Talented, revamped Blue Jays have what it takes to win it all
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
DUNEDIN, Fla. — They’ve ditched the home run jacket, which became an endearing staple of their often raucous dugout celebrations. A pair of fan favourites who were routinely at the centre of the festivities have flown the coop, too, in Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Change is in the air down here in sizzling, sunny Florida. These are not your 2022 Toronto Blue Jays, a team that finished with a 92-70 record and qualified for the playoffs as a wild-card. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Blue Jays appear to mean