Blue Jays' identity coming into focus

Season-opening road trip displays strengths, flaws of squad with high ambitions

April 7th, 2021

Set to return to Dunedin, Fla., for their home opener on Thursday, the Blue Jays already have a clearer understanding of this roster’s strengths and weaknesses.

Against the Yankees, who are expected to compete for the World Series, the Blue Jays were sharp and engaged, taking two of three games in the Bronx in a series that had a postseason energy right out of the gate. In Arlington, Texas, against the Rangers, who are projected to finish toward the bottom of the American League West**,** the Blue Jays stumbled, dropping the rubber match, 2-1, on Wednesday afternoon behind .

The Blue Jays have done this without George Springer, their star center fielder who is dealing with a right quad injury on top of his left oblique strain. They’ve also done it without starters Robbie Ray, Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch, forcing them to lean on their rotation depth already. Injuries come in waves that catch all teams at some point, but given how early Toronto has had to deal with them, we’re already seeing a glimpse of what those depth efforts will look like and whether they’ll be enough.

Ryu gave the Blue Jays more than enough in Wednesday’s loss, going seven innings for just the second time in his Toronto career after working around some early trouble. The Blue Jays' bats fell quiet, though, to a great outing from the Rangers’ Kyle Gibson, and they couldn’t get the timely hits they needed when those few opportunities presented themselves early in the game.

“The whole lineup hasn’t been consistent yet,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “I always talk about hitting being contagious. We haven’t had the whole lineup hot at the same time, just one guy here and one guy there. I know and I believe we’re going to get hot, and it’s going to be contagious.”

Six games in with and 156 to go, here are three takeaways from the Blue Jays’ first road trip of 2021.

1. The bullpen is just fine
Losing Kirby Yates to Tommy John surgery late in camp was a major blow. It was easy to envision him in the closer’s role, regaining his elite 2019 form, while high-leverage arms like Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis moved around in the setup innings. One week in, Julian Merryweather is throwing 100-plus mph, has two saves and looks like the answer to many of the Blue Jays’ questions.

Outside of Dolis, the group of back-end arms -- including Romano, David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood and Ryan Borucki -- has looked excellent. Tim Mayza has looked great, too, giving the Blue Jays two hard-throwing lefties whom they trust in any situation. Expect Toronto to churn through long relievers throughout the season, but all the back end of this bullpen has done through the first week is throw heat and shut down lineups.

2. Semien the early star
has done a bit of everything for the Blue Jays. He has hit leadoff with Springer down, hit three home runs in six games, stolen a couple of bases and, on Wednesday, started at shortstop with Bo Bichette getting a DH day. Wednesday’s home run wasn’t cheap, either, traveling a projected 432 feet with an exit velocity of 108.6 mph. Semien is coming off a down year, but this is still the player who finished third in the AL MVP Award voting in 2019 while totaling 7.6 WAR via FanGraphs. Even on days when Semien is cold at the plate or makes an error in the field, he’s showing that he has the all-around game required to find another way to make a positive impact.

“He’s a good player. I was always impressed with him, and I’ve seen him for a long time,” Montoyo said. “I’ve always been impressed by his on-base percentage and what a good player he is. He’s going to have a good year for us.”

3. This is only Version 1.0 of the rotation
Is the Blue Jays’ current rotation, one through five, built for postseason contention? No.

With that out of the way, it’s clear that this group will change drastically throughout the season. Ryu is a constant as the ace, and the Blue Jays hope that Steven Matz sticks as a valuable piece. But the eventual returns of Ray (left elbow contusion), Hatch (right elbow inflammation) and Pearson (right adductor strain), Toronto's No. 1 prospect, will bolster this group.

Even when everyone’s back healthy, though, the Blue Jays' rotation needs an upgrade. For months, it has been obvious that the 2021 Trade Deadline lines up as a major opportunity for Toronto, particularly when you consider its deep farm system and future payroll flexibility. This lineup will stay nearly the same all season, but this rotation is full of moving pieces, and we’re not close to seeing September’s finished result.