When the 2019 baseball season ended and media members gathered at Rogers Centre to hear how the Toronto Blue Jays front office assessed the coming year, the phrase of the day was that it was time for the team to move from “competing to winning.”
General manager Ross Atkins said it repeatedly. President Mark Shapiro said it repeatedly. One began to wonder if that had it written on the palms of their hands.
But, on that very vague score, and in a pandemic-affected quasi-season that was a lousy yardstick for much of anything, mission accomplished. The Blue Jays played 62 games in 2020 and they won 32 of them. It was a definitive step forward, especially for a team that lost 95 games a year earlier, a low watermark they had last touched in 1980.
Beyond that, there’s probably not much sense in trying to assess the greater meaning of the season just completed, for the reason mentioned a couple sentences ago: the goofy sprint of 60 games, which came after an extended layoff that itself came right when players were supposed to be rounding into shape for the season, is no doubt full of statistical noise. The Washington Nationals were 27-33 after 60 games last season and ended up winning the World Series. The Blue Jays were 26-34 after 60 games in the 1989 season, and ended up going to the playoffs, back when only four teams made it to October. It’s tough to draw conclusions from the performance of a team that in any other year would have had 63 per cent of its season left to play.
But, let’s do it anyway. You don’t have anywhere else to be. (Sigh.)
The obvious bright spot remains the team’s young core of position players. Cavan BIggio, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez each improved their OPS in 2020 from 2019, the latter by a lot. Bo Bichette looked every bit ready to continue to his path to superstardom before injury cut his already brief season in half. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., despite a somewhat mystifying lack of power in his two years in the bigs, was in the middle of one of the best stretches of his career, non-Home-Run-Contest division, when the regular season ended. He might have been close to realizing the promise that has been expected of him since he was signed as a teenager. Even Randal Grichuk was justifying the front office’s continued faith in him, with across-the-board offensive improvements over a year earlier.
But, hoo-boy, that pitching. The most striking moment of the playoff series between Tampa and Toronto came when, after Blake Snell had completely befuddled the Jays’ lineup in Game 1, Tyler Glasnow opened Game 2 by striking out Biggio on three pitches, the last of which was a 99-mile-an-hour fastball at the bottom of the strike zone that was just mean. Living rooms across this land were immediately realizing: “Oh, crap, they have ANOTHER of these guys?” Never was the gap between the Rays and Jays more evident than the fact that Tampa has multiple arms of the type that can mow down playoff hitters and Toronto … does not.
This is something that the Toronto front office vowed it would address last off-season, and Atkins made his first truly aggressive, chips-on-the-table move in four years by acquiring Hyun-Jin Ryu for US$80-million. Depending in your faith in the off-season rumour mill, the Jays also tried to land other high-end starters like Zack Wheeler and Kyle Gibson before settling on Tanner Roark. Ryu was excellent, minus the playoff shellacking, and Roark … was not. He made 11 starts and posted a 6.80 ERA, which was at least better than the 7.22 ERA put up by Chase Anderson, the other veteran that Jays management brought in to try to give some stability to the starting rotation. Matt Shoemaker was strong again when healthy, which unfortunately does not seem to be often, while the various young arms that Atkins and Shapiro were hoping could take starts this season did not do much of that. Nate Pearson, the kid who could be the fireballing ace to head a playoff rotation, had his debut cut short by injury.
And so, whatever the Jays do next year will come back again to that rotation. Pearson has to join Ryu at the top of it if the Blue Jays are going to be any kind of a contender in a normal season. Jays fans have had some dark times over four decades, but a third straight season in which manager Charlie Montoyo is randomly casting about for starting pitchers would be a new one. One of the other Jays’ prospects, Simeon Woods Richardson or Alek Manoah, could even make a Pearson-sized leap to join the big team next year.
But, more likely, it will be up to the front office to again solve the problem that they tried to solve last winter. If the Blue Jays are going to keep moving, from competing to winning to winning a lot, it’s going to be the arms that they don’t yet have at the major-league level that take them there. If there was one good takeaway from that two-game drubbing from Tampa, it’s that the Rays showed them the way.
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