Blue Jays 2021 — Expectations will continue to rise .. and Montoyo says “Our guys are ready”

Apr 1st, 2021 | By | Category: Sporting Life
Jays’ manager Charlie Montoyo.

SPECIAL FROM ROB SPARROW, HIGH PARK, TORONTO. APRIL 1, 2021. Life for the Toronto Blue Jays, like everyone else for that matter, was and continues to be upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. A year ago, Canadian government border restrictions forced them to be baseball’s version of the nomadic warriors playing all of their games south of the border. Yet even in that most odd of years, it did not dissuade the youthful Blue Jays, who galvanized as a team and surprised with a 32-28 record and a spot in baseball’s post-season.

The potential for a breakout was there, but the consensus was that it wouldn’t happen until 2021 or beyond. To wit, the young Jays became the first team to ever qualify for the postseason without a single player with 10 years of major league experience. By reaching the playoffs — albeit an expanded 16-team version where they were quickly dispatched in two games by the Tampa Bay Rays — they arrived ahead of schedule.

“I think (we) should get more credit for what we did last year, not having a home and the guys believing from the beginning that we had a chance to play in the playoffs, and they did,” stated manager Charlie Montoyo, when asked if his team gets the respect it deserves. “The season gave us a tremendous window into their resilience, their determination, their perseverance and their toughness,” CEO Mark Shapiro said.

At TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida — where Jays will start 2021 season. Photo : John David Mercer–USA TODAY Sports.

It is with that accomplishment in their rear-view window that they look forward to the 2021 season with much anticipation, although once again with restrictions that will keep them out of Canada. The impact of COVID-19 and emerging variants of concern remains one collective unknown, and is tied to the Blue Jays’ lingering uncertainty over where they will play out their 2021 home schedule. Prevented from hosting games at Rogers Centre due to continued border restrictions, this year the club will begin the season in Florida, and play at least their first few homestands at Dunedin’s newly upgraded TD Ballpark.

Beyond the May 24 timeframe the team has not made any definitive plans. A couple more homestands in Dunedin is one possibility, but the club wants no part of the area’s searing heat and daily thunderstorms during the summer. A return to Buffalo is on the table, although that would also require relocating the Triple-A Bisons. The club’s enduring hope is that vaccinations accelerate enough to contain a third wave driven by the variants of concern, and allow for a return to Toronto, even if to play in an empty stadium.

Whether it’s Dunedin for two months, Buffalo for the summer, or even hope against hope, Toronto in the fall, after last years’ experience they will be more than ready for it. Like many things in this uncertainty of COVID-19, only time will tell.

Free agent Spending brings Springer & Semian into the fold…

George Springer.

To augment the burgeoning young cadre of homegrown players, the Blue Jays taped into Free Agency over the winter with the major offseason additions of George Springer and Marcus Semien. This was driven by management’s thinking : with the young core of players still on pre-arbitration deals and multiple years away from big paydays, there has never been a better time to spend big on the open market.

To that end, George Springer brings to the Blue Jays a big bat and a winning pedigree. He was the sparkplug for the powerful Houston Astros’ offense in the leadoff spot for the past four seasons, and was one of the most coveted free agents on the market this offseason. His six-year $150 million dollar deal now becomes the richest in Blue Jays history, moving past the $126-million, seven-year extension Vernon Wells signed in December 2006, and is easily the club’s deepest free-agency plunge, nearly doubling the $82-million, five-year deal for Russell Martin in November 2014.

Since making his debut in 2014, Springer has been one of the best hitters out of the leadoff spot in all of baseball, ranking second in home runs (136), third in RBI (352) and fourth in hits (665) and extra-base hits (254). He earned three straight All-Star nods from 2017-19, and was named the 2017 World Series MVP, when the sign-stealing Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. Springer has been at his best during baseballs biggest moments, hitting 19 postseason home runs, which is tied for fourth all-time.

