The team-building milestones facing the Blue Jays in 2022

Toronto Blue Jays' Bo Bichette, left, is greeted near home plate by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. after Bichette drove both of them in on a two-run home run off Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Keegan Akin during the seventh inning of the second game of a baseball doubleheader, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Although the Toronto Blue Jays fell just short of the playoffs in 2021, the club’s team-building efforts reached a number of milestones new to the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins era.

Last year, the Blue Jays shopped at the very top of the market by adding George Springer, traded blue-chip prospects for a veteran star, and signed one of their own players to a nine-figure extension. While none of those moves reinvented the wheel, they were firsts for a front office that often spoke of sustainable success and had previously shown limited willingness to sacrifice future value for present results.

In 2022, it’s likely that the team will cross new thresholds we haven’t seen in this era of Blue Jays baseball. Here are a few markers along the trail to contention the Blue Jays could traverse as they dive deeper into their competitive window.

Trade for a big-time rental

The acquisition of José Berríos showed the Blue Jays were willing to sell some serious prospect capital for a win-now solution, but they have yet to dive into the deep end on a rental.

They club has taken on a number of players on contract years like Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker in 2020 and Francisco Liriano and Joaquin Benoit in 2016, but they’ve never landed one of the best hired guns.

Getting a rental with star-power doesn’t automatically make you a World Series favourite, and it’s possible to win the Fall Classic without one, but if you take the plunge that’s a statement of intent that you see yourself as one of the league’s top teams. Even the model franchise for sustained contention — the Los Angeles Dodgers — has repeatedly been willing to trade serious young talent for a single bite at the apple with deals for the likes of Manny Machado and Yu Darvish.

If the Blue Jays get off to an excellent start in 2022, they might find themselves willing to push their chips in on a single season for the first time since 2015.

Pay up for an elite reliever

You don’t have to pony up for a relief ace to be a serious contender, but doing so is a signal that’s how you see yourself. The Blue Jays may be against this from a philosophical perspective, but their filtration with Liam Hendriks last off-season shows there’s some room for flexibility there.

Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza did an excellent job at the back of the Blue Jays bullpen in 2021, but even after the acquisition of Yimi García, the unit could use another arm or two. Toronto is undoubtedly sensitive to the significant effect bullpen blowouts had on the team last year and could decide it’s worth paying a premium for more late-game peace of mind.

Grabbing a big-name reliever (whether via trade or free agency) is rarely the most efficient use of resources, but the Blue Jays may find themselves taking the plunge anyway — either prior to the season or at the deadline.

Acquire enough starting-quality position players to play matchups

The Blue Jays’ greatest strength is their core of elite position players, but there’s a significant difference between having a strong lineup and a surplus of quality hitters. Although the team is likely to add an impact infielder before 2022 opens, this is still a group that will likely be divided neatly into “starters” and “bench players”.

Having that division is neither rare nor fatal to a team’s aspirations of contention. However, in an ideal world, the Blue Jays would like to have enough quality position players to tailor their lineup to their opponents more than they’ve done in recent years while keeping everyone rested. This is far easier said than done, especially when injuries hit, but it’s a model that’s worked wonders for teams like the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays lately.

The Blue Jays have been enamoured with positional versatility in the Shapiro/Atkins era, and having a group of starting-quality players that runs deeper than nine is the endgame. Getting there could be as simple as adding a quality infielder and getting a bounce-back season from Cavan Biggio, but neither is guaranteed. Reaching this milestone might take an in-season trade or a breakout season from a part-time player — like the Blue Jays got from Santiago Espinal in 2021.

Establish some homegrown pitchers at the MLB level

One of the Blue Jays’ primary team-building weaknesses in recent years has been their inability to develop homegrown pitching solutions. As it stands, only one pitcher drafted or signed internationally during the current front office’s tenure (Alek Manoah) has locked in a job on this staff, and some of last season’s bullpen struggles were rooted in an inability to draw productive arms from the minor leagues.

Manoah’s rookie success was indisputable, but other pitchers drafted since 2016 have yet to make a significant impact. The jury is still out on many of the pitchers this front office has drafted in the last few years, but T.J. Zuech was a bust, Nate Pearson’s future hangs in the balance, and homegrown pitchers other than Manoah have made just 43 MLB appearances and produced only 0.4 bWAR. Even some of the team’s higher-profile pitching prospects like Adam Kloffenstein and CJ Van Eyk have struggled more than expected in their minor-league careers.

It’s too early to fairly assert that the Blue Jays are incapable of developing their own pitching, but the team has had far more obvious successes on the position player side with players like Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Alejandro Kirk making an impact and Gabriel Moreno on the way.

This could be the year the Blue Jays find the same success with pitchers within their organization, as they’ve managed with pitchers they’ve brought in like Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. Barring injury, Manoah will pitch his first full season in the big leagues while Pearson could establish himself as an MLB starter for the first time. Further down the depth chart, starters like Zach Logue could position himself for a call up with strong work at Triple-A, and Arizona Fall League breakout Graham Spraker could earn himself a look in the bullpen. Some of the relievers that couldn’t quite stick in 2021 like Kirby Snead and Taylor Saucedo may also find beachheads at the MLB level.

If Manoah sustains his success and Pearson finds some of his own, then the Blue Jays’ ability to develop pitching will be lauded rather than questioned. If anyone else makes an impact, it’ll be a welcome bonus for Toronto.

Extend a homegrown player

None of the milestones above are sure to come to pass, and this one seems the furthest from guaranteed. Even so, it’s worth mentioning because re-signing a player you drafted or signed as an international free agent is the ultimate sign of a window of contention reaching maturity.

If the Blue Jays extend a player like Bichette or Vladimir Guerrero Jr., it will demonstrate that their core is transitioning from cheap building blocks that enable further acquisitions to part of the franchise’s bedrock. An extension with a high-profile homegrown player would probably mean they’ll be a Blue Jay for a decade, at least, and signify the club had changed mode from “building up” to “win forever” — as Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll would put it. Or, in the parlance of this front office: sustainable contention.

Extending Berríos sent a strong message about how this club sees its future. Locking up one of their young guns would send a stronger one.

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