MLB Preview Roundtable: Are Blue Jays the AL East favourites?

Arden Zwelling joins Evanka Osmak to discuss how the Jays matchup against the top teams in the American League, how health will play a big factor in where they end up in the standings and how Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could be poised for a breakout season.

With another baseball season beginning, it’s time for our baseball writers to weigh in with their boldest and best predictions.

What team are poised to surprise? Which players will break out? And who will win it all? All those questions are answered below, and before you say you can’t predict baseball, remember this: Jeff Blair has correctly called the World Series winner for two years running…

What team is poised to surprise us, good or bad?

Shi Davidi: I feel like if I keep saying the Los Angeles Angels eventually it’s going to be right, so what the hell.

The Minnesota Twins are interesting, the Milwaukee Brewers don’t get enough attention, the New York Mets are fascinating, the San Francisco Giants appear poised for regression, maybe the Miami Marlins hang around, but I can’t stop thinking about the Angels.

Look, I get they’re a low-percentile possibility but hang with me here. If Mike Trout does his thing, Shohei Ohtani can be a reasonable two-way contributor, Anthony Rendon returns healthy, Jo Adell takes the next step, Jared Walsh remains productive and Noah Syndergaard can throw 150 innings, they’re in the mix for a wild-card. This is definitely my subjective brain in action because it’s terrible seeing generational talents like Trout and Ohtani withering on a vine year after year. Yet maybe Trout and Ohtani with a slightly better supporting cast can conjure up a run.

Ben Nicholson-Smith: For me it’s the Washington Nationals.

There’s an expectation that they’ll struggle, but I think the Nationals are going to be one of baseball’s worst teams. As in, they might make the Pittsburgh Pirates look good. On the positive side, people always expect the worst from the Mets, but that’s a good baseball team.

Arden Zwelling: I don’t think the Chicago Cubs are going to qualify for the post-season — but I also don’t think they’ll be as bad as many are expecting.

Seiya Suzuki’s my pick for NL rookie-of-the-year. Nick Madrigal’s my pick to win the NL batting title. Wilson Contreras is perpetually underrated and has everything to play for in his final year of arbitration eligibility. Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, and Clint Frazier have routinely threatened to put it all together — maybe this is the season they do it. Hand to my heart, Frank Schwindel was a top-10 offensive player over 2021’s second-half — you can look it up.

Patrick Wisdom could hit 40 homers with a full season’s playing time; Jonathan Villar is an above-average player whether you like it or not; toolsy outfielder Brennan Davis, the 2021 Futures Game MVP, could debut mid-season. A veteran rotation of low-strikeout, soft-contact generators — Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, Wade Miley — won’t be featured often on Pitching Ninja but will chew through a ton of innings with below league-average ERAs.

Ultimately, this roster has little ceiling to speak of. But it also has a higher floor than many are giving it credit for. If things break the right way — and another trade deadline sell-off doesn’t kaibosh everything — you can squint and see a .500 club that remains relevant well into September.

Jeff Blair: Other than the AL East, you can probably already pick division winners.

The NL East is the same way – I have the Atlanta Braves repeating – but I think it’s going to be a maelstrom underneath them. So, I like the Miami Marlins to surprise as an under-the-radar team, especially because of their starting pitching and under-rated bullpen. They pulled the chute in the second half of 2021, but I don’t see them doing it again.

As for disappointments? The Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets stand out immediately. The Phillies are built to lose close games and the Mets … I just don’t know. Jacob deGrom’s injury and that weirdly imploded trade with the San Diego Padres makes me think their season is going to be a bit of a mess. They make too much noise for their own good.

The Tigers, Rangers and Mariners could be considered teams on the rise. Which of those three has the best chance to impress in 2022?

Jeff Blair: The Seattle Mariners have a year up on the Detroit Tigers, I think, and I can see them sneaking up on the Houston Astros should the defending AL champions wobble.

The Texas Rangers? Get back to me next season.

Arden Zwelling: The only reason I didn’t choose the Detroit Tigers for the surprise team question is because I knew I’d be talking about them here. I don’t only think the Tigers will impress — I think they’ll sneak into the post-season.

I could see Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning emerging as mid-to-front-end starters; Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene establishing themselves as heart-of-the-order bats; Robbie Grossman and Jeimer Candelario continuing to provide steady, under-appreciated production; Javy Baez and Akil Baddoo generating sparks all over the diamond; Gregory Soto, Andrew Chafin, Michael Fulmer, and Alex Lange forming an unconventional-yet-effective back-end of a bullpen.

For crying out loud — later on in this very roundtable you’ll catch me predicting Eduardo Rodriguez will finally make good on his exceptional underlying numbers and win a Cy Young. The Tigers are young, hungry, creatively constructed, well managed, and playing in an absolutely crap division. Add a couple pieces at the trade deadline and I could see Detroit claiming that new wild card spot.

