Blue Jays have lofty 2022 goals – and realistic ways to reach them

Sportsnet looks back at the top 10 best Blue Jays plays from the 2021 season.

Go on. Admit it. It’s the rumours that have all of us thirsting for a resumption and conclusion of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining talks.

It’s OK to feel that way. It’s OK to dream a little on reporting that suggested the Toronto Blue Jays were in on Corey Seager before he signed that 10-year, $325-million free-agent contract with the Texas Rangers. Or on the Instagram post from Carlos Baerga, who broke the news of the Yimi Garcia signing, about Freddie Freeman ending up in Toronto. And those Jose Ramirez rumours. My goodness.

And now it’s plans for a renovated Rogers Centre, which according to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi will be unveiled in 2022. It’s not as sexy as building brand-new digs down on the waterfront, but coupled with improvements that have already been made it certainly adds to a sense of forward movement and ownership with a vision as well as the ability to be light-footed.

As it was put to me by somebody with way more knowledge about these things: a staged renovation gets more revenue into the hands of the team sooner than a new, $1 billion ballpark, without a bunch of added administrative costs (see: Calgary Flames) and that’s a good thing since the bill for Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and Bo Bichette comes due well before a new park could be finished -- maybe sooner if a new CBA costs the Jays a year of their service time. Plus, it avoids all those nasty public disputes. So, while I was one of those who believed the way to go was a new ballpark as part of a real estate play, I’ll happily wave the white flag. Re-design the lower bowl. Open up the concourses. Let there be light…

Let there be baseball.

Suddenly, all seems possible even though the Blue Jays haven’t been able to have a full house at the Rogers Centre for two years and have been buffeted more than any other franchise by the winds of COVID-19. Suddenly, the chattering classes are saying Toronto might be a destination; that having Vladdy and Bo on your side isn’t a bad way to spend the prime of your career, not just the early or later parts of your career. Suddenly, it’s the type of place that not only attracts free agents like Kevin Gausman but convinces a soon-to-be free agent such as Jose Berrios to delay entry into the market and sign a seven-year, $131-million contract. Suddenly, a pitcher whose former team was so convinced he was going to leave as a free-agent after 2022 that it traded him even though it knew the move would leave itself woefully shy of pitching -- suddenly, he, too, is willing to pledge his arm and heart to the Blue Jays after spending just a couple of months in the place.

No wonder we’ll exit 2021 and head into 2022 itching for the hot stove to fire up again. I mean, I know that winning the off-season doesn’t mean winning the regular season… but, heck, if you can win one on the way to winning the other, where’s the harm?

The tone for this off-season was set early by president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins, both of whom acknowledged interest in re-signing Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz but maintaining they were more interested in making the team better by a couple of wins than bringing back specific players. Translation: we’d love you to come back. But we need to be a better team regardless.

To that end, there’s still heavy lifting. Now, there is a danger in harnessing any analysis to WAR -- you know organizations like the Blue Jays that spend millions of dollars on research and development are playing analytical chess while the rest of us are playing checkers -- but for argument’s sake, let’s use it as a starting point.

The departure of Semien, Ray and Matz removed 6.6, 3.9 and 2.8 fWAR from the equation. A full year of George Springer and Berrios, plus the addition of Gausman (4.8 fWAR) and less uncertainty out of the bullpen will make up some of the loss -- provided there isn’t a major drop-off on the part of other players or pitchers which is, of course, possible. And don’t get us started about injuries.

It would be a shock if the organization doesn’t continue to bolster its pitching ranks once the CBA is done, either by adding another Matz, or somebody looking for a pillow contract or through a trade for a controllable starting arm. Have you heard? You can never have enough pitching.

But the area of real need remains the same as it was last winter, when the Blue Jays saw Michael Brantley slip between their fingers: a better-balanced lineup.

The Blue Jays have not been a static group offensively. Leaving aside 2020’s mini-season, the Jays have gone from 27th in on-base percentage in 2019 to fourth in 2021 and from 25th in strikeout percentage to second-lowest. There’s been growth. But as Davidi is fond of reminding us, if you want to know what this organization will do in the future look at what they did or tried to do in the past, and the fact the Blue Jays pursued Brantley with such vigour suggests in the very least recognition of the need for a left-handed hitter capable of getting on-base, making contact and controlling the strike zone.

But it’s not always a simple matter of handedness. As Eno Sarris of The Athletic noted in a breakdown of what teams can learn from the World Series champion Atlanta Braves, lineup “diversity” is important. Acknowledging that some of what he was putting forth was difficult to define statistically, Sarris suggested that especially in a single, post-season series, having a lineup of different strengths complicates game-planning for the opposition. As Sarris said: the Houston Astros clobber pitches up in the zone, so the Braves adjusted. The Braves, on the other hand, had a lineup of high-ball hitters who preferred pitches up and in or out and over, hitters who liked pitches inside -- high or low didn’t matter to Eddie Rosario -- and hitters who were equally comfortable with high or low pitches if they were over the plate.

As Sarris also noted, the Braves greatly diversified their lineup through in-season acquisitions, meaning that, theoretically, the organization’s thinkers would have been able to take notes as the year went on, figuring out where they had too much and where they had too little and who was on the market that could affect change. And you’d have to think that losing Ronald Acuna, Jr., to injury and Marcell Ozuna to suspension was a seismic shock to the Braves’ overall offensive pattern.

It’s a reminder that you need to look beyond handedness when constructing a World Series winner, and that is the endgame for the Blue Jays. You can rattle off the names of potential trade acquisitions such as Matt Chapman, Ketel Marte or Ramirez or free agents such as Kris Bryant, Trevor Story and Freeman or bounce-back candidates like Michael Conforto.

They don’t have to get creative in finding places to tinker with their lineup. Semien’s departure leaves a hole at second base and a cavern at the top of the order, and while the Blue Jays continue to have a fixation with Cavan Biggio, it’s apparent that the team can’t possibly start the season with both him and Santiago Espinal as everyday players. Adding the switch-hitting Ramirez accomplishes everything the Blue Jays need in terms of lineup construction. Freeman is a fun long-shot -- hey, a guy can dream, right? -- but it would be a real testament of faith to, say, shift Guerrero to third. Maybe even hubris.

The best-case scenario for the Jays would likely be cobbling together a lineup that platoons Espinal and Biggio at second and hitting them ninth.

It’s true that we haven’t even considered the biggest wild card here: Gabriel Moreno at third, or Orelvis Martinez possibly covering that spot in the future. Equally true is the fact that the Blue Jays are, shall we say, extremely noncommittal about a future with Randal Grichuk. In fact, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers discussed a trade that would have sent Grichuk and his two years, $20.8 million contract for Jackie Bradley, Jr., and his two-year, $21.5 million contract.

In addition to adding diversification in the infield, the Blue Jays would seem open to fiddling around with their outfield. Along with Grichuk, you’d have to think Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., would be available in a move for a controllable piece. Would the Blue Jays toss in, say, Alejandro Kirk or Jordan Groshans in a move that opens a little more payroll or space?

So, here we are: waiting for the fun to begin again, hoping the new CBA doesn’t throw any service time curveballs. If you think the fall’s free-agent market was a hoot… just wait until the post-CBA feeding frenzy. We used to talk about meaningful games in September in these parts, but that’s no longer the case. Now, it’s all about meaningful games in October -- starting in 2022. Whenever the business of baseball starts up, all seems possible once again.

Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker with former MLBer Kevin Barker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. New episodes of the Blair & Barker podcast drop every Thursday during the off-season wherever you get your favourite podcasts.

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