The Blue Jays have had quite an offseason, adding key pieces that should help them take another sizeable step forward. But have they improved enough to overtake the Yankees and Rays in the American League East division race? Our panel of MLB.com experts gathered to debate the topic.
Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): Let’s start with a broad view of this division -- as we know, the team that wins the offseason doesn’t necessarily win the division. But the Blue Jays kept us all entertained this winter, so maybe we should start there -- are they the favourites (see what I did there)?
Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): I love what the Blue Jays have done this winter. Adding George Springer and Marcus Semien to the lineup, the low-key additions of Robbie Ray and Kirby Yates. They’re a definite contender, but I still question whether they have enough pitching.
That said, the Rays lost Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, so they will likely take a step backward in 2021. And the Yankees are betting on bounce backs from Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, so their rotation is no sure thing, either.
Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson, Blue Jays beat reporter): I agree that pitching is still that final step for the Blue Jays. They'll need another starter in the top half of their rotation by the postseason, whether that happens over the next few weeks or at the Trade Deadline. It's still a significant jump to overtake the Rays and Yankees, and while they're moving in that direction (and fast), it's not an automatic after winning the offseason.
Feinsand: I’m not sure there is a clear favourite in this division heading into the season.
Adam Berry, (@AdamDBerry, Rays beat reporter): I'm not quite ready to say the Jays are the team to beat, because I also have questions about their pitching depth, but they've really had a tremendous offseason to surround their young core with quality veterans. Signing George Springer was a huge move, and they've addressed a bunch of needs with proven players like Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray and Kirby Yates.
Feinsand: Toronto’s young guys -- Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, etc. -- will have to continue to progress as well. The Yankees’ lineup is loaded with veterans, most of whom we know what to expect. Gary Sánchez is the only real major question mark in that lineup.
Matheson: The Blue Jays have so many young variables, too. Nate Pearson could be anything from their dominant No. 2 to a rookie still learning on the job. If Hyun Jin Ryu misses any amount of time, then that rotation is in trouble and leaning on inconsistent arms.
Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch, Yankees beat reporter): We came into last year thinking that the Yankees were not only division favorites, but a lot of people had them going to the World Series too. They've got pretty much the same band coming back together, just with Kluber and Jameson Taillon in place of Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. The only thing that stops the Yankees is injuries. If they can even have some semblance of health, and not going into the "Next Man Up" routine of the last two years, they will finish ahead of everyone.
Feinsand: The Yankees’ lineup is relentless. I’ll be interested to see how Toronto’s pitching staff fares against New York. Those games are going to be huge. And besides the Orioles, there’s no easy game in the AL East. Even the Red Sox can be frisky.
Berry: And if we're talking about the team to beat, I think it's fair to point out that the Rays won the division by seven games last season. Yes, they lost Snell and Morton, but they just have such an absurd amount of depth, and by the way, the best farm system in baseball with a bunch of top prospects -- including Wander Franco -- who could debut this season. And they're the Rays -- they tend to find a way.
Footer: Last year, it seemed obvious to me the Jays' biggest issue was their baserunning and not great defence (I'm on a roll, baby!) ... I feel like they're going to take a huge leap forward in those two areas. Am I overestimating that element? Was it inexperience that led to the baserunning/defence issues?
Matheson: Many of those fundamental errors were inexperience ... but it's still the big leagues. Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo's philosophy is that he doesn't punish physical errors, only mental errors or issues of effort. Most of what he saw were physical errors, or inexperienced players trying to do too much, too quickly. The Blue Jays saved themselves many times with late comebacks, too, so it could have looked much, much worse than it did.
It doesn't need to be perfect overnight for the Blue Jays, either. But limiting their "did that just happen?" plays to one or fewer per game would be a start.
Footer: Let’s circle back to Kluber and Taillon for a minute. The "if healthy" caveat seems to be a fairly significant one this time. Sure, they may be great. But what if they're not? Let's say they're non-factors. How big of a hole does that put the Yankees in?
Hoch: And, let's go a step further there and say they probably won't take the ball for 30 starts each, right? So they're going to need to lean on their depth of Jordan Montgomery, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt and Michael King ... all of whom got to take turns at the big league level last year, some of them ahead of schedule.
I see it as Gerrit Cole and a revolving door of guys. Domingo Germán is coming back, Luis Severino comes [back] in June or July. It's never a five-man rotation -- this is probably going to look like eight or nine.
Berry: I really liked those rotation moves for the Yankees, because it seems like they do have some depth behind their top starters with the young guys Hoch mentioned. And if they hit on either Kluber or Taillon -- two Rays targets, for what it's worth -- they have another legitimate ace-type starter to pair with Gerrit Cole.
