TORONTO – Anyone who waited all off-season for Blue Jays games that count got three hours and 38 minutes of high-leverage baseball on Opening Day.
And if Thursday’s 10-9 win over the Cardinals offered any indication, the Blue Jays really are a different version of themselves in 2023. The defence was better, with standout plays from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer. There was bold baserunning from Springer, Kiermaier and Bo Bichette. And who can complain about an offence that scores 10 runs on 19 hits?
Granted, this game was far from perfectly played. Alek Manoah left too many pitches over the heart of the plate, Bichette struggled on a couple of defensive chances and relievers Tim Mayza, Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia all faltered. But 1-0 still sounds a lot better than 0-1 as the Blue Jays head into their first off-day of the season.
It’s a fitting start to a season with high stakes. The Blue Jays have been building to this point for years, developing prospects and making a yearly habit of signing top free agents like Springer, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt. Yet only three seasons remain before Guerrero Jr. and Bichette hit free agency, adding significance to each remaining chance. After going winless in the playoffs in both 2020 and 2022, it is time for this group to take the next step.
Now, it’s obviously irrational to read too much into Opening Day, win or lose. And it’s probably irrational to attribute the success or failure of a season to a short playoff series in which anything can happen. But as random as October baseball can be, that’s when legacies are made. Now’s the time to ensure that this team’s legacy includes playoff wins, not just painful what-ifs.
Based on what we saw Thursday, this group can do a lot of things well. Of course, with 161 more before the playoffs even begin, many more tests await them.
In the meantime, welcome to the first instalment of what will be a regular Friday column here this season, and let’s look at some developing storylines with the Blue Jays and beyond:
ZOOMING OUT: THE ORIOLES
An important question for everyone involved in the American League playoff race: how good will the Orioles be in 2023?
At first glance, their off-season didn’t look especially impressive. Nothing against starters Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin or infielder Adam Frazier, their big off-season pickups, but it felt a little underwhelming after a breakout 83-79 season. Why not bid for Carlos Correa and accelerate the rebuild a little? Or at least some more pitching?
But in talking with evaluators from rival teams this spring, there’s a lot of appreciation for where the Orioles are at. As one executive noted, the discipline they showed this winter could allow for spending in future off-seasons, when they’re a little closer to contending. Another rival official went out of his way to identify them as an underrated team in 2023. A scout from a third team sees Frazier as a great fit and projects 20-25 home runs and 3.5 WAR for rookie third baseman Gunnar Henderson.
“This year they hold onto contention and next year they’re legit long-term playoff contenders,” the scout predicted.
One day in, the Orioles are off to an impressive start as Adley Rutschman homered and went five-for-five on his first opening day in the big-leagues.
Admittedly, there are still some big holes on this team. There’s a lack of offence from their corner outfield positions and there’s not much in the way of established pitching, either. With that in mind, Baltimore’s roster is far from a finished product. But the combination of depth and upside coming together in Baltimore is enough to make the rest of the AL East uneasy.
ZOOMING IN: MATTINGLY’S ROLE
On a recent afternoon at the Blue Jays’ spring training facility, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman and Whit Merrifield were taking batting practice. With the wind blowing out and a BP group featuring more than its share of power, many balls cleared the outfield wall. Those that didn’t rolled to a stop along the outfield grass where they’d lay in the sun undisturbed.
The field was quiet – no relievers shagging fly balls, no bat boys in sight – so the task of collecting the baseballs fell to a group of coaches: major-league coach Gil Kim, team translator Hector Lebron, first-base coach Mark Budzinski and bench coach Don Mattingly. Each covered a wide swath of outfield, throwing balls in or using fungo bats to hit them back with precision.
Not surprisingly, Mattingly opted for the fungo bat, hitting ball after ball back from the left-centre field wall back to shallow centre, where they were gathered into a bucket for re-use.
From a distance: an idyllic baseball scene, a one-time MVP and nine-time Gold Glover still loves the game so much he’s happy to shag fly balls in the sun. And there’s some truth to that. But also:
“Nobody likes shagging,” Mattingly said with a smile. “But somebody’s got to do it.”
And realistically, when Mattingly was managing the Dodgers and Marlins over the course of the last 12 years, there was no time for helping out on the backfields. The demands on a manager’s time are just too great.
In his new role as Blue Jays bench coach, though, Mattingly has had the chance to get to know players well, working closely with the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – “I’ve noticed how quickly he picks things up” – and Matt Chapman – “very polished.” So far, the job suits Mattingly, who has enjoyed directing all his energy toward coaching on a team that’s been receptive to his input.
“As a manager, you’re overseeing and making sure the groups are going in the direction you wanted them to go,” he said. “Over here I wanted to be in the background, be a guy that’s here to help whoever. From Schneids to different players to just whatever they want me to do. So it’s kind of a different role from the standpoint of just being older, I think, more experienced and being around the game a lot.”
LOOKING BACK: THE CHAPMAN TRADE
It was just a year ago this month that the Blue Jays traded Zach Logue, Kevin Smith, Kirby Snead and prospect Gunnar Hoglund to the Athletics for Matt Chapman. One year in, the Blue Jays have to be thrilled about the deal, which landed them two years of an elite third baseman for a collection of prospects who now look more like depth pieces. The lesson here: as long as the A’s continue to bottom out, they’re probably a trade partner to keep calling this summer.
LOOKING FORWARD: A FRESH START
Listen to Yusei Kikuchi talk and it’s clear he has high standards for himself. Even after a dominant spring in which he led the MLB with 31 strikeouts, Kikuchi stressed that the real tests are coming in the regular season. He’s right, of course – Grapefruit League results just don’t matter anymore – but the way Kikuchi got there was encouraging to the Blue Jays’ coaching staff.
Of all the variables for the Blue Jays this season, Kikuchi’s performance is high on the list. He’s shown all-star talent before, but even a league-average ERA with five innings or so per start would be more than enough. His first test comes Tuesday and it’s a favourable matchup – in Kansas City against the Royals.