Coming off their 32-28 season and a taste of playoff baseball, the Blue Jays enter the offseason with a much clearer picture of what they need to be more competitive in October.
The club expects to be active, with positions to fill in the starting rotation, bullpen, third base and elsewhere, though so much of that depends on how the free agent and trade markets shake out in an uncertain winter.
With those needs in mind, the Blue Jays have identified two clear offseason priorities in defense and strike throwing. Toronto’s repeated fundamental errors held them back defensively in 2020, and their pitching staff ranked second-worst in baseball by issuing 250 free passes. Addressing these needs in a meaningful way will be a challenge of its own, but there will be no guessing when it comes to the positions and player types that the Blue Jays will target this offseason.
As we take an early look ahead, here are five questions facing the Blue Jays:
1. Can Nate Pearson be the No. 2 behind Hyun Jin Ryu?
No. 1 prospect Pearson has the talent to be an ace in the big leagues. With a fastball that reaches 100 mph and beyond, excellent secondary pitches and the physical build that general managers dream of, Pearson is the total package. That's step one. Now, Pearson will be challenged with putting all of that together over 30-plus starts. He could be shouldered with a great deal of responsibility right away.
Unless the Blue Jays land a top-end pitcher -- which is still a possibility -- Pearson will enter 2021 as the Toronto’s best shot at a true No. 2 behind Ryu. Good teams have an ace, but legitimate postseason threats have multiple starters capable of shutting down an opposing lineup.
Pearson’s 2020 season is difficult to use as a measuring stick, and he’ll need to build up his workload, but as long as the big right-hander is healthy, there should be nothing holding him back. The key test for a pitcher like Pearson isn’t making a strong first impression -- that can be easy when you’re throwing 102 mph. The real challenge will be succeeding deep into a season when veteran hitters from around the league are seeing him for a fourth and fifth time.
2. Will Vladimir Guerrero Jr. catch up?
Yes, Guerrero Jr. is still young at just 21 years old, but so are Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., and they’re doing just fine.
Guerrero still hasn’t flirted with his ceiling as a generational offensive talent, batting .269 with a .778 OPS through his first two seasons. The good news is that Guerrero improved as 2020 went on -- and as he got his body in better shape -- finishing the season with a swing that looked much more like the big kid who tore through the Minor Leagues.
With lessons learned, why can’t 2021 be the year Guerrero takes the jump? His defense remains a major issue, even at first base, but if he can lift the ball more consistently, his bat will carry his value on its own. The Blue Jays have Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernández in that young core, but they need Guerrero to power it.
3. Who is the catcher of the future?
No. 6 prospect Alejandro Kirk was the big story for the Blue Jays late, and that completely changes the status of the catching position. Entering 2021, Kirk has far more offensive upside than Danny Jansen or Reese McGuire, so this decision could come down to how comfortable Toronto feels with Kirk behind the plate.
If the 2021 season started today, Kirk and Jansen could be splitting duties, with manager Charlie Montoyo looking for a hot hand to emerge. It’s a good problem for the Blue Jays to have, and Kirk’s potential at just 21 years old makes this one of the most interesting positions to track next spring.
4. Who is the closer in 2021 and beyond?
Ken Giles is headed for free agency after undergoing Tommy John surgery, leaving the Blue Jays without a definitive closer for the first time in years. There are options, of course, as Rafael Dolis’ $1.5 million team option for next season is a no-brainer and Canadian Jordan Romano has earned his opportunity.
The Blue Jays could look externally for an established closer, but their bullpen management in 2020 might have been a hint. With Giles out, Toronto rotated between Romano, Dolis, Anthony Bass and A.J. Cole in the ninth. This club likes flexibility, and that might end up applying to the closer’s job, too.
5. What’s the 2021 payroll, and what will it allow for?
This is no fan’s favorite question, but it might be the most important. The COVID-19 pandemic will impact each club’s finances in different ways, and that will be a major factor this offseason.
“The quickest way to recovery is winning,” said Toronto GM Ross Atkins recently. “The quickest way to getting our business back to a very good financial spot is winning, and our ownership knows that. [President and CEO Mark Shapiro] has had multiple interactions, and they’re ongoing and continuing. We’re aligned on that front.”
Club president and CEO Mark Shapiro said recently that the front office will soon present their 2021 payroll to ownership for approval, so some of this remains up in the air, but there’s optimism from the baseball operations side.
“I think the resources are going to be there if we think the right deals are there, and if we make those recommendations, those resources are going to be there for us to add in a meaningful way,” Shapiro said. “We’ll conduct this offseason much like last offseason.”
This is particularly important for the Blue Jays, as they have very few large commitments, and their young core is mostly still in their affordable, pre-arbitration years. This lines them up to be aggressive, if they’re able to.