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Previewing the AL East: Toronto Blue Jays

A busy offseason that saw plenty of big names come and go has the Blue Jays positioned for a playoff run led by one of the most dangerous sluggers in the game.

Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

The future is now for the Toronto Blue Jays. What had long been an intriguing core of young position players working their way through the minors is now an established major league group that the front office has gone all in on supporting. They have catapulted over several AL East foes to become one of the favorites to not just take home the division title, but also represent the junior circuit in the World Series.

Additions and Subtractions

It has been a busy offseason in Toronto with a ton of talent coming in and out. On the whole, it would seem that the team has improved, but it is at least up for debate.

Brandon Hyde’s pal Robbie Ray has departed in favor of a five-year, $115 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. It’s not going to be easy to replace the defending AL Cy Young award winner, but the Blue Jays have attempted to do just that with Kevin Gausman, the former Oriole who saw his career revitalized over the last two seasons in San Francisco. They handed him $110 million over the next five seasons.

A similar situation has played out on the infield. Gone is MVP candidate Marcus Semien, who earned himself a $175 million contract with the Texas Rangers after a 45-home run campaign in which he won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove at second base. To replace his production the Jays sent a package of prospects to Oakland for Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman. It’s not a like-for-like swap, and Chapman has seen his OPS+ drop in three straight seasons, but it still gives this team an extremely compelling infield.

But not all of Toronto’s wheeling and dealing was at the top of the market. They also handed southpaw Yusei Kikuchi a three-year, $36 million contract to bolster the rotation, and they gave Yimi García $11 million over the next two seasons to contribute out of the bullpen.

The final notable departure, especially for the Orioles, was the trade of Randal Grichuk. The outfielder was sent to the Rockies in a swap for Raimel Tapia and prospect Adrian Pinto. Grichuk owns a career 1.084 OPS against the Orioles, so it will be nice to not see him 19 times this year.

Starting Rotation

No one can question Toronto’s dedication to investing in arms. On top of the money dedicated to Gausman and Kikuchi, the team also signed José Berríos to a seven-year, $131 million extension that could potentially keep the righty in Toronto through 2028.

Berríos was effective following his trade over from the Twins last season. Over 12 starts with Toronto, he had a 3.58 ERA over 70.1 innings and wound up finishing in the top 10 of Cy Young voting. After a slightly bumpy COVID season, the righty seems back onto his career trajectory as one of the better starters on the AL.

One would think that Berríos has stepped into the “staff ace” role, but it’s entirely possible that Hyun Jin Ryu retains that moniker for the time being. The 35-year-old South Korean southpaw has started each of the last two Opening Days for the Blue Jays, but he will be looking to rebound from what was a down year by his standards (4.37 ERA over 169 innings).

Behind those two will be the aforementioned Gausman and Kikuchi. There is some risk in each, of course. Gausman was lights out in a Giants uniform, and it appears he has turned a corner, but he faded badly in the second half of 2021 with his ERA jumping from 1.73 through his first 18 starts to 4.42 over his final 15 outings. It was even more dramatic for Kikuchi, who made the AL All-Star team and then saw his WHIP balloon to 1.705 over his final 13 starts.

The wild card of the entire group is Alek Manoah. The 24-year-old has a big arm, was impressive over 20 starts last year, and has dazzled in spring training this year. All signs would seem to point to him having a breakout season in the rotation. But young pitchers are unpredictable until they prove otherwise.

The Bullpen

This is an area where the Blue Jays would like to see improvement. The unit’s 4.08 ERA a season ago is fine, but it’s probably not good enough for a deep playoff run.

Jordan Romano returns to the closer role, where he saved 23 games last season. He will be backed up by a veteran crew that includes García, Tim Mayza, and Adam Cimber late in games.

A potential difference-maker is righty Julian Merryweather. The 30-year-old only pitched in 13 games last season due to an oblique injury, but he turns heads on the mound. Prior to going on the shelf, he had two saves against the Yankees in the season’s first series and looked unhittable with a fastball touching triple digits.

As is often the case for playoff contenders, the bullpen is going to undergo some changes throughout the season. If the Blue Jays are in position for a run, you should expect them to make some additions to this group by the end of July.

The Lineup

This is as powerful a lineup as you will find in baseball. The Blue Jays led MLB in home runs (262) and OPS (.796) in 2021 while finishing third in runs scored (846) behind the Astros and Rays. That is unlikely to change much in 2022.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is every bit as good as advertised. He put up video game numbers last year: 48 home runs, 123 runs, 111 RBI, 166 wRC+, and a 1.002 OPS. In any normal, non-Shohei Ohtani season he would have won MVP running away. There is no reason to doubt he will put up similar (or better!) numbers in the season ahead.

Oh yeah, don’t forget the other MVP candidate on the team, Bo Bichette. While not quite the offensive force of his teammate, the shortstop does a ton of damage on his own, smacking 29 homers and 30 doubles while swiping 25 bags a year ago. He will be a problem for years to come.

Of course, the loss of Semien is huge, but there is reason to believe that he can be effectively replaced in the aggregate. That starts with a full season from George Springer. The center fielder was productive (140 OPS+) but played in just 78 games due to oblique issues. A healthy season for him paired with the expected production from newbie Chapman should do the trick.

Chapman is coming off the the worst offensive season of his career (.210/.314/.403, 100 OPS+) and has seen his strikeout rate jump significantly over the last two seasons. But he also walked at an elite rate (12.9%), and there is enough of a track record to suggest he can sort himself out.

But it’s important to note that this lineup is deep as well. Teoscar Hernández has emerged over the last two years as a viable middle-of-the-order bat. He earned his first all-star nod last year while hitting 32 home runs. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was one of their few bats to regress, but he still hit a career-high 21 bombs in 2021.

There is a hole at second base, and it’s possible that Springer will need to DH or take more frequent days off to stay healthy, leaving innings open in centerfield. But those sorts of things are true of nearly every team. They tend to sort themselves out as the season goes. The hope from the Blue Jays perspective will be that Cavan Biggio takes control at second and that someone like Tapia can fill in when needed in the outfield.

The Defense

Chapman is a master at the hot corner. Even if he doesn’t hit as well as he once did, he provides immense value on defense, and will be worth a win or two on that basis alone.

The team’s pitching staff is also in good hands with the duo of Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen behind the plate. Neither of them is approaching Gold Glove territory, but they grade out as above-average framers, which should steal a few strikes each game.

The other defensive standout on the roster is Springer in center. When healthy he has shown solid range, leaning on the foot speed that he has largely maintained throughout his career. But it is not a given that a 32-year-old coming off an injury-plagued season will be able to replicate performances of the past.

It’s not great beyond that. Advanced metrics do not love Bichette’s work at shortstop, particularly when it comes to charging grounders (-13 Outs Above Average). Likewise, Guerrero Jr. is a butcher at first, but it is better than when he was a third baseman. Gurriel Jr. and Hernández also get poor marks for their glovemanship. Tapia will help off the bench late in games as a sub for the corner outfielders.

The Projections

PECOTA: 91-71

FanGraphs: 91-71

Bovada: O/U wins: 91.5, World Series Champion: +900, AL East Champ: +450, To make the playoffs: -400.

Despite all of the movement, there isn’t much difference between where the Blue Jays finished 2021 and where most outlets expect them to wrap up 2022. But the expanded playoffs and the team’s approach to roster building should benefit them. Not to mention, it’s hard to seen a scenario in which the AL East is quite as good as it was last year, at least in terms of wins and losses. All of that puts the Jays in a good position to play baseball in October with an opportunity to make a lengthy run.