Equally importantly to what he brings to the team on the field, has been his impact in the clubhouse. Springer is someone who doesn’t seek out attention, but often ends up receiving it anyway. “He’s high energy and has an infectious personality that people are naturally drawn to in the clubhouse, in the dugout,” says former manager AJ Hinch. “A tone-setter on so many levels. He’s a positive influence on a day-to-day basis. I mean, one of the best I’ve seen at being a consistent person and presence. Whether it’s how engaged he is with the best player on the team to the newly called-up rookie, he’s just a glue guy.” Springer with his long-term deal instantly becomes one of the new faces of the franchise.

Marcus Semien.

Marcus Semien was brought in for much the same reason : to add a veteran presence to the youthful core. Semien was the defacto leader of some overachieving Oakland Athletics teams that made the playoffs in each of his last three seasons. “I mean, he was our leader,” stated Athletics utility man Chad Pinder. “Leader of the whole team, not just position players. Everybody looked up to him. The way he went about his business, how hard he worked. Nobody outworked that guy. In four and a half years, I had never seen him miss a warmup, a workout, cage session, groundballs. I learned so many things from him about work ethic and routine, and how to be a professional because, I mean, Marcus is the definition of professional.”

Bringing Semien in on a one-year, $18-million deal significantly strengthens the Blue Jays’ batting order. He finished third in AL MVP voting as recently as 2019, hitting 33 home runs with an .892 OPS. Just as important is Semien’s ability to improve team defence. Defensive metrics are imperfect, but Defensive Runs Saved offers a pretty reasonable snapshot of a team’s play in the field, and the Blue Jays were the second-worst in the majors last year at minus-39 runs, meaning their defenders cost the team on average over half a run a game during the abbreviated season.

Semien remains an above-average defensive shortstop, according to FanGraphs (UZR/150 of 5.0 in 2019, 4.8 in 2020), but will be moved over to second base to accommodate shortstop Bo Bichette. That said, the skills that allow him to handle shortstop — a strong arm, good footwork and field awareness — will be highly transferable across the diamond. The Blue Jays will essentially have two shortstops up the middle, and should Bo Bichette need any time off, Semien can slot in easily at the only position he played from 2015-20.

Both these new leaders will impact the younger players in many ways, setting a winning tone within the clubhouse effecting behaviour both on and off the field.

Bats a Plenty .. Thunder all over the lineup ..

Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Offensively the franchise is sitting on a strong and deep big-league roster featuring the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo. Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. By adding Springer and Semien to this emerging core of young players, the Blue Jays strengthen a lineup filled with talented players just now establishing themselves as major-league difference makers.

In 2020, the Jays finished eighth in baseball in runs scored, crossing the plate over five times per game. Insert Springer’s power and his 11.1% career walk rate into the middle of that lineup — or at the very top because he’s spent the majority of his Astros career leading off — and it suddenly becomes even more of a problem for opposition pitchers. An outfield of Teoscar Hernandez, Springer and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will give the Jays last year’s Nos. 12, 13 and 15 best offensive outfielders in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus. Add in Semien to an infield of Biggio, Bichette and Guerrero Jr, and the Blue Jays are projected to have the fourth-best offence in baseball behind only the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros.

This has captured the attention of national baseball scribes. Everybody in spring training down in Florida was raving about the depth of the Blue Jays batting order. None more so than Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who generated buzz throughout the offseason with his workout videos and improved conditioning. When the 22-year-old arrived in spring camp, he shared that he’d lost 42 pounds stretching back to last years’ summer camp where he tipped the scales at a hefty 282 pounds.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr works at keeping weight down. PHOTO BY VLADIMIR GUERRERO /Instagram.

At the plate, there are also signs that Guerrero is finally started to show flashes of the former No. 1 prospect in baseball. Guerrero hammered the ball throughout Spring Training to a .421 ave, but more importantly, he’s hit it in the air consistently. Ground balls were a major issue for him in ’19 and ’20, but if Guerrero is lifting the ball, he could be on the doorstep of a big power season.

