Atkins, Blue Jays confident '23 was 'just a blip'

January 3rd, 2024

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays are betting on The Blip.

Coming off another season that ended in a cruelly familiar fashion, fans are searching for a savior. Until the Instagram heartbreak of Dec. 9, that savior’s name was Shohei Ohtani, but now Toronto needs to pivot once again to reinvigorate an offense in need.

Speaking Wednesday for the first time since December's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., general manager Ross Atkins pointed his optimism back to the existing roster. Over and over, Atkins reiterated how good he feels about this team, this roster and this lineup, even coming off a season during which it finished 14th in runs scored and has lost multiple pieces.

“It’s really just about putting our staff in a position to best support the players that are here to get back to that run scoring that we had in ’22, ’21 and ’20,” Atkins said. “We feel like last year was just a blip in terms of run-scoring.”

It’s a bold bet if they’re really going to push those chips in. To date, the club’s primary offseason additions have been Kevin Kiermaier (one year, $10.5 million) and Isiah Kiner-Falefa (two years, $15 million).

Betting on a better outcome has its legs to stand on, particularly when you look to players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Daulton Varsho or Alejandro Kirk, all of whom are capable of so much more. This requires a much broader view, though. Blips go both ways.

The Blue Jays’ pitching was brilliant for much of 2023, particularly the veteran quartet of Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi. Their bullpen, always baseball’s most unpredictable bunch, was as strong as it’s been in years. Kiermaier, re-signed for another season, just had his best offensive year since 2017. Brandon Belt, now a free agent, boosted this lineup from the left side with an .858 OPS. Whit Merrifield and Matt Chapman are out the door behind him.

There are reasons to believe this offense will bounce back, of course -- many of them legitimate -- but we also have to entertain the possibility that the rest of this roster could regress, requiring even more from the bats. This isn’t poking holes in the success stories of 2023, but simply acknowledging the realities of baseball, where so much can swing from one year to the next and a little pessimism can be healthy when building a balanced roster.

Just look at 2021. The best offense in baseball and one of the best in Blue Jays history, which ranked first in home runs and OPS, is the only lineup from the past four seasons not to make the playoffs. Still, Atkins sees the '23 lineup and its performance as a blip, not a fatal flaw.

“It was an outlier over the past four years, and we’re optimistic,” Atkins said. “Now, having said that, we’re not going to rest on that. Now, we’re focused on improving our process. The league has adjusted to us. We need to adjust back.”

There’s the secret to all of this. The Blue Jays will add more bats, with Atkins highlighting the outfield and DH spots as potential opportunities, but regardless of whether Cody Bellinger, Rhys Hoskins or a utility man walks through the door, this lineup needs to adjust as a whole. That’s where so much of this offseason’s energy has been spent, improving the communication, transparency and support this organization is giving its hitters.

“The things I think we’re missing aren’t people,” Atkins said. “The [thing] we were missing was our ability to help the players, which we feel like we’ve worked to offset and put ourselves in a much better position. Obviously, we’ve been a bit right-handed, so could it mean a little more left-handed as we look for fits? It certainly could.”

A power resurgence needs to be part of this, too. Chapman’s 17 home runs and Belt’s 19 will be missed, and while some of this will come from prospects -- think Davis Schneider and eventually Orelvis Martinez -- this lineup should be finishing higher than 16th in home runs.

“I think we have plenty of power to drive in runs,” Atkins said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not open to adding another power bat, but if you just name off the four or five guys at the top of our lineup, they all drive in runs and they all hit home runs. We have plenty of power. We project to score runs again and feel optimistic we will.”

Optimism can begin to crack if you lean on it too hard in baseball, but the Blue Jays seem intent on testing it.