Shi Davidi: This all depends on how you’re defining best chance to impress.

If you’re thinking about the biggest year-over-year jump, the Texas Rangers are the clear pick. FanGraphs projects them to be 15 wins better than they were ago and that’s massive. But they’re starting from such a low point – 60 wins -- that will only take them from doormat to nuisance in terms of relevance.

If you’re thinking about who is going to be most relevant from a contention standpoint, the Seattle Mariners are your team. Robbie Ray was the marquee add, but the trade for Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez deepened the lineup, Juilo Rodriguez is going to be great for the sport and the experience last year should help them factor deep into the year.

Ben Nicholson-Smith: While I applaud the Texas Rangers for trying to improve the way they did, they’re still a ways off.

I had the chance to watch the Detroit Tigers a few times this spring and I came away impressed. Spencer Torkelson should make an offensive impact right away and Javy Baez helps on both sides of the ball. If their young arms take a meaningful step forward, the Tigers could push for .500 in a weak division.

As for the Mariners, I see them as a .500 team and that might disappoint people after their late push in 2021.

After barely missing the playoffs in 2021, the Blue Jays are considered a serious threat in 2022. Are they AL East favourites? And if not, who is?

Arden Zwelling: Yes — I think the Toronto Blue Jays will win the AL East in 2022.

The roster speaks for itself. A top-three rotation in the AL; a top-three offence; a league-average bullpen with upside that ought to be relied upon less this season than last if the prior two categories perform as expected. Emergent young stars; proven veteran producers; capable triple-A depth plus an impact prospect in Gabriel Moreno who could be MLB ready by summer.

And the club has plenty of resources to continue improving at the trade deadline as it has each of the last two seasons (is it too early to start brainstorming deals for Bryan Reynolds or Whit Merrifield?) Layer in full years from George Springer, Alek Manoah, and Jose Berrios, plus the intangible benefit of playing a true home schedule for the first time since 2019, and it’s hard to bet against this team, even in its deep-water division.

I could see 95 wins and an AL East banner hanging above that brand new scoreboard when all is said and done.

Jeff Blair: I have all four AL East teams making the playoffs, but I really view the Toronto Blue Jays as being the least fundamentally flawed of the group, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays.

I don’t think the Blue Jays get credit for the way they’ve grown as an offensive team these past three years and while they’ll miss Marcus Semien, a full year of George Springer, the addition of Matt Chapman – plus the chance that Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., are even better – should mitigate against a drop-off.

Blue Jays ownership and the front office will be aggressive leading up to the trade deadline and are better positioned to make a move than the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Blue Jays didn’t make the playoffs because of a bad month from their bullpen. That won’t – can’t – happen again.

Ben Nicholson-Smith: The Toronto Blue Jays are the best team in the division. They should be considered favourites.

Shi Davidi: You know, time and again, the Tampa Bay Rays teach you how foolish it is to overlook them and a full year of Wander Franco and the potential emergence of Josh Lowe, whose play led them to trade Austin Meadows, are reasons to believe they aren’t going anywhere.

But this is as well-constructed a Toronto Blue Jays team from both a 26-man and 40-man perspective as I can remember. They have elite front-line talent, strong depth and a layer of triple-A protection that should allow them to overcome the usual attrition. The lack of an impact left-handed bat makes life easier for opposing managers in leverage, but if that’s your design flaw, you’ve got a favourite.

AL East aside, what divisional race do you consider most compelling?

Arden Zwelling: The NL East is going to be wild.

After a typically transactional Alex Anthopoulos off-season, the Atlanta Braves are a well-rounded team with everything needed to defend its 2021 championship. The New York Mets are spending like every MLB club ought to and have the depth of talent to withstand Jacob deGrom’s early-season absence. The Philadelphia Phillies all-bat, no-glove lineup won’t only challenge MLB’s average length-of-game record, it’ll produce enough runs to prop up a top-heavy pitching staff. And with an unrivaled blend of youth, depth, and upside in its rotation, the Miami Marlins are positioned to surprise and remain competitive into September.

I think all four of those teams finish above .500. And with the right mix of health, performance, and fortune, it’s easy to envision any of them playing in the post-season.

Jeff Blair: The most compelling race outside of the AL East is the race for AL MVP.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Mike Trout will start with handicaps because of Shohei Ohtani’s unicorn status – heck, they’ve even made a special rule to allow him to stay in the game as a hitter when he exits as a pitcher. Guerrero has a shot at the Triple Crown and it might not be enough unless he hits 60 home runs or something silly and his team wins the division. This could be pistols at dawn stuff.

Shi Davidi: Both the NL East and NL West are super intriguing.

