The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays are looking to build on a bounce-back season from 2020. For a team that is one season removed from losing 95 games, there is a lot of optimism surrounding the Blue Jays in 2021. Heading into the offseason, Toronto was looking to build around its elite group of young hitters, an ace at the top of the rotation, and an underrated bullpen. But that didn’t stop general manager Ross Atkins from spending more money in free agency than any other MLB team. Let’s dive into the state of the Blue Jays heading into a pivotal season.
Trades: Acquired LHP Steven Matz from New York Mets for RHP Sean-Reid Foley, RHP Yennsy Díaz, and RHP Josh Winckowski; traded RHP Héctor Pérez to the Cincinnati Reds for PTBNL; traded OF Derek Fisher to the Milwaukee Brewers for cash and PTBNL; re-acquired LHP Travis Bergen — whom they traded for Robbie Ray — from the Arizona Diamondbacks for cash considerations.
Free agents: OF George Springer, 6 years/$150 million; 2B/SS Marcus Semien, 1 year/$18 million; RHP Kirby Yates, 1 year/$5.5 million; LHP Robbie Ray, 1 year/$8 million; RHP Tyler Chatwood, 1 year/ $3 million; RHP David Phelps, 1 year/ $1.75 million.
Waiver claims: RHP Walker Lockett from the Seattle Mariners; RHP Anthony Castro from the Detroit Tigers; RHP Joel Payamps from the Boston Red Sox.
It’s no stretch to say the Blue Jays had a strong offseason. Toronto landed their top free-agent target, George Springer, with a six-year, $150 million deal. Springer, a three-time All-Star, adds much-improved defense in center field and is a lethal leadoff hitter. Atkins improved the infield by signing Marcus Semien, who is one season removed from being an AL MVP nominee. The Blue Jays re-signed Robbie Ray, hoping he will rediscover his best years from his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Atkins added starting rotation depth when he traded for southpaw Steven Matz. Bullpen depth was another area of improvement with the signings of veteran right-handers Tyler Chatwood, Kirby Yates, and David Phelps. Yates, who was supposed to be the impact closer, will be out for the entire 2021 season.
- George Springer, CF
- Marcus Semien, 2B
- Bo Bichette, SS
- Teoscár Hernandez, RF
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B
- Cavan Biggio, 3B
- Lourdes Gurriel Jr., LF
- Rowdy Tellez/Randal Grichuk, DH
- Danny Jansen, C
Bench: Alejandro Kirk, C; Grichuk/Tellez, OF/1B; Joe Panik, INF; Jonathan Davis, OF
Projected rotation, bullpen
- Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP
- Robbie Ray, LHP
- Steven Matz, LHP
- Tanner Roark, RHP
- Ross Stripling, RHP
Bullpen: Jordan Romano, Rafel Dolis, David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton, A.J. Cole
Three Key Items Heading into the 2021 Season
Expectations from the Starting Rotation
Pitching and defense were the Blue Jays’ weaknesses in 2020. The pitching staff ranked 11th in the AL in runs allowed per game, 10th in ERA, and ninth in strikeouts. While Hyun-Jin Ryu is the team’s ace, 2020 was the first time since 2013 that he didn’t end up on the injured list. Meanwhile, Nate Pearson, who certainly has a ton of upside, will be out for more than a month due to a groin injury. With 18 innings of MLB experience, Pearson must find a way to stay healthy and thrive at the highest level possible.
Behind Ryu, there’s pitching depth with Ray, Matz, Tanner Roark, and Ross Stripling. Matz is having an excellent spring training and appears to have put his dismal 2020 season behind him. Placing Stripling into the rotation in place of Pearson could break up the lefties. Overall, this is a rotation light on known quantities as Atkins did little to add another starter to compliment Ryu. The Blue Jays starting rotation remains the team’s weakest link. How the rotation fares may play a role in how their season turns out.
Speaking of Pearson, Atkins said the right-hander is recovering “exceptionally well” from his groin strain. The team’s top prospect will throw a bullpen session in the coming days, although after already re-aggravating the injury once, the team is thinking of ways to prevent it from reoccurring moving forward. When he gets built up to a starter’s workload, Pearson will be back in the rotation. At this point Stripling will likely drop back into a long-relief role, which he’s ready to take on.
The Bullpen and Replacing Kirby Yates as the Closer
The Blue Jays announced on Monday that Yates will miss the remainder of the season. He went for Tommy John surgery on Thursday. The loss of the 33-year-old will have a ripple effect on the bullpen, especially the closer position. The Blue Jays will need to reshuffle the bullpen and determine who can be the interim closer in the immediate future. There are a few candidates, including Romano, Dolis, Phelps, and Chatwood. Manager Charlie Montoyo said the team will go with the closer-by-committee strategy. However, Romano is the clear front runner to pitch his way to a permanent closer role. The Markham, Ontario native came into his own last season as a power pitcher. Romano had a 1.23 ERA in 15 games with 21 strikeouts before a finger injury kept him out.
Losing Yates does offer an opportunity for the bullpen to add another arm. Tim Mayza, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Cole were competing for one of the final spots. Montoyo said that Mayza is a guy who could benefit from the extra opening in the opening. Lastly, the bullpen needs some length. Thornton and Merryweather won’t have time to build up to a starter’s workload before Opening Day but could be effective long-relief options. If both were to make roster, it would likely be as relievers.
A Temporary Birds Nest
The Blue Jays will begin the season at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida. They will welcome fans at 15 percent capacity. However, their temporary home will need upgrades between now and the home opener on April 8 to ensure it meets MLB’s health and safety protocols. Another move is likely on the way as soon as late May or early June. When the weather in Florida becomes heat waves and thunderstorms, the team’s goal is to be able to return to Toronto. A move back to Canada largely depends on the COVID-19 caseload throughout North America.
Team president Mark Shapiro wouldn’t go as far as to say if he believes the Blue Jays will return to Canada. Shapiro did add that if players get the vaccination shot — which MLB is hopeful will happen this spring — it is the ideal path back to Rogers Centre. Ideally, the Blue Jays will remain in the United States for the foreseeable future. If the Blue Jays move to Buffalo after Dunedin, their Triple-A team — the Buffalo Bisons — will play at a yet-to-be-announced temporary home ballpark. For now, after the mad scramble to find a home last season, players and staff are happy to know where their home opener will be in advance.
Expect the Blue Jays to continue to cause headaches for other teams. Toronto is poised for a bright future, yet they still have some holes to address before they can take the next step. The team overhauled its pitching and defense to support its promising players and challenge for the AL East title. With Opening Day fast approaching, the Blue Jays enter the season with plenty of optimism and look to be a team on the rise.
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Steven Matz, Josh Winckowski, Héctor Pérez, Derek Fisher, Travis Bergen, George Springer, Marcus Semien, Kirby Yates, Robbie Ray, Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps, Walker Lockett, Anthony Castro, Joel Payamps, Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernández, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Rowdy Tellez, Randal Grichuk, Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, Joe Panik, Jonathan Davis, Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling, Jordan Romano, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton, A.J. Cole, Nate Pearson, Charlie Montoyo, Tim Mayza, Francisco Liriano