The Toronto Blue Jays kicked off the 2023 season with a bang on Thursday afternoon in St. Louis, defeating the Cardinals by a score of 10-9 in a three-and-a-half-hour rollercoaster ride.
George Springer and Bo Bichette combined for nine hits at the top of the lineup, Alek Manoah got rocked in one of the worst starts he’s ever had at the big-league level, the team’s upgraded defence saved multiple hits and likely a few runs, the bullpen allowed four runs and blew multiple leads, a veteran approach at the plate from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the top of the ninth inning put the Blue Jays in front, and closer Jordan Romano came in and slammed the door with a performance as dominant as ever.
It’s never ideal to draw too many conclusions from just one game considering it represents just 0.62 percent of the marathon that is a Major League Baseball season but Opening Day highlighted just how good this new-look team can be along with how things could potentially unravel.
So, what can we expect from the Blue Jays this year? What will it look like if everything goes according to plan? What if a bunch of things go wrong? Let’s go through the optimistic and the pessimistic approaches to how this season could go and find something realistic in the middle.
"I could give you a million reasons why I think the Jays are going to the World Series." 👀@JeffPassan shares his lofty expectations for the #BlueJays with @SNJeffBlair & Kevin Barker.
— Sportsnet 590 The FAN (@FAN590) March 24, 2023
The Optimistic Approach…
If all goes according to plan, this could very well be the best all-around team that the Blue Jays have ever fielded.
According to FanGraphs, the Blue Jays are projected to have the fourth-highest WAR in Major League Baseball, ahead of the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets and behind only the New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, and Atlanta Braves.
They’re projected to be elite to above average in all positions other than second base, where the projection of the Whit Merrifield, Cavan Biggio, and Santiago Espinal platoon ranks 18th in terms of WAR. Otherwise, they have likely the best catching tandem with Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen, an excellent righty-lefty combo at first with Vladdy and Brandon Belt, above-average talent at third and short with Matt Chapman and Bo Bichette, and an outfield that provides elite defence.
The pitching staff is also expected to be above average, with the starting rotation and bullpen coming in 11th and 13th in terms of projected WAR. The rotation is anchored by two aces, Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman, and rebound seasons from Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi would make it among baseball’s deepest. Bullpens are notoriously enigmatic, but this year’s group features significantly more upside and depth than we’ve seen in previous years.
All in all, this a very, very different team than the one that imploded in the playoffs last fall. Some offence was sacrificed in favour of a much-needed defensive upgrade that’ll help the pitching staff perform better, but, as we saw on Thursday, this is still a group that should score a ton of runs.
That's it for Alek Manoah after just 3 1/3 innings.
The nine hits allowed are a career high and the five earned runs are more than Manoah allowed in any start in 2021. #BlueJays
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) March 30, 2023
The Pessimistic Approach…
Unfortunately, this is baseball, and things never simply go according to plan. Projections are just projections and many things can get in the way of players living up to expectations.
The biggest worry that fuels this type of approach, of course, is injuries. Unlike some of their American League East rivals, the Blue Jays made it through spring training pretty much unscathed, but they’re counting on some players who have traditionally had a difficult time staying on the field to play some major roles on the team.
Toronto’s new-look defensive outfield features two injury-prone players, George Springer and Kevin Kiermaier. The Blue Jays are also relying on Brandon Belt to be a big lefty bat in the middle of their lineup and it appeared last August and September that a nagging knee issue would spell the end of his career.
The reality is that there are going to be injuries. This is the case with every team in baseball. The concern is how the Blue Jays are equipped to compensate for them. If Springer misses any amount of time, the top of the lineup suddenly looks much less potent. If Belt can’t last the season, the Blue Jays need to hope that Daulton Varsho’s somewhat unproven bat can be the real deal.
And then there’s the pitching staff, which I just sort of glossed over during the optimistic section.
There’s no guarantee that Kikuchi or Berrios will be any better than they were last year and there’s also no guarantee that Chris Bassitt will fare well pitching in the AL East. Gausman and Manoah are the horses of this staff, but the Big Man’s Opening Day start didn’t do much to soothe any anxiety that manifested from his difficult playoff start last fall.
Speaking of last fall, the bullpen that blew multiple leads to the Cardinals on Opening Day is pretty much the same one that coughed up an 8-1 lead in a must-win playoff game.
The @BlueJays are the first MLB team to allow a go-ahead run in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings on the road and yet still win the game since the Red Sox did so against the St. Louis Browns on September 20, 1938.
— OptaSTATS (@OptaSTATS) March 31, 2023
The Realistic Approach…
Opening Day saw a few worries come to fruition, as Manoah was tagged for five runs while the bullpen combined to allow four runs in relief. Still, despite that, the Blue Jays won the game.
Things are inevitably going to go wrong and success won’t necessarily come in a predictable path but the Blue Jays have a very well-rounded team that can win games in different ways. When their bats are rolling, they’ll be able to hit their way to wins over the best lineups in baseball. When their bats aren’t going, their pitching, speed, and defence will allow them to win tight games.
The Blue Jays also boast quality organizational depth that’ll help them navigate the injuries that’ll inevitably come during the dog days of summer. Addison Barger, Spencer Horowitz, and Otto Lopez will be Triple-A pushing for playing time on the big-league club, while the Bisons boast a considerable amount of quality pitching that extends Toronto’s bullpen well beyond eight names. Top prospect Ricky Tiedemann could also certainly come up and make an impact as a rookie, as we’ve seen in recent years with Manoah, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez.
General manager Ross Atkins had a fairly ho-hum trade deadline last season, opting to raise the floor with the additions of Whit Merrifield, Anthony Bass, Zach Pop, and Mitch White rather than going for a big, game-changing splash. With the amount of pressure on the team to do something this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Atkins pull the trigger on a huge deal to put the Blue Jays over the top.
When John Schneider took over for Charlie Montoyo last July, the team had a 46-42 record. They went 46-28 the rest of the way. We should expect this year’s version of the Blue Jays to look more like the latter than the former.
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