Key questions facing the Blue Jays in 2021
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays enter 2021 with plenty of questions still left to answer, but that can mean different things in different years.
The Blue Jays' young roster and payroll flexibility leave them positioned to be one of the most active clubs in free agency, with many of the market’s top players still available. They also have prospects on the cusp of impacting the Major League club and several competitions looming this spring, all of which are good problems to have as they continue to add talent.
The coming weeks leading into Spring Training should be busy for the Blue Jays as they look to carry over the momentum from their postseason appearance in 2020, and here are five questions they’ll need to answer along the way.
1. Just how big will the Blue Jays go?
Having the financial flexibility and prospect capital to make a big splash is a start, but fans want to see it become a reality. Club president and CEO Mark Shapiro has said several times now that these additions could take multiple forms. On one hand, the club could push all of its chips in on an elite player, or it could choose to spread the impact more evenly across the roster with three or four very good additions. The 2022 and 2023 seasons will obviously be part of this long-term planning, but with the Blue Jays clearly ready to make the jump from fringe contender to legitimate threat, all eyes are on them.
2. Which version of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives in 2021?
Whether it happens at first base or third base, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needs to hit in 2021. Guerrero’s .778 OPS through his first two seasons is excellent for a player who’s still just 21, but it doesn’t meet the expectations for baseball’s former No. 1 prospect who was widely considered to be a potentially generational offensive talent. Guerrero has seen others like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. take the league by storm at a young age, so he’s ready to do the same.
Launch angle remains a major focal point for Guerrero, as he hit too many balls on the ground when he broke into the league in 2019. He’s an exit velocity monster, so once those ground balls turn into line drives and line drives turn into fly balls, his counting stats should really start to add up. If he’s putting up an OPS of .900 or above, this lineup is scary.
3. Is the catching position Alejandro Kirk ’s to run with?
Alejandro Kirk became the story of the season in just nine games last summer. Built like a fire hydrant with the ability to hit any pitch that’s in the same area code as the strike zone, Kirk offers a fascinating offensive profile from the catching position. Taking over as the starting catcher full time is another conversation entirely, though, so it will be very interesting to see how the Blue Jays handle this.
Entering Spring Training in 2020, it looked likely that Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire would split the catching duties 60-40 or 70-30, with Jansen getting the lion’s share. Perhaps a split strategy emerges between Jansen and Kirk, with Kirk also seeing some DH at-bats, but this could go in a dozen different directions. If there’s one certainty, though, it’s that Kirk’s bat is too good to hold out of the lineup unnecessarily.
4. Is Nate Pearson the No. 2 starter?
If No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson pitches to his incredible talent, then the Blue Jays have a No. 2 starter in 2021 with the potential to take over games and become a future ace. When you’re talking about a pitching prospect who throws 100 mph, though, there’s always a “but”. Pearson struggled with his control in 2020 and hitters weren’t as fooled by his secondary pitches in the regular season as they were in Spring Training. He looked much better when he came back healthy in the postseason, but Pearson still needs to prove that he can sustain his talents across 160-plus Major League innings.
This will also shape the Blue Jays offseason. Landing an established No. 2 starter would be ideal for the Blue Jays, who can’t simply assume that Pearson will hit his full potential out of the gates, but it’s also worth considering how they’ll handle his arm. Pearson last threw 101 2/3 innings in 2019 and 2020’s workload through the shutdown is difficult to measure, but the club loves his physical routines. Will he be able to pitch without restrictions?
5. Who slams the door shut?
With Ken Giles a free agent after undergoing Tommy John surgery, do the Blue Jays need a traditional closer? Charlie Montoyo made it work during Giles’ absence with a combination of Jordan Romano, Anthony Bass, A.J. Cole and Rafael Dolis, all of whom saw plenty of high-leverage work along the way.
Bass and Cole are free agents, but you can expect the Blue Jays to add several arms on smaller Major League contracts or Minor League deals, which is an area of the market they’ve traditionally done very well in. Closing experience matters to them, too, so it’s still possible that a committee with a loose “No. 1” option emerges.
Romano makes plenty of sense in the role and, looking just at his fastball velocity and slider movement, you might confuse him with Giles. Romano was a revelation in 2020, posting a 1.23 ERA over 15 appearances, but tying him strictly to the ninth inning also isn’t the best option, given how strong he looked in other critical situations through 2020. Dolis remains an option and has plenty of closing experience, but part of Toronto’s pitch to free-agent relievers could certainly be a path to the ninth inning.