Bo Bichette also looks poised to take the next step in his development. Injuries have limited him to only 75 games in 2019 & 20, yet in those games he has produced to a .307 ave. with 16 HRs. Just turning 23, his combination of power and speed has him poised to be an impact player on the Jays to be mentioned with some of the other elite shortstops in the game.

Finally, depending on how bullish you are on the bats of players like Rowdy Tellez, Randal Grichuk, and Alejandro Kirk, the Blue Jays have as many as 11 everyday-calibre players. Beyond the quantity of talent, there aren’t clear delineations between the Blue Jays’ top-of-the-order types, middle-of-the-lineup thumpers, and guys who will garner fewer plate appearances. The breadth and depth of the lineup is impressive which will give the manager many options.

From Charlie Montoyo’s perspective, that’s a good problem to have, and certainly preferable to the days in his first season when the Blue Jays’ lineup thinned out after three or four hitters. “It will take care of itself,” Montoyo said. “It’s 162 games … hopefully they’re all hot and it’s tough to say who’s not playing. That would be the best-case scenario.”

Overall there looks to be minimal holes making it difficult for opposing pitchers to navigate through their lineup. Yet that might be needed, as the Blue Jays will have to outslug their opponents to make up for the flaws and many question marks that hang over their pitching staff.

Contenders .. Will go as far as their Arms ..

Toronto’s offensive lineup is stacked and set for 2021, but the pitching rotation is a different scenario. Due to poor performance and the club’s reluctance to allow their starters to work a third time through the lineup, 2020 marked the first time in club history that their relievers faced more hitters than the starters in a season. While that was a product of the pandemic-shortened 60-game campaign, the 2021 162-game marathon presents other challenges that will magnify any deficiencies.

Hyun Jin Ryu. The Canadian Press.

One pitcher that overperformed in 2020 was staff ace Hyun Jin Ryu. A Free Agent pickup in the winter of 2019, Ryu was a model of consistency. The 33-year old lefty pitched to a 2.69 ERA and finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting. Ryu is quite simply the most important player on the roster, because if he is injured for any extended period of time, the rotation would be in shambles without him. As things stand for 2021, Ryu is set to be followed by some combination of Robbie Ray, Nate Pearson, Stephen Matz, Tanner Roark and Ross Stripling.

Each of the aforementioned comes with question marks that makes it difficult to properly project what they’ll bring to the table. Ray was a mess last year who led the league in walks and pitched to a ghostly 6.66 ERA. The oft-injured Pearson (6.00 ERA), who has cracked 100 innings just once as a professional, logged only 18 innings in 2020, and will face workload concerns throughout the season. Matz (9.69 ERA) and Roark (6.80 ERA) are both looking for bounce backs after horrific seasons, while Stripling (5.84 ERA) is a capable swingman also looking to recapture some past form. All come with some degree of uncertainty, yet the Blue Jays are hoping that the pandemic shortened season was an outlier, and that each will pitch more to their performance in the previous full seasons of 2017-19.

If the rotation remains as is, then a bullpen expected to include whomever doesn’t make the starting staff is sure to be deployed as creatively and aggressively as it was last year. Tyler Chatwood, Trent Thornton and Anthony Kay look to provide bulk relief, while Julian Merryweather and his impressive repertoire is an intriguing possibility in a similar type of role or in more high leverage use.

Ryan Borucki. The Canadian Press.

That group will need to bridge the gap to late-game arms Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, David Phelps and Ryan Borucki. The Blue Jays had signed reliver Kirby Yates to a below-market deal in the offseason to take the closer role, but that gamble worked out about as poorly as anyone could’ve possibly imagined for the Jays. They got just two innings out of the veteran closer before he injured his arm. Now he will have Tommy John surgery and most likely will never throw a pitch for the Jays. Purchases in the pitching discount aisle come-as-is, without the option of a refund…sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

This year all big-league clubs will need to be more creative than ever to cover the near tripling of year-over-year workload they will all face. It’s going to take some luck, some health and maybe an unexpected breakout or two — a la Romano and Ryan Borucki from a year ago — for this staff to make it to July without coming unglued. Added to that fact were the late spring injuries to Ray (bruised left elbow) and Pearson (strained right groin) that will keep them sidelined in the opening week, means it will leave manager Charlie Montoyo to mix and match almost from day one.

