Blue Jays are contenders in 2024 .. but it looks like the rise may have stalled .. can they finally take flight before it’s too late?

Mar 28th, 2024 | By | Category: In Brief

SPECIAL FROM ROB SPARROW, HIGH PARK, TORONTO. MARCH 28, 2024. When the Toronto Blue Jays finished their 2022 season, they made a determination that the status quo wasn’t acceptable.

To that end, both a strategic and cultural shift for the Blue Jays in 2023 featured a vastly different style compared to many of the teams that came before.

(1) A Bitter Ending to 2023…

José Berríos.

A one-dimensional offence heavily reliant on right-handed power hitters added left-handed bats in an attempt to balance the order. Outfield defence was prioritized to improve athleticism and limit extra-base hits on the defensive end, albeit at the expense of offensive production.

Overall, that off-season strategy was to upgrade the pitching and defence to complement an everyday lineup designed to beat teams in a variety of ways. This group wasn’t going to sit back and wait for a homer, it intended on applying pressure by hitting balls to the gaps, moving runners over and taking extra bases. These moves were all in service of creating a more well-rounded Blue Jays team that emphasized fundamentals, improved defence with a more serious-minded approach – minus the home run jacket and joyous dugout sunflower seed shower celebrations that fans enjoyed.

Yet by moving away from a part of their fun-loving identity that people were drawn to, the Blue Jays left themselves with precisely one avenue to connect with their fans: Winning. By not meeting expectations in that area (falling to a third place 89-win regular season), the frustrated fan base was left feeling that they had received little in return for what it had lost.

The failure to launch Blue Jay 2023 season was punctuated in the Wild Card round by another controversial managerial pitching decision that took centre stage for the second straight postseason. With Game Two scoreless in the fourth inning and starter Jose Barrios steamrolling through the Minnesota Twins lineup, manager John Schneider strolled to the mound to bring in Yusei Kikuchi (a pitcher that had not relieved all season) who promptly gave up the only two runs in the 2-0 elimination game loss – their postseason “next level” run was over before it really began.

Bo Bichette (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images).

Manager John Schneider’s ill-conceived move of taking starter Jose Berrios out created friction throughout the team; between the front office and manager who both deflected blame while throwing each other under the bus, and between the entire organization (front office/manager) and the players. Some of Toronto’s players discussed the move after the game, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. saying “everybody was surprised.” Veteran Whit Merrifield was more critical in his post-game comments. “I hated it, frankly,” Merrifield said, “It’s not what cost us the game, but it’s the kind of baseball decisions that are taking away from managers and baseball.”

We got beat up two years in a row in the playoffs,” Bo Bichette told reporters, choosing his words carefully but clearly intent on making a point. “I think there is a lot or reflection needed … from players, but from the organization from the top down. Everybody needs to reflect to see what we can do better.” Parsing his words, it was clear who Bichette was referring to with “everybody”. Another lost season of baseball by the CEO Mark Shapiro/GM Ross Atkins tandem that is entering its ninth year with little to show.

(2) Eight years and Counting…On the Outside looking up…the lost rings

August of 2015 was a time of excitement and joy around the Toronto Blue Jays. Bolstered by then Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos’s trade deadline deals for star players Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, the Jays steamrolled its opposition going 42-15 for its first division championship since 1993. So, it was with curious timing on August 31st, that Blue Jay ownership announced the hiring of Mark Shapiro as CEO to lead the ballclub at the conclusion of the season.

Jose Bautista (right), Josh Donaldson (left) , and Edwin Encarnacion (centre), 2015

After the heartbreaking loss in the American League Championship series to Kansas City that October, Anthopoulos (who would be chosen 2015 Baseball executive of the year) resigned, pushed out by an ownership structure that had him reporting to new CEO Shapiro. It was a gutsy move at the time, especially walking away from a huge late offer from Owner Edward Rogers to stay with the club – yet it was clear that he would no longer be calling the shots – it would be Shapiro’s team going forward.

Just two years later, Anthopoulos was hired by the Atlanta Braves to run its Baseball operations. Since his hiring in 2018, the Braves have won their division every year, in that time they have won 24 playoff games culminating with the 2021 World Series, and are widely regarded as the best run organization in Major League Baseball. Conversely, the Blue Jays last won playoff games in 2016, with Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion, all of them essentially Anthopoulos players, leading the way.

