After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, the Blue Jays enter 2022 with lofty expectations, both internal and external. Last year, the playoffs would have been a nice bonus. This year, failure to qualify would be a massive failure, even before a sixth team in each league was added. “World Series or bust” is a bit harsh. The club is just entering its competitive window. But fans who have followed this nomadic group develop over the last two years know special things are possible.
On paper, they’re one of the best teams in the league. But the games aren’t played on paper. This team, like all teams, does have some questions that need to be asked and answered. Here are the ones I’ll be following all season long.
Can Vladimir Guerrero Jr & Bo Bichette do it again?
2021 Bichette: .298/.343/.484, 29 HR, 102 RBI, 25 SB
2021 Guerrero: .311/.401/.601, 48 HR, 111 RBI
Guerrero’s click-bait quote from the start of camp proclaimed that last year was the trailer, and this year is the movie. What do they have planned for an encore? Guerrero and Bichette are two of the best young players in the league. Bichette is 24; Guerrero is 23. They plan on being superstars for years to come. This year, the spotlight will shine brighter than ever on them, and their team. 2021 provided a reasonable baseline for expectations of their personal production. Will they be able to sustain that, or will they demonstrate some of the non-linear progression that plagues young players?
Can the young core live up to the hype?
The spotlight will shine not just on Vlad & Bo, but also on George Springer, Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Jordan Romano, and others. High expectations are being placed on a team that’s not even made the playoffs yet in a full season. Will they wilt under the pressure, or catapult themselves into the class of other elite teams?
As hard as they might try, Blue Jays fans can’t help but think of 2013. That season, they unanimously “won the offseason”, and then were terrible once the lights came on. That was an older, more injury-prone team. It certainly didn’t have the youthful core of Guerrero, Bichette, and Manoah. This is a motivated group and one that has matured quickly by living through the difficult conditions of the last two seasons. By all accounts, they’re ready to take the leap. But Toronto sports fans have been conditioned to always believe things are too good to be true.
Is the bullpen deep enough to avoid the disasters of 2021?
There’s no sugar-coating it — in April and May last year, the bullpen was brutal. Their ineptitude absolutely cost the team a spot in the post-season.
By the time reinforcements arrived, it was too late. Granted, some of the struggles were due to injuries. Remember the names Anthony Castro, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood, and A.J. Cole? Thankfully, those names are no more. Romano, Trevor Richards, Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia, and Tim Mayza comprise a more modern strike-throwing pen. But, all bullpens are volatile, and we need to see it to believe it.
Will this be the Summer of George?
It was more than a little disappointing how little we got to see George Springer last season, as he suited up in only 78 games. The good news? The Jays were 48-30 in those games. Over a full season, that projects out to 99 wins.
And when he was in the lineup, he produced. If you take his personal stats and project them out over a full season: 45 HR and 103 RBI.
The most troubling statistic, though, is how little he played in the outfield. Of his 78 appearances, 38 came as the DH because of three separate injuries he sustained over the course of the year. With five years remaining on his massive deal, can his defence hold up?
If he does project as more of a corner outfielder in the next couple of years, what’s the plan for centre field?
The outfield defence, as a whole, might be a bit of a weak spot for this team, even though it could be the best offensive outfield in the league. A healthy and effective Springer, at least for this season, will help alleviate some of those issues.
Through spring training Springer looks healthy and he’s been productive. If they get anything close to what he produced last year over a full campaign, he’ll fill the void left by Marcus Semien, and the offence might be even better than anticipated.
Is there one more ‘Big Move’ to be made?
Well, there goes that idea.
Ramirez, a switch-hitting MVP finalist third baseman, was the top trade target of Jays fans throughout the offseason. I’m sure the front office tried to get him but was happy to “settle” for Matt Chapman. Days after the Chapman trade, Ken Rosenthal sent Blue Jays Twitter into a frenzy when he revealed the Jays were still pursuing Ramirez, with the plan to shift him to second base. What a lineup that would have been. But it’s reasonable to assume Ramirez would not want to move off third base again, after having done so when Cleveland acquired Josh Donaldson at the trade deadline in 2018. And considering the prospect capital it would have taken to pry Ramirez from Cleveland this may end up being a win in the long run for the Jays.
So Ramirez won’t be a Blue Jay. But Michael Conforto is still out there. Does he take a one-year deal similar to Marcus Semien, use the hitter-friendly A.L. East and stacked Jays lineup to re-establish his value and then hit free agency again next season? Or will Ross Atkins be content to wait until the summer to see which impact bats can be had for rental prices at the deadline?
Entering last season, starting pitching depth was an issue. It was assumed that one more arm would be needed if they wanted to make a push for the playoffs, but that shopping could be done at the trade deadline. I believe the front office is taking a similar approach with an impact bat this year. Would it be nice to add another hitter now, especially a lefty? Sure. But more options will shake out in July, and for cheaper prices, as teams drop out of the playoff race. That player doesn’t even need to be an MVP-calibre player. Think about how effective Corey Dickerson was last year. We also need to see what the team gets out of Raimel Tapia, Cavan Biggio, and Alejandro Kirk. At the moment, there aren’t really any holes in the lineup. That might be the more prudent long-term approach as the Jays will need cheap young players. I’m not a fan of hoarding prospects, but they’ll have their place in how the team is shaped in the future as the club looks to remain competitive once the current crop of young players gets more expensive.
And that should be the next order of business. Both Bichette and Guerrero are entering long-term extension territory. They remain under club control for at least three more seasons, but it’s not too early to start figuring out what it’s going to take to keep both in Blue Jays uniforms for the next decade or more. It wouldn’t be a surprise if those contracts are completed this summer.