Tao of Stieb: Hope builds for Jays, but 2020 must be a year of growth

Toronto Blue Jays' Bo Bichette takes off his batting helmet in the dugout after he hit a solo home run against the Seattle Mariners during the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

In a tumultuous off-season for baseball, there’s something almost serene about the state of the Toronto Blue Jays at this moment.

As the team rolls in to Dunedin to commence six weeks of squatting and stretching and playing pretend games around Florida, there’s the expected sense of relief that the new season is almost upon us. What we don’t find is either feverish expectations or intense dread at the possibilities for the season to come.

It’s certainly not a feeling of “meh,” because there are reasons for fans to be excited about 2020. This will be the first year that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio will head north with the big club for opening day. In what will be a marked difference from the previous few seasons, there will be less energy devoted to looking ahead at players not yet on the roster.

To some extent, that comment even takes into account the next big prospect on the horizon, Nate Pearson. While the big flamethrower could and should be on the team at some point this season, the anticipation for his arrival is at least partially muted by the quality and number of starting pitchers acquired by the Blue Jays this offseason. Combine that with the innate caution we have towards pitchers, and the fact that he only reached triple-A for a few starts last season, and there’s reason for fans and the chattering classes not to exorcise themselves over service time concerns this spring.

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The acquisition of Hyun-Jin Ryu also provides the team with a legitimate ace for the rotation, and if such a player serves any purpose, it is to provide some assurance that they will get at least one very good start each week.

If nothing else, this is a welcome change from recent seasons. In 2018, the front office and fans seemingly clung to some faint hope that their competitive window could remain propped open just enough to squeeze through one last time with Josh Donaldson on the roster, only to see the entire season come crashing down as the star third baseman’s balky limbs betrayed him and our aspirations. Coming off that dispiriting year, the Jays had seemingly thrown in the towel on the 2019 season before it even began, so the extent of the excitement was reserved for the ascension of their anticipated regal offspring.

This season is certainly not that disheartening at the outset, but it’s also not one that has ambitions running wild for the team.

It feels as though even the most optimistic among us would have a hard time elucidating the series of events that would need to fall into place for the Blue Jays to find themselves in the postseason. While they aren’t completely in rebuild/reload/retrench/tank mode, the Jays still have enough question marks throughout their projectable roster to make it appear unlikely that contention, even for a play-in berth, is imminent.

This is in keeping with the stated mindset of the front office, as team president Mark Shapiro has taken pains across multiple interviews since the end of last season to parse the distinction between the terms “competitive” and “contention.” The team seems determined to play at a higher level, and to allow some of their young stars to develop into MLB regulars and maybe more, while still holding on for one more season to a number of players who could best be described as “projects.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Given the grim results of the past three seasons, the idea that the current roster could be fun and feisty might be almost enough to allow fans to hold some positive sentiment and lower their gaze from higher ambitions.

Still, this coming season likely won’t be a success if it doesn’t conclude with something more than tepid goals for 2021. To get there, there will need to be a significant step forward in the quality of play and output from almost every player on the roster.

More to the point, many of the players who pose question marks from the outset of the season will need to show something definitive and positive before the team can look at 2021 as the start of something bigger. If they don’t, or if the team as a whole doesn’t seem poised to make that transition, the level of calm composure and understanding amongst the fans will be challenged.

If not for some of the depressingly tough seasons of recent memory, the prospect of being stuck in the mushy middle with this franchise could be angst-inducing. At worst, it could echo the many teams between 1998 and 2014 who seemed to perpetually hover around the .500 mark, and rarely much better.

In an in-between season such as the one to come, it would be almost poetic for the Blue Jays to finish at 81-81. Fans might even find some solace in that as a prediction, if not a goal.

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