Many in Toronto media decried that the Jays spent all the money on the starting lineup and next to nothing on the starting rotation, and indeed they could have tried to buy more certainty over the winter but chose instead a different approach. If, and that is a big IF, they are able to navigate into July and August in contention, look for the team to fortify the pitching staff with a trade deadline move using some of their highly regarded farm system capital.

High Expectations .. In the Hunt and on the Rise ..

Bo Bichette.

Expectations will continue to rise with the strong talent, deep 40-man roster and top-end farm system. It’s the sign of respect Bo Bichette and the Jays were looking for. Now they have to prove they’re ready for it. “I think that’s what we want, higher expectations because of the way we played,” Montoyo said. “You know whose fault that is? Us. And that’s great, because of what we did. Our guys are ready for those expectations.”

In the Toronto Blue Jays’ case, projection systems have them right in the playoff mix, with FanGraphs’ playoff odds model projecting 88 wins and playoff odds over 50 percent, Baseball Prospectus PECOTA’s model seeing a more modest 85 victories in the tea leaves of its algorithm.

Toronto is right there with the Tampa Bay Rays as the second-best on-paper team in the division. If the Jays can get even average starting pitching, they will be a much-improved team. If their young hitters – Guerrero, Biggio, Bichette – progress as a group, then a run at the New York Yankees is within the realm of possibility. However, because there is some uncertainty in the rotation, it’s possible that Toronto could end up having to outscore teams more than they’d like in 2021.

The Blue Jays overall are set up for several years of legitimate contention with its young talent on the rise and a farm system that has enough future core pieces (Austin Martin, Jordan Groshans, Alex Manoah, Simeon Woods Richardson etc..), to fuel the inevitable roster turnover caused by age, attrition and financial realities.

The Rogers Centre, waiting for a chance later on in 2021, maybe …

Added to that, deep pocketed owner Rogers Communications is in a unique position within the game of having mobile/cable revenues where many other major league clubs have been decimated by COVID-19; losing tens of millions in unsold tickets, concessions, in-park merchandise sales and sponsorships. This puts the Blue Jays with their financial flexibility in a great position to leverage some of those Rogers corporate earnings to improve the roster on the field.

The challenge is in turning all that organizational capital, both human and financial, into post-season berths, and, eventually, a World Series championship. A new competitive window is now open…and it begins with the upcoming 2021 season.

Rob Sparrow is a Toronto marketing analyst and noted local authority on the sporting life.

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4 comments
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  1. I am looking forward to seeing how Ryu does on the pitcher’s mound and if Semien emerges as a leader for the Jays. Whether they play in Florida or Buffalo, it will just be nice to cheer someone on and hope to see them in the playoffs in Toronto. Thanks Rob Sparrow for another great update on the Toronto Blue Jays!!

  2. Love the positive tone of this year’s edition. I look forward to this season starting article, but was a little apprehensive this year as whether it would share my optimism Another great piece my amigo Rob Sparrow.

  3. Great piece of work Rob! I particularly liked “in the tea leaves of it’s algorithm”. Go Jays. Game 1 on the books with a “w”

  4. Thank you as always Mr.Sparrow for your insightful content. I am really bullish on this team and I look forward to watching your predictions come true. The exuberance of our young players reminds me of the young studs we had in 84.

    If I may make a request for next years article? Could we start a petition to remove the curse of the dugout stairs in Dunedin? Even with all those millions in renovations to their spring facility those head steps have claimed another victim. Somewhere Maicer Itzuris is toasting the most lucrative workers compensation cases in baseball history

    Have some Sapporo suds sir on an article well done!

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