There’s something big happening in Toronto.
Blue Jays fans may not be able to see it in the flesh for a while, but their franchise is trending up from playoff hopefuls to genuine division, if not league, contenders.
In 2020, the Blue Jays made their return to the postseason after a four-year hiatus, going 32-28 in a season of upheaval that forced manager Charlie Montoyo and company to pack their bags and leave Canada for the summer, living out of suitcases without a place they could call home until Sahlen Field in Buffalo completed the renovations that made it fit to host Major League Baseball games.
It is once again looking that they likely won’t be playing home games in Canada for a few months, at least, because of strict COVID rules north of the border. Expect the team to stay in Florida after spring training at its complex in Dunedin, which ultimately means no return to upstate New York.
THE LONG GAME
The Blue Jays mean business. Their brief postseason appearance wasn’t a one-off jaunt. This team is hungry, and its aspirations lay far beyond one and done come October.
Earlier in January, ownership extended the contract of CEO and president Mark Shapiro. The man who has overseen the development of the team’s player development, which nurtured young talent such as Nate Pearson, will continue with the organization thru 2025; 10 years after he joined.
His biggest challenge will be to bring success on the field.
That starts with Montoyo, who was in the running for AL Manager of the Year in 2020. The skipper guided this young team beyond the expectations of many outside the club.
For the Jays to take the next step, they need to compliment the young corps that Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins and Montoyo have assembled.
Last offseason, the Blue Jays signed former Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Hyun-jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million contract. Ryu led the National League with a 2.32 ERA in 2019 and finished second in the Cy Young voting behind only the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom.
Ryu was the team’s Opening Day starter in 2020. He posted a 2.69 ERA over 67 innings in the shortened season, earning the Warren Spahn Award for the best left-handed pitcher in the league.
For a team that has lacked a true ace since Marcus Stroman was traded to the Mets in July 2019, Ryu’s emergence as a ace represents some much needed stability for the Blue Jays.
It’s the rest of the front-line rotation beyond the Korean where Toronto will need to improve.
They have plenty of names, but the only other pitcher who is projected as a starter is Nate Pearson.
The 24-year-old, picked 28th overall by the Blue Jays in the 2017 draft, has only pitched 18 innings, going 1-0 with a 6.00 ERA and 16 strikeouts while recording a RV- of 90, which is above the league average.
Pearson is going to need time and can’t be expected to carry the load alongside Ryu.
As a reminder, Raw Value- (RV-) examines how a pitcher performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, while Raw Value+ (RV+) does the same from a batter’s perspective. The lower the number, the better for pitchers. Conversely, for batters it’s the higher the better. League average for both is 100.
Ryu, whose RV- is 76, the only other pitcher on the Blue Jays’ roster with a better than average mark.
Tanner Roark, Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton and the newly signed Tyler Chatwood are guys who will be, amongst others, competing for a rotation spot in 2021, but their RV- of 137, 119, 116 and 107, respectively, rank them below average in the league.
Shapiro has insisted that the team is “going to get better.” Some of the splash signings he’s promised will need to aid Ryu and Pearson in the starting rotation.
VLAD’LL DO NICELY
He’s now lean, he’s mean, and he’s a slugging machine.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was one of the most hotly anticipated prospects in Blue Jays history when he strutted into the Rogers Centre in 2019.
Vladdy, who will turn 22 before the start of the season, has reportedly shed 40 pounds over the past few months. He’s keen to return to third base after being moved to first in 2020. Montoyo has said he’ll give the youngster a chance, and he’ll be looking for his team to improve overall on defense.
Guerrero Jr’s has hit .269/.336/.442 in 757 plate appearances with 24 home runs through his first two MLB seasons. His RV+ was above league average at 102, but he wasn’t the star for Toronto at the plate last year.
BAT TO THE FUTURE
The emergence of Teoscar Hernandez was pivotal in the Blue Jays’ run to the postseason. The Dominican won his first Silver Slugger Award in 2020, tying for fifth in the AL with 16 home runs. Hernandez certainly flourished in his fourth year with the team as he finished seventh in the AL in both slugging percentage (.579) and OPS (.919).
He also led the Blue Jays in RV+ (146), and if he can continue that form in 2021 alongside a streamlined Guererro Jr., this Toronto offense will be a force to be reckoned with.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who tallied 11 homers, 33 RBI, a .534 slugging percentage and a 135 RV+ in 2020, and Randal Grichuk (112 RV+) will help ensure this team has enough depth and firepower on offense.
STATS PERFORM VERDICT: EVOLUTION
Shapiro laid the foundation for success when he took over in 2015. The budding stars are beginning to blossom and we’re seeing the emergence of a solid force in the American League.
Defense is a legitimate concern, as the fielding errors we saw last year will need to be addressed if the club is to become a legit contender in 2021.
Starting pitching is a need that must also be addressed to compliment Ryu and possibly Pearson.
Eyes will be on the slimmed-down Guererro Jr. but indications from the Dominican Winter League are that he’s not lost any power with the pounds that he’s shed.
The pieces are in place, and Jays fans will be hoping Ross Atkins can deliver the elite talent that will elevate this promising cast of youngsters.
Data modeling provided by Lucas Haupt.
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