TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have made the jump from a young team on the cusp to a legitimate contender in the American League East, but their pitching will determine just how quickly that happens.
Over the offseason, Toronto added star outfielder George Springer on a six-year deal for a club record $150 million, then brought in Marcus Semien on a one-year, $18 million deal to play second base. The team did bring back Robbie Ray in free agency and added Steven Matz via trade, but the rotation’s upside behind ace Hyun Jin Ryu, the Opening Day starter, is still an area in need of improvement this season.
What the Blue Jays do have working in their favor is a deep, powerful lineup that should be one of the most productive in the AL. The development of the young core should fit well with these offseason additions, while the club feels it has made strides defensively, which was a major priority after the 2020 season.
Toronto opens the season against a team it will be battling in the division all season long, the New York Yankees. Here's what you need to know ahead of Thursday's first pitch at Yankee Stadium at 1:05 p.m. ET.
What needs to go right?
This lineup needs to live up to its potential, because until some changes are made, the Blue Jays won’t be pitching themselves into the postseason.
That starts with a top four of Springer, Semien, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernández that manager Charlie Montoyo really settled into midway through Spring Training. The bats in this lineup have power potential from one through nine, so the bottom third of this order should be much more productive than it’s been in previous seasons, too.
Much of the optimism here lies in the fact that several Blue Jays hitters still have development ahead of them. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been tearing the cover off the baseball in Spring Training and consistently hitting it in the air, which is key, while Hernández is coming off an AL Silver Slugger Award season and could put up massive numbers over a full 162 games. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is another bat that hasn’t gotten enough attention, especially if he’s able to stay healthy over a full season. On any given day, a different hitter could be this lineup’s engine.
Ryu is Ryu, but the Nos. 2-5 spots in Toronto's rotation remain a question mark. Left-handers Robbie Ray and Matz have looked very sharp in Spring Training, but can they sustain that across a full season, and how many innings can we reasonably expect from them after a shortened 2020 campaign?
The Blue Jays will likely open with Tanner Roark and Ross Stripling on the back end, given the injuries to No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch. They’re “starters," but that term will take on a different meaning this season as teams lean on piggyback strategies or multi-inning bullpen arms to get through a full schedule.
A realistic goal for this group is simply to keep the club in ballgames. Given the talent of this lineup, as long as the rotation can keep things close, there will always be a chance. The club’s depth is being tested already, though, and the Blue Jays will need to win some of those 2-1 and 3-2 games along the way.
Team MVP will be …
Springer. An everyday center fielder with the ability to hit for average, reach base at a high clip and put up power numbers has “team MVP” written all over him. The Blue Jays are stacked offensively, and while many players could rival Springer’s numbers at the plate, his all-around game should allow him to produce value day in, day out.
The power potential with Springer is intriguing as he moves into the AL East, but his on-base skills and athleticism will also be on full display out of the leadoff spot. Springer peaked at 6.5 WAR (FanGraphs) in 2019, a lofty number he should have an opportunity to chase in '21 if he gets in a full, healthy season.
Team Cy Young will be …
Ryu. It would be a surprise if it’s even close, though someone like Jordan Romano could put up an All-Star caliber season out of the bullpen, especially if he’s given the bulk of the save opportunities.
Ryu is the most important player on this roster, because if he goes down for any extended period of time, the rotation would suffer without him. A model of consistency, the 33-year-old lefty pitched to a 2.69 ERA in his first season with the Blue Jays and finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting. He should be in consideration for that award again and has looked like his classic self in Spring Training.
The Blue Jays will make the headlining deal of the Trade Deadline.
There’s some logic to this, given where the club is in its competitive arc and the needs that remain on the roster. It’s easy to forecast Toronto being heavily involved in the pitching market at the Deadline -- or even earlier -- and the Blue Jays have the future payroll flexibility to add a large contract. That could continue to be a major advantage for the team, just as it was this past offseason.
The other thing working in their favor is the No. 7 farm system in baseball, as ranked by MLB Pipeline. This current roster has been built primarily through development and free agency, meaning the Blue Jays haven’t needed to dip into their prospect pool just yet. When the time comes, the Blue Jays will have all of the pieces necessary to swing a major deal.