I saw him, ‘I know what it feels like, so I feel better this year going into it.’ ”
There are other factors working in the Jays’ favour, too. After playing in three home ballparks last year because of the pandemic, they will have a full season at Rogers Centre for the first time since 2019. Canada’s cross-border rules also prevent nonvaccinated players from travelling to Toronto, which could put some opposing teams at a competitive disadvantage.
The biggest addition of all might have been MLB and the MLB Players’ Association agreeing to an expanded post-season. The previous 10-team format has been increased to 12. If that system had been in place last year, the Jays would have been in the post-season alongside Tampa Bay, New York, Boston, Chicago and Houston.
None of this is meant to suggest the road ahead will be easy. Injuries often play a big role in where teams finish and, while the Jays aren’t done shopping quite yet, neither are their rivals in the always competitive AL East.
Nothing is guaranteed, but the rebuild is long over and the days of just being happy to hang around with the likes of Boston and New York should be, too. This team has been built to accomplish something special and anything less than cracking the post-season will come as a major disappointment.