Around 1 P.M on April 1st, the first pitch of the 2021 MLB season will be thrown to the leadoff batter on the Toronto Blue Jays. That batter will likely be the new acquisition, George Springer. In January, the Jays signed the highly coveted former Astro to a 6-year, $150 million contract to leadoff and play center field. After Springer’s at bat, we’ll likely see another new face in second baseman Marcus Semien. Semien is the former Athletic and MVP-caliber infielder whose acquisition was the second-biggest move the Jays made this offseason. In the bottom of the first, we’ll see Hyun-Jin Ryu, the lefty ace acquired from the Dodgers in 2019, take the mound. Over the past fourteen months, the Jays have signed three established All-Stars in Springer, Semien, and Ryu. The front office is making one thing clear to fans — this team intends to compete for a World Series Championship in 2021.
A Blue Jays team poised to compete for a title is a breath of fresh air to long-suffering Canadian baseball fans. After consecutive ALCS appearances in 2015 and 2016, the Jays underperformed in 2017, and their front office decided to begin the dreaded process all-too-familiar to fans of small-market baseball teams — a rebuild. They began to trade or let go of the key pieces of their ALCS teams, namely Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Marcus Stroman. During 2018 and 2019, the front office didn’t focus their energy on building a winning roster, but rather on acquiring and testing young talent that would allow them to compete for titles in the future. That future is now.
During the rebuild, the Blue Jays have developed a trio of talented young infielders who will have a chance to shine in 2021, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette. Guerrero was once the sport’s most-hyped prospect and showed his offensive brilliance at the 2019 Home Run Derby. But since his debut in 2019, his productivity has been marred by horrendous fielding at third base and he’ll likely play the majority of his innings at first base or as designated hitter. Third base will be given to Cavan Biggio, who has proven valuable as a defensive swiss-army knife with solid offensive output in his first two years in Toronto. Guerrero and Biggio get plenty of media attention because they’re both sons of Hall of Famers, but perhaps the most compelling youngster is shortstop Bo Bichette. In just 75 Major League games, Bichette has displayed a great power stroke and he has the ability to be one of baseball’s premier middle infielders if he maintains that offensive excellence over 162 games.
Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette are the fruits of the rebuild, the silver lining to recent losing seasons. In past years, including the statistically-anomalous pandemic shortened 2020 campaign, the trio has been given ample time to develop and hone their skills, with more attention paid to their upside potential than their current faults. But in 2021, these guys won’t be the fun, second-generation youngsters with the potential to be great — they’ll be expected to be productive players alongside established stars like Springer and Semien. Each has performed well, true, but none of them have had an All-Star, 5 wins above replacement type season. If they want to be franchise cornerstones and lead the Jays to the playoffs, they must fulfill their potential this season.
The Jays front office believes they can. The new acquisitions are, in a weird way, a symbol of their confidence in the youngsters. Baseball teams need more than a few top-end talents to compete, as teams headlined by a few stars but complemented by a bunch of replacement-level players have historically failed (see the past few Rockies seasons for proof of this). Thus, spending plentiful cash to obtain Springer, Semien, and Ryu means the front office thinks Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette can augment them north of ninety wins and into the playoffs.
The Jays offensive attack is special. They’re projected to be the second-best offence this year, just behind the Yankees. But their pitching is a question mark. Ryu is an excellent pitch-to-contact southpaw, but he can only pitch once every five games, and there are no high-tier hurlers behind him. What they do have is a solid depth of pitchers who can (hopefully) get the job done. The rotation features a few viable innings eaters like Robbie Ray and former-Met Steven Matz. They also have a solid and veristale bullpen highlighted by recent breakout and Ontario-native Jordan Romano. The pitchers won’t be great, but they only have to be above league-average to support the Jays’ dynamic offence.
The Jays roster has both depth and talent, but they’ll have to deal with playing home games away from Toronto and being partially migratory (not unlike the bird the team is named after). The team plays the first two homesteads in Florida due to the Canada-US border closure, and it’s uncertain if they’ll go to Toronto or Buffalo after that. Conventional wisdom would say this hurts the team. But I think that baseball players, like everyone, have gotten used to the unpredictability of the pandemic and the team performed quite well in Buffalo last year. There’s no reason to think the Jays’ forced nomadism will hamper the on-field product.
The more pressing threat is their division rivals. The Jays share the infamously unforgiving American League East with the New York Yankees and defending Pennant winner Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees and Rays have the best rosters in baseball, and the Jays will no doubt be the underdog going into the season. Opening day kicks off the first of nineteen contests between the Yankees and the Blue Jays, and the Jays performance against the league’s very best will help us understand if they truly are a playoff team.
“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” This quote from British literary critic Cyril Connolly opens the game-changing book Moneyball and symbolizes Billy Beane’s struggle to fulfill the promise of his athletic gifts. It is likewise the quote that looms over 2021 for the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays have recently acquired some potent new talent, and developed some of their own. They’ve positioned themselves to be a World Series threat in 2021. But will this promise lead them to the promised land? Or will it remain unfulfilled? Opening day awaits…