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Previewing the Division: Toronto Blue Jays

A look at the up-and-coming threat to the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

For the next four days, we will be looking at the competition that the Red Sox will be facing in the 2021 season in the division. We’ll take a look at their projected record by averaging projections from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, and then we’ll look at their top players before diving into their overall offense, rotation and bullpen outlooks. We’ll be going in reverse order of last year’s standings, meaning today we look at the Blue Jays.

Broad Overview

The Blue Jays, in some ways, arrived last season as they used the expanded playoff field to their advantage to play into October. By many accounts, though, they were a year early, with 2021 the year they were truly set to arrive. That sure looks to be the case now, as they are coming off a fairly aggressive offseason in which they added both George Springer and Marcus Semien. They are still third in the division by many projections, but they possess a whole lot of upside and have the potential to not just be the surprise in the division this year, but the surprise in all of baseball if everything comes together.

2020 Record

32-28

2021 Projected Record

87-75

Best Position Player

George Springer

There are a handful of position players in this lineup that could emerge as the best player here, but we’re going with the newest face and the veteran of the bunch. Springer was the big addition for the Jays this winter, adding serious pop into the middle of their lineup, and the middle of their outfield. After spending his career to this point with the Astros, Springer signed a six-year deal worth $150 million to join the Jays for the second portion of his career.

There are some questions in the long-term about how long Springer can actually stick in center field, but as far as 2021 goes, that’s where he’ll be playing. His defense is fine, but the bat is why Toronto brought him in. Springer is one of the best and most consistent hitters in the game, putting up a wRC+ of at least 140 in three of the last four seasons. Going back to the start of 2019, his 154 wRC+ is good enough for seventh in all of baseball, sandwiched in between Anthony Rendon and Freddie Freeman. And then on top of all that, you can toss in a tremendous postseason record that fits in perfectly with an up-and-coming team like this.

Toronto Blue Jays v Detroit Tigers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Honorable Mention: Bo Bichette

Take your pick of sons of former professional players for this spot. I’m going Bichette, though. He’ll be playing shortstop for the Jays and in his first 75 games in the majors he has put up a 134 wRC+. Look for him and Springer to form a brutal one-two punch at the top of this lineup.

Best Pitcher

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Springer was the big addition this past winter, but the Blue Jays actually started bringing in top free agents the winter before when they signed former Dodgers Hyun-Jin Ryu. Presumably because of his troubling injury history, it sure seems as though Ryu doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the top pitchers in baseball. When he’s on the mound, that is absolutely what he is. The lefty had a 2.61 ERA in 12 starts last season, and that’s actually his worst mark over the last three seasons. Looking at ERA- and FIP- — which adjust for park effects and compare to league average, with anything below 100 being better than average — Ryu is second only to Jacob deGrom in the former over the last three seasons and he’s seventh in baseball by the latter.

As alluded to above, the issue has been health. While Ryu is fantastic when he’s pitching, the amount of time he’s actually spent pitching has been a real issue. Going all the way back to 2016, he has only two seasons with at least 100 innings pitched and only one with at least 130. Of course, 2020 skews that a bit and he did stay healthy all of last season.

Honorable Mention: Nate Pearson

This was a tough one, but I’m betting on upside. Pearson has health issues of his own — he may miss the start of the season with a groin injury — but the stuff is incredible. One of the top prospects in baseball, Pearson is an imposing presence on the mound and his big fastball sets up the rest of his arsenal. It’s fair to question how long they’ll both actually be healthy, but in a perfect world Ryu and Pearson could be a phenomenal 1-2 punch atop the Blue Jays rotation.

Lineup Overview

If the Blue Jays are going to take the step forward that many, myself included, are expecting out of them in 2021, the lineup is going to be the big reason. This is a group that is just filled with enormous talent, and it’s not just limited to Springer and Bichette. Vlad Guerrero Jr. was considered one of the best hitting prospects in recent memory and is still only 22. Teoscar Hernández had a big breakout last year. Marcus Semien was an MVP finalist in 2019. Cavan Biggio is an on-base machine. Lourdes Gurriel is among the most underrated players in the game. Rowdy Tellez is Babe Ruth against the Red Sox, at least. This has the potential to be one of the best and deepest lineups in baseball. They still have to prove it — a lot of the projections are based on potential rather than track record — but the talent is very much there.

Rotation Overview

While the lineup is the thing that could put the Blue Jays in the territory they want to be, the pitching has just as much potential to hold them back. The rotation is similar to that of the Red Sox in a lot of ways, largely with the injury risk baked into it. We talked about that with Ryu and Pearson. The difference here is that the pure talent when healthy skews toward Toronto, at least at the top. While I’m a big fan of those two, I’m not wild about the rest of their rotation. The wildcard will be Robbie Ray. His control issues have always scared me off, but the strikeout stuff provides a legitimate ceiling. Steven Matz, Tanner Roark and Ross Stripling combine for a solid group at the back end, too, albeit with limited upside. They’ll need the offense to carry them a bit, but this is a rotation that can at least not lose games.

Bullpen Overview

Again, there are some similarities here with the Red Sox, though the Blue Jays have the better odds of having the best reliever on either team with their signing of Kirby Yates. Granted, Yates is far from a sure thing coming off a disastrous 2020 that was significantly shortened by injury, but as recently as 2019 he was considered one of the very best relievers in baseball. If the Jays can recapture something close to that, they have a legitimate bullpen ace. Beyond Yates, it’s less impressive but there is some potential there, specifically with solid setup guys like Jordan Romero and Rafael Dolis.

Sum it up in a Sentence

There’s a lot of potential variance in this season coming up for the Blue Jays, but the offense sure looks ready to arrive and the difference between a middling .500-ish season and a legitimate run at the division title likely comes down to the health at the top of their rotation.