How they got there: Young talent thrives

September 25th, 2020

Since the first day of Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla., the Blue Jays have said they expected to surprise people. Mission accomplished.

Realities have changed since then and the playoffs have expanded, but the Blue Jays finally find themselves right where they expected to be after clinching a berth by defeating the Yankees 4-1 on Thursday night. The 2020 season brought incredible highs and lows for Toronto, partly the nature of having such a young roster still developing on the fly, but the club has overcome a long list of injuries to earn its first postseason appearance since 2016.

Now, the Blue Jays have an opportunity to make some noise. They haven’t been baseball’s most consistent team, but when it clicks, they’re capable of pulling off a few more surprises.

How they were built:

Amateur Draft: LHP Ryan Borucki, RHP Patrick Murphy, RHP T.J. Zeuch, C Danny Jansen, SS Bo Bichette, 2B Cavan Biggio, OF Jonathan Davis

International signings: RHP Shun Yamaguchi, C Alejandro Kirk, 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Free agents: RHP A.J. Cole, RHP Rafael Dolis, RHP Tanner Roark, LHP Hyun Jin Ryu, INF Joe Panik, 3B Travis Shaw

Trades: RHP Chase Anderson, RHP Wilmer Font, RHP Thomas Hatch, LHP Robbie Ray, RHP Matt Shoemaker, RHP Ross Stripling, RHP Taijuan Walker, INF Jonathan Villar, CF Randal Grichuk, RF Teoscar Hernández

Waivers: RHP Anthony Bass

Key offseason acquisition: The Blue Jays didn’t just find their ace when they inked Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal, they made a statement.

Ryu has been everything Toronto has hoped for in Year 1, and he has shown signs that he’s peaking at the right time heading into the postseason. Ryu also has experience in October from his time with the Dodgers, which is particularly valuable on a Blue Jays roster that’s largely experiencing the postseason for the first time.

Toronto’s pitching depth has been tested this season, with Shoemaker, Anderson, Trent Thornton, top prospect Nate Pearson and others all missing time to injury. With so many moving pieces, Ryu has been the constant, and if the Blue Jays hope to advance past the Wild Card Series, they’ll need Ryu to carry them.

Managerial decision: Charlie Montoyo decided to push Biggio’s versatility even further in 2020, and it’s paid off. After playing second, first and right field as a rookie in '19, Montoyo has added third base and even center field to Biggio’s plate. It’s worked because of Biggio’s talent and dedication, but the strategy itself has had a broader impact, too.

By using Biggio as the ultimate moveable piece, Montoyo’s roster has experienced less disruption elsewhere. Gurriel and Hernández have been allowed to settle in and embrace their outfield positions, while Joe Panik has emerged as a valuable reserve infielder.

Biggio has gotten it done at the plate, too, and profiles as the club’s leadoff man long-term due to his excellent plate approach. The more Montoyo has pushed him, the more Biggio has produced.

Defining season stretch: The Blue Jays reeled off six consecutive wins from Aug. 17-21, and their timing couldn’t have been better. When it began, they were 7-11 and didn’t look terribly threatening. When it ended, they were 13-11 and the conversation about “making a run” started to grow louder for the first time.

Toronto was playing plenty of close ballgames at that point in the season, as three of these six wins required extra innings. There have been plenty of tipping points like those along the way, but the Blue Jays have found themselves on the right side of most of them.

Breakout player: Hernández finally put his incredible talents together in 2020, rewarding the patience of a Blue Jays front office that has believed this exact type of season was possible. Hernández will still take his strikeouts and have some uneven moments defensively, but his raw power is among the league’s best, and prior to missing time in September with a left oblique injury, he was jockeying for the league lead in home runs.

Toronto has been home to many star players who broke out “late” in their careers, from José Bautista to Edwin Encarnación to Josh Donaldson. It’s easy to start wondering what kinds of numbers Hernández could put up over a full 162 games next year if he keeps this up.

Calling card: The Blue Jays will likely need to win games one of two ways in the postseason. On Ryu’s start days, they’ll hope their ace can deliver and possibly even steal a win or two along the way. Other days, they’ll be looking for a power surge from an offense that’s been inconsistent but can be potent when it’s clicking.

The Blue Jays’ lineup isn’t littered with 50-homer bats, but they do have power potential from most spots in the order. Hernández will likely lead the way, but the young core of Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio and Gurriel can catch fire at any time. Toronto hasn’t been the most natural team at stringing together hits or manufacturing runs, so it’ll need the long ball.

Memorable moment: On Sept. 7, the Blue Jays were down, 6-2, to the Yankees in the sixth inning. Then they put up one of their biggest offensive innings in franchise history.

Toronto’s 10-run inning marked the first time it put up double digits in a single frame in a decade (2010) and fell just shy of its all-time record of 11. The inning had a little bit of everything, too, from ground balls that snuck through to a Jansen grand slam and even a stolen base from Guerrero. The playoff picture has flipped since then, but at the time, the Blue Jays sat comfortably ahead of the Yankees, and that big inning helped to legitimize their potential.