The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Toronto Blue Jays poised to be threat in tough AL East

Tampa Bay, Boston and New York have been dominating the AL East for quite a while. In 2021 the Toronto Blue Jays had their best record since 2015 with 91 wins. Yet they still finished in fourth place and didn’t qualify for a post-season spot. With key roster additions over the offseason to compensate for two major losses, they are poised again to challenge for the top spot in the AL East.

Every team had to deal with the continuing effects of the pandemic in 2021, but none of them had to play in an alternate home stadium. Since the city Toronto was off-limits for the first half of the season due to it COVID mandates, the Blue Jays started out the regular season at their Dunedin, Florida spring training site. On June 1, the team began playing at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York. They finally got back to their true home field at Rogers Centre in Toronto on July 30.

At that point, the Blue Jays were three games above .500, in fourth place, 9 ½ games behind the division-leading Rays. By season’s end, they had improved to 20 games above .500. Perhaps playing in their normal home stadium contributed to that. Yet they were unable to make up any ground on the Rays, who had a lights-out season.

Last season, the Blue Jays had both the best pitcher and hitter in the American League in pitcher Robbie Ray and first-baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr. Ray was the Cy Young Award winner. Guerrero Jr. finished second in the MVP voting, based on leading the league in runs, home runs, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and total bases.

The loss of Ray to free agency during the offseason was a big blow to the starting rotation, but they have offset his departure by obtaining Kevin Gausman, who had the best year of his career with the Giants last year (14-6, 2.81 ERA, 1.042 WHIP and 145 ERA+). They also acquired free-agent starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who figures to slot into the rotation.

Besides Ray, the Blue Jays’ 2021 rotation included Hyun Jin Ryu who won 14 games last year. Jose Berrios was acquired at the trade deadline last year from the Twins and the Blue Jays extended his contract for seven years after the 2021 season. Berrios finished ninth in the Cy Young Award voting. Alek Manoah went 9-2 as a rookie.

Even without Ray the Blues Jays head into the new season with one of the best starting rotations in the American League.

In the bullpen, Jordan Romano mans the closer role. In his first full season in 2021, he recorded 23 saves and seven wins, while posting a 2.14 ERA. The Blue Jays have the advantage of Ross Stripling and Nate Pearson in middle relief. Both have been starters before, so they can provide a lot of innings out of the bullpen and can also be used as spot starters when needed. Adam Cimber, who came over from Miami during last season, demonstrated good control, issuing only 16 walks in 72 2/3 innings between the two teams. Veteran reliever Yimi Garcia was added in the offseason from Houston.

Offensively, the Blues Jays were among the top three teams in the American League by leading in home runs, slugging percentage, and on-base-plus slugging percentage, while finishing second in batting average and third in on-base percentage.

But one of their key contributors, second baseman Marcus Semien, was lost to free agency after he recorded the best season of his career. He was as an all-star, Gold Glove Award winner, and Silver Slugger Award winner, finishing third in the MVP voting. The Texas Rangers grabbed Semien during the offseason.

Toronto was proactive after the lockout in trading prospects to the Oakland A’s for Matt Chapman, likely the best defensive third baseman in the league. He’ll also partially offset Semien’s loss offensively, as he averages 31 home runs per 162-games during his five-year career.

Shortstop Bo Bichette played his first full season with the Blue Jays and fulfilled the expectations set for him when the Blue Jays made him their second-round selection in the 2016 MLB Draft. The all-star led the league in hits (191), while also hitting 29 bombs and 102 RBIs. Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal will compete for playing time at second-base. In any case, Biggio provides flexibility in the lineup with his ability to play multiple infield positions as well as outfield.

George Springer missed most of the first half of last season due to injury, but when he came back, he didn’t miss a beat with 22 home runs and 50 RBIs. He’s joined in the outfield by Teoscar Hernandez, who had a breakout season with 32 home runs, 116 RBIs ands a .298 batting average. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (21 homers, 84 RBIs) will fill the other starting outfield spot. Raimel Tapia was acquired for Randal Grichuk in a trade last week, adding a much-needed lefty bat and speed off the bench, but the Jays give up Grichuk’s power.

If there is a weakness in the everyday offense lineup, it would be the catcher position. Danny Jansen looks to split time with Alejandro Kirk, who has more pop in his bat.

Charlie Montoyo starts his third season as manager of the Blue Jays. He has steadily improved during his short tenure. With the amount of talent on the team, expectations will be higher in 2022. His job doesn’t get any easier though, since he matches up in his division against some of the top managers in the league in Kevin Cash, Alex Cora, and Aaron Boone. The Jays were 28-29 against them last season. If he can improve that, the Jays will have a better chance of getting into a playoff scenario.

The Blue Jays have an exciting team. They’re young and they bash the ball with the best of teams, two factors that make them one of the most popular teams in all of baseball.

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