The Shapiro-Atkins constructed teams — even as Anthopoulos left a gift named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. behind (signed by him in July 2015) and his remaining staff pushed for the drafting of Bo Bichette (June 2016) against the wishes of the new Shapiro front office — have seen the Blue Jays reach the wild card position just three times since 2017. Their post-season record to date is 0-6, and the Blue Jays are the only team in the American League East not to have won the division in the Shapiro-Atkins eight-year regime:

TeamWLPct.Division Champs
New York684510.5732019, 2022
Tampa Bay659535.5522020, 2021
Boston650544.5442016, 2017, 2018
Toronto609585.510NONE
Baltimore526668.4412023
Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro is an analytics and numbers guy — so let’s crunch the numbers. He’s been a club president or GM in Major League Baseball for 23 seasons in Cleveland and Toronto: yet he has never taken a team to the World Series and has not won a playoff round since 2007 with a team that he has played any part in building. He may be terrific at stadium renovations (a long-suffering resident baseball observer loves the new swanky patios and its many drink and food offerings), and doing his statesmen like press conferences. But where is there any evidence from hiring a fumbling double-speak GM, to hiring two run-of-the-mill managers, that he can lead the Blue Jays to a World Series?

We are now approaching a decade since the August 2015 Shapiro hiring that has radically altered two franchises. Blue Jay ownership was right in going hard after Anthopoulos to stay on with the team. The sentiment was correct at the time, but it was wrong to try to pair him with Shapiro. History has shown that Anthopoulos didn’t need a partner or a politician alongside him to run the baseball operations, then or now, and our lost World Series rings reside down in Atlanta and not here in Toronto.

(3) Intriguing yet Underwhelming Offseason

Yusei Kikuchi.

For a few hours on a Friday afternoon in mid-December speculation was running rampant that free agent and generational talent Shohei Ohtani was on private jet on his way to Toronto. Ohtani speculation was flying at hyper speed on social media, as Baseball insider J.P. Morosi reported a decision was “imminent”. Flightradar24, an online flight tracker, had 18,800 people following the private jet, their most-tracked flight of the day. To further the intrigue, it was reported that Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, a friend of Ohtani, had made a Friday night reservation for 50 people at a sushi restaurant near Rogers Centre.

Alas, like many things in today’s media, it was “news” that took on a life of its own. Then, the soap opera took a different path, as local reporters flocked to the airport, it was revealed that Canadian entrepreneur Robert Herjavec of “Shark Tank” fame was on the private jet being tracked to Toronto, not Ohtani. The next day, Ohtani announced that he was signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers (as it should have been obvious he would do all along) for a record $700M over 10 years. And just like that, with the Blue Jays both seeking a dynamic way to both turn the page and recast the path forward, what looked like a transformational signing in Blue Jay history was gone, leaving them scrambling in an offseason that was on the whole underwhelming.

Kevin Kiermaier.

Hard as it is to reconcile, once the aspirational pursuit of Shohei Ohtani failed, the Blue Jays shifted to a cautious secondary plan that netted them Designated Hitter Justin Turner, Infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Pitcher Yariel Rodriguez and Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who re-signed with the Blue Jays after testing free agency.

In every instance, the Jays teased a brand-name, story-altering signing and delivered a knockoff version of that player; instead of Shohei Ohtani the Jays got Justin Turner, instead of Yoshinobu Yamamoto they got Yariel Rodriguez, instead of Juan Soto they got Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Bargain bin shopping indeed, that culminated in the feel-good story of the Jays signing 40-year-old hometown hero Joey Votto off his couch to a minor league contract in hopes of making the club sometime later this year.

Whether essentially running it back with the same team and expecting a different outcome was the right call will play out in the months ahead. But this underwhelming offseason had led to tepid interest in a fanbase this spring, with people questioning how 2024 is going to be any better than 2023?

(4) To the Core…A Bridge Year with Major Decisions looming…

The Blue Jays go into 2024 with a new theme, gone is “Next Level” replaced by the slogan “To the Core”. When you think of “Core” and the Toronto Blue Jays, two names jump right out at you: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. The star pairing are now just two seasons away from free agency. In one way or another, the trajectory of this franchise is about to change depending on what happens over the next two years.

Leaner Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hoping productive offseason leads to big 2024!

Win a World Series and that trajectory is on a rocket ship skyward supported by new Rogers Centre luxury seating renovation revenues. Don’t quite win, yet get the franchises cornerstones in place with long-term contracts, and the window of contention will remain open through the 2020s. Take a step back in 2024, and who knows where things go heading into the final season of team control for the two homegrown stars.