The Atlanta Braves look like, by far, the most complete team, but adding Max Scherzer helps make the New York Mets legitimate, even if they won’t have Jacob DeGrom until June. The Philadelphia Phillies are going to slug their way into the mix but I’m not sure if they can overcome their flaws to take down one of the others, and the Miami Marlins have enough pitching to be a problem.

In the West, meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers are clearly best in class but the San Francisco Giants aren’t going to fall off a cliff and don’t sleep on the San Diego Padres, even with Fernando Tatis Jr., due to miss significant time.

Ben Nicholson-Smith: Beyond the AL East, I’m most interested in the NL West.

Can the San Francisco Giants continue getting the most out of seemingly unremarkable players? Can Freddie Freeman lead the Los Angeles Dodgers back to the World Series? And where do the Colorado Rockies, baseball’s most directionless team, go from here? There’s plenty of intrigue here, and this division will only become more compelling when Fernando Tatis Jr., returns from the injured list.

In 2021, the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., took massive steps forward. What player will emerge as a must-watch talent in 2021?

Shi Davidi: Does last year count as Wander Franco’s emergence? Because it really seems like that’s his floor, and was simply a preview for a full season of him this year.

Arden Zwelling: I desperately want to see a full, healthy Byron Buxton season. I think Luis Robert could rake his way to an MVP award if his 2021 second-half adjustments stick. I could see Tyler O’Neil continuing to blossom into a true five-tool talent and the heir apparent to Joey Votto as Canada’s best ballplayer. I want to believe Jazz Chisholm’s 2021 was only a glimpse of what’s to come.

But what I feel most confident in is that Wander Franco is going to be an absolute monster and one of the game’s best players at the age of 21.

Jeff Blair: I’m going to go with the definition that a player taking a massive step forward needs to have given the majors a taste of his talent.

I could list a raft of pitchers – Hunter Greene, Camilo Doval, Triston McKenzie and Emmanuel Clase, for sure – but I’m going with second baseman Jazz Chisholm, Jr., of the Miami Marlins.

He has the name and he has the game: blazing out of the gate before being hobbled by injuries in 2021, his barrel numbers and sprint metrics place him among the games elite players. The dude carried an OPS of around .900 before injuries bit and had five defensive runs saved while playing with a joyful swagger. I think the Marlins are going to be a factor this season and Chisholm will be at the forefront – despite a so-so spring. Even his strikeouts can be fun and that’s good, because there will be a lot of them.

Ben Nicholson-Smith: I’m looking at Bobby Witt Jr., who will break camp with the Kansas City Royals as their starting shortstop. In time, he could become baseball’s next great young shortstop, joining the likes of Fernando Tatis Jr., Trea Turner, Bo Bichette, Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa.

Others are close to joining that elite class, too. A step ahead of Witt Jr., is Wander Franco, who impressed in limited time last year and a step behind is Oneil Cruz, whose power could play immediately whenever the Pirates decide to call him up.

MLB PLAYOFF PICKS

*denotes wild card

Ben Nicholson-Smith

AL: Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Yankees*, Rays*, Red Sox*
NL: Atlanta, Brewers, Dodgers, Giants*, Mets*, Phillies*
World Series: Dodgers over Blue Jays

Arden Zwelling

AL: Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Yankees*, Rays*, Tigers*
NL: Atlanta, Brewers, Dodgers, Padres*, Mets*, Phillies*
World Series: White Sox over Brewers

Shi Davidi

AL: Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Rays*, Yankees*, Mariners*
NL: Atlanta, Brewers, Dodgers, Padres*, Mets*, Cardinals*
World Series: Dodgers over Blue Jays

Jeff Blair

AL: Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Rays*, Yankees*, Red Sox*
NL: Atlanta, Brewers, Dodgers, Padres, Mets*, Marlins*
World Series: Atlanta over Toronto

AWARDS PICKS

Arden Zwelling

AL MVP: Yordan Alvarez
AL Cy: Eduardo Rodriguez
AL Rookie of the Year: Bobby Witt Jr.

NL MVP: Juan Soto
NL Cy: Sandy Alcantara
NL Rookie of the Year: Seiya Suzuki

Ben Nicholson-Smith

AL MVP: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole
AL Rookie of the Year: Spencer Torkelson

NL MVP: Juan Soto
NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler
NL Rookie of the Year: Seiya Suzuki

Jeff Blair

AL MVP: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
AL Cy Young: Lucas Giolito
AL Rookie of the Year: Bobby Witt Jr.

NL MVP: Mookie Betts
NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler
NL Rookie of the Year: Seiya Suzuki

Shi Davidi

AL MVP: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
AL Cy Young: Shane Bieber
AL Rookie of the Year: Bobby Witt Jr.

NL MVP: Trea Turner
NL Cy Young: Corbin Burnes
NL Rookie of the Year: Seiya Suzuki

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