Once the Toronto Maple Leafs get Andrei Vasilevskiy’d in the first round again, it’s not like the angst level in the T.O. will fade all that much through the summer months. That’s because the Toronto Blue Jays have reached the same threshold as the Leafs passed a few years ago, where you go from young and promising and exciting to what the fuck have you done? The Jays are loaded and still have Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette, but they’re also still a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in seven years despite getting two cracks at expanded fields in 2020 and 2022. They’re still a playoff team, but can they overtake the Yankees and/or hold off the Rays this time around? Or are they going to be just part of the playoff field again?
There has been some surgery to the roster, though most of it would be described as clean-up more than reconstruction. The biggest benefit should be the outfield defense, which was only slightly below average last season but could be utterly smothering this season. Kevin Kiermaier was signed in free agency, which kicks George Springer over to right field. The biggest question is whether Kiermaier’s drop in defensive productivity (12 outs above average in 2021, 1 in 2022, 9.1 to 2.2 in defensive runs) was just a one-off or the marker of someone entering his age-33 season. Centerfield is a young man’s game, and Kiermaier is no longer that. Springer should see a boost from not having to cover center anymore though as he’s 33. On the other side, the Jays traded one of their three catchers (Gabriel Moreno, may be the most promising one) to get Daulton Varsho, who was one of the best right fielders in the NL last year and will be playing left now at Rogers Centre. Varsho’s bat started to catch up to his glove last year (106 wRC+) but even an ideal scenario at the plate has him matching Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s 112 wRC+. The glove will be the separator there though.
On the infield, Whit Merrifield will now be the second baseman for a full season, joining the usual crew of Matt Chapman, Bichette, and Vladito. Part of Merrifield’s charm the past few years was that he could play anywhere and at least not light himself on fire, whereas in Toronto this year he’ll be pretty much stuck at second. His offense has declined each of the last four years (he’s 34 now), with his power completely zapping. He went from 40 steals in 2021 to 16 last year. Maybe the new rules bounce that number back up along with his offensive contribution, but he looks more like scenery than most realize these days.
The starting rotation
When it comes to the rotation, there are some questions. It’s not that Alex Manoah is going to be bad, it’s just how much he can keep the ball in the ballpark once again to remain one of the league’s best starters, as he was last season. He was top-10 in HR/FB rate last season. If that’s what he is, then he can threaten to have a sub-3.00 ERA again. If that rises simply because sometimes it does as the baseball gods laugh at you, along with his decline in strikeouts last year, then he’s probably headed for deflation. Another question is if José Berrios can stop getting lit up like the Rockefeller Christmas tree this season. He went from the Twins’ ace to a 5.23 ERA and near whiplash from watching the loud contact he was giving up whiz by and over him every start. There didn’t seem to be any change in his stuff, be it velocity or movement, so one wonders about possible tipping. Seeing as how he just got lit up in the WBC as well, hesitation is widespread on expectations. Chris Bassitt as a No. 4 is a nice thing to have, but he’s also coming off a career-high in starts and innings with the Mets last year at age 34.
Getting to closer Jordan Romano was an issue last year at times, and the capture of Erik Swanson for Teoscar Hernández was meant to address that. Swanson discovered more sweep on his slider a couple seasons ago and turned into a beast, striking out 34 percent of the hitters he saw last year. That doesn’t solve the bridge to Romano completely, though one name to keep an eye on is Yosver Zulueta. He struck out 82 hitters in 55 innings through four levels of the minors last year. No, he doesn’t have much idea where the ball is going (18.2 percent walk-rate), but if he can figure out how to keep his pitches even in the zip code he could be a major weapon out of the pen in the second half of the year.
Is it enough to take the AL East? With Carlos Rodon already on the shelf in the Bronx it sure feels like it’s just about the same Yankees team as last year, which was Aaron Judge and the Pips offensively at least. That still means 97 wins or more, and the Jays can get there if Berrios isn’t an arsonist and Merrifield bounces back some offensively among other small “ifs.” There is some Phillies possibility here, where the Jays could get into the playoffs comfortably behind the division winners, cull the bottom quarter of the roster, and have some guys go nuclear with the bat at the right time as Gausmann and Menoah followed by Swanson, Romano, and Zulueta out of the pen is enough to win a few rounds. There’s also some risk that Berrios never finds it, Menoah comes back to the pack a little, Merrifield and Kiermaier look every bit of the mid-30s players they are as the mileage starts to catch up to Springer too, and they’re scrambling to even get into the playoff field at all.
Maybe the Jays should hope the Leafs finally win a round just to make for a nice atmosphere around town.