That is why it raised some eyebrows this offseason when GM Ross Atkins chose to take Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to salary arbitration instead of reaching an agreement as he did with Bo Bichette last offseason. The arbitration process is inherently adversarial, where the arguments of a players value made by the team can be taken as insults. More so when the relationship between player and team is so important – the stakes skyrocket and dwarf the amounts being argued over. Quite simply, teams rarely take star players to arbitration if they wish to cultivate a long-term relationship.

Ultimately, a three-person panel ruled in favour of Guerrero’s $19.9-million ask rather than the Blue Jays’ $18.05-million offer, but regardless, the club lost as soon as it ended up in arbitration with its all-star first baseman. Guerrero is sure to come away from his arbitration case feeling good that he stood his ground and won, yet he’ll also know that he was pushed into a hearing room by a team that doesn’t see his value in the same way he does. If you want the guy, why antagonize him, why bother knocking him down where everyone can see? Like many decisions the Jays make, it’s hard to find the logic.

As for these two “Core” Blue Jays, the feeling is that of the two it would be Guerrero, rather than Bichette, who would sign some sort of long-term deal. For whatever reason, there has always been a more proprietary feeling around Guerrero than Bichette; the sense that if the Blue Jays were ever going to become one player’s “team,” it was going to be Guerrero. Yet coming off two disappointing seasons, the Blue Jays now seem to be asking just who and what is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a big-league ball player, and can he be the “guy” to lead the team?

Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins.

The fact is, Bichette has outperformed Guerrero in all but one of the five seasons they’ve been together. Per FanGraphs, Bichette had more WAR (Wins Above Replacement) every year except for 2021, which was Guerrero’s outlier COVID season, aided by playing a majority of home games in the minor league parks. Bichette’s track record, combined with bat-to-ball skills that should age well and ability play the premium shortstop position, make this a tougher choice than it once seemed. If the Jays are forced to pick one, perhaps Bichette should be the guy who receives a long-term deal.

With both Guerrero and Bichette sons of big-league fathers – who have made significant money in the game – it’s extremely hard to envision either player taking any sort of discount this close to free agency. Both believe they’re capable of so much more and are looking to bet on themselves that more money will be available down the road if they continue to produce. That and Blue Jays offseason willingness to shell out $500 Million to Ohtani, has both representatives in the Guerrero and Bichette camp salivating, knowing that when the time comes they will ask the Jays to “show them the money”. With their free agency timeclock ticking the stakes are raised for the 2024 season.

(5) Bold Predictions for 2024…for Better or Worse…

Need for Offensive Improvement Within

The Blue Jays are looking at a bounce back this year from an offence in 2023 that sat middle of the pack as they were 15th in the majors with 746 runs, 16th in homers with 188, and 13th in slugging percentage at .417. That lack of offensive output culminated in the Wild Card round, where they scored just once during the two-game sweep by the Minnesota Twins.

George Springer

No one could have predicted Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Alejandro Kirk, George Springer and Daulton Varsho all failing to meet expectations at the exact same time. That foursome alone went from 15.8 WAR in 2022 to 6.9 last year, and their home run output dropped from 98 to 75. Quite simply, almost half their lineup had down seasons and repeatedly failed to deliver in clutch situations (.730 OPS hitting with runners in scoring position was 20th in MLB).

With the only major hitting offseason addition being the 39-year-old Justin Turner, the Blue Jays are betting on internal improvements and positive regression to past production. According to Shapiro, “We just took the best strategy we could build based upon the players in place, so we doubled down in the belief of our own players…the core of this off-season, without a doubt, was built upon the belief in our players.” The club’s 2024 fate to a large degree then rests on extracting more from the current core led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer, Daulton Varsho, Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen and Cavan Biggio. “This group is hungry,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “There’s guys that definitely want to do more things than we did last year. There’s definitely a sense of urgency to do more.”

Daulton Varsho.

Top of that list for improvement within is Vlad Guerrero Jr. This is the season where Guerrero either figures it out, or cements the impression that he is just another solid major league player that had one big season and not the superstar player expected based on his pedigree and advance billing. To recapture some of the lost magic of 2021, he has called for the reinstatement of the Blue Jay Home Run jacket. “I just want to bring the jacket back,” Guerrero told reporters in the spring. “The player no want to do it? I probably do it by myself in the corner.”