Footer: We often get caught up in "who did the most in the offseason?" But if a team didn't need to do a lot, then why get negative marks for a tamer winter? I feel like the Yankees got their guy in DJ LeMahieu, secured some reinforcements and will be very good again.
Feinsand: Bringing back LeMahieu was the most important thing the Yankees had to do this offseason. And they did. His production would have been very difficult to replace in that lineup.
Footer: Let's give some love to the Rays. Count me as one of the few that didn't see the Blake Snell trade as catastrophic. And these are the Rays. They seems to know more than a lot of us. Am I wrong to think they're going to be OK?
Feinsand: I never underestimate Erik Neander and the Rays' front office. Even after losing Snell and Morton, I think the Rays will find a way to compete. But they’ve certainly opened the door for the other teams to overtake them.
Every time I question a move Neander makes, he ends up looking good. So he should feel great about the Snell trade.
Matheson: Plus, the Rays will find a reliever we've never heard of who looks like me and, somehow, throws 99 with a 1.06 ERA this season.
Hoch: We never seem to give Tampa Bay enough credit. Even last year, we were hearing from baseball people that the Rays were coming fast, but I don't know that anyone really took notice until they proved it on the field. I feel like that's happening again this offseason.
Berry: There's no doubt that the Rays are worse, on paper, than they were at the end of the World Series. Moving Snell and not re-signing Charlie Morton puts a ton of pressure on Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough and the young crop of starters/bulk-inning pitchers like Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Luis Patiño, Brent Honeywell Jr. and Brendan McKay.
Feinsand: Michael Wacha had a terrible year with the Mets. Now that he’s with the Rays, I assume he’s a front-runner for Comeback Player of the Year.
Berry: They're also going to have a full season of Randy Arozarena and a healthier (they hope) version of Austin Meadows, which should make their lineup a little more imposing. And, again, they could get contributions later this year from Franco, the best prospect in baseball.
Footer: If the Blue Jays play 81 games in Dunedin, might that have a negative effect? Florida in July/August ... eek.
Matheson: I don't envy being stuck in that heat and humidity, but I'm not built for that. Fond memories of a former Blue Jays player passing me on the field one afternoon and asking me how long it took me to swim to the ballpark that day.
Hoch: I just looked it up. The Dunedin Blue Jays averaged 203 fans per game in 2019. They've upgraded the ballpark, but it's still not where I'd be racing to watch a game on a sweltering summer night. As Joe Girardi would say: "It's not what you want."
Matheson: It's not ideal, but some players will surely take the grass over the Rogers Centre turf, and having their newly renovated complex across town certainly makes it more manageable than this would have been two or three years ago.
Berry: I'm curious to hear from Keegan on this, but I'd think just having a consistent home ballpark would be an improvement for their players and coaches after all the uncertainty they dealt with last year, too.
Matheson: Definitely. The uncertainty around the Buffalo situation last season wasn't comfortable for anyone. Once they were settled in, whether the players liked the facilities or not, they at least accepted and understood that they'd need to rally around that reality. Having some certainty going in -- and avoiding two or three options that don't pan out -- is important.
Footer: Let’s wrap with some predictions/rankings. Which team has the best starting pitching?
Feinsand: 1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Blue Jays.
Matheson: 1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Blue Jays.
Berry: I'll go with Yankees-Rays-Blue Jays as well.
Hoch: Oh heck, let's make it a sweep. Yankees-Rays-Blue Jays.
Footer: Next up: Bullpen
Feinsand: Yankees-Rays-Blue Jays.
Matheson: Same as rotation for me -- Yankees-Rays-Blue Jays.
Hoch: I concur, doctor. Yankees-Rays-Blue Jays.
Berry: Fine, I'll break up all this agreement. Rays-Yankees-Blue Jays.
Footer: Now do lineup.
Feinsand: Yankees-Blue Jays-Rays (though I’m not sure I wouldn’t take the Red Sox's lineup ahead of the Rays).
Matheson: Yankees-Blue Jays-Rays.
Hoch: Yankees-Blue Jays-Rays.
Berry: I'll also say Yankees-Blue Jays-Rays.
Footer: And defense?
Feinsand: Rays-Yankees-Blue Jays.
Berry: Rays-Yankees-Blue Jays.
Matheson: Rays-Yankees-Blue Jays.
Hoch: Rays-Yankee-Blue Jays.
Footer: Last category: Let’s predict the final standings, 1-5.
Feinsand: 1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Blue Jays 4. Red Sox 5. Orioles.
Matheson: 1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Blue Jays 4. Red Sox 5. Orioles.
Hoch: 1. Yankees 2. Blue Jays 3. Rays 4. Red Sox 5. Orioles.
Berry: 1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Blue Jays 4. Red Sox 5. Orioles.