The Blue Jays go into the season with a top-heavy lineup 1-4 (Springer/Bichette/Guerrero Jr./Turner),, that drops precipitously as you get to 5-9 (Varsho to Kiermaier etc.) – its a solid first four and then a lot of ifs and maybes and we shall see. Combine that with the fact that the lineup lacks home run punch from traditional power positions (LF/RF/3B/DH), a lot will have to go right to produce enough runs to win the division…

Uncertainty in Rotation

Alek Manoah.

The 2023 Blue Jays became the only MLB team in the past four seasons to have at least four pitchers make 31 starts – that consistency was the unexpected strength of the ballclub. It’s a run of health that’s almost impossible to replicate, and even with that, and a third ranked 3.85 ERA, the Blue Jays still managed to win just 89 games.

That durability has been put to the test early in 2024. In the span of just a few days in spring training, the Blue Jays’ starting rotation became a source of far more uncertainty than expected. First, Alek Manoah was scratched with a sore shoulder after pitching one spring training game and has been sidelined indefinitely. And then there’s staff ace Kevin Gausman, who led last year’s rotation with a 3.16 ERA on his way to a third-place finish in American League Cy Young voting. He has been slow to recover from “general shoulder fatigue”, and did not pitch till the last game in spring training on Monday, he is questionable to make his first start in the opening series of the season.

The Blue Jay relief core has also not been immune to injuries. Closer Jordan Romano hasn’t pitched in a game since March 10 because of soreness in his right elbow, and fellow late-inning reliever Erik Swanson is dealing with a forearm issue that has him sidelined for the start of the season.

Jordan Romano.

With the four injuries altering plans, there are plenty of moving parts with the season ready to begin Thursday in Tampa Bay. To that end, the Jays have already announced that Bowden Francis, a lightly regarded 27-year-old who’s never started a major-league game, will feature in the first series of the season.

None of this may be a sign of things to come, but it definitely isn’t the basis for optimism at the outset of the season, as the pitching staff will be leaned on heavily to make up for any of the offence’s deficiencies.

Big Degree of Variance

With all these question marks, the Blue Jays might have the largest spread in baseball in terms of floor and ceiling. Everything about the Toronto Blue Jays’ quiet off-season has suggested they haven’t meaningfully improved — and that’s precisely how the projections see it. FanGraphs has pegged the Blue Jays for 85 wins in 2024, a notable step back for a team that’s averaged 90 victories over the last three years. Based on their data, Fangraphs analysts have determined that the Jays have just a 16.5% chance to win their division and just 49.3% to make the playoffs behind the Yankees (70.5%), the Rays (59.4%), and the Orioles (52.8%).

Toronto Blue Jays fans in Seattle. Whatever else in 2024 Jays are still Canada’s team in MLB!

The current forecasting is a far cry from a year ago when the Jays were touted in the mix as World Series contenders and confidently and justifiably set the division title as their goal. “I think it’s the first time we’re being doubted,” Bichette told reporters this spring. “We’ve always had high expectations, and I think it’s definitely a different mindset trying to prove people right than trying to prove people wrong.” “I think we’d all be lying if we don’t see any of it, or it doesn’t motivate us in any sort of way,” Bichette said. “I think there’s guys who have pride in there and want to show people what we can do.”

As legendary basketball coach Pat Riley stated, ‘If you are not getting better, you are getting worse.” Every team in every league is either rising or falling. It’s hard to define what exactly makes that the case, but you know it when you see it. The 2024 Toronto Blue Jays are contenders, but it looks and feels as though the rise has stalled, which means the fall may be at hand. The question for this year’s squad is whether they can take flight and achieve something of significance before time and gravity take hold of them.

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

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3 comments
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  1. I agree with Vladdy. The home run jacket needs to come back, the players and the fans want to see some laughter, some fun and focus more on the game and the energy in the ballpark. Shapiro and Atkins should not want the focus to be on food and drink, it’s a ballpark not a restaurant. I am hoping the Jays make 2024 a season to remember.

  2. Very apropos to the current state of the franchise from the organizational and fan perspective.

    It’s time to put up or shut up.

  3. Another great perspective – opinion on the state of Jays by Rob Sparrow. It’s tough to argue against it. I have the advantage of reading the article after game 8 and a 4-4 start all on the road. If they were in another division, that may leave one with early optimism. But they are in the AL East where Boston and New York are much improved, Baltimore still has more top talent waiting to be called up and Tampa is always dangerous. I will hope the Jays can outplay the expectations… but I would have certainly liked to have seen a lot more from management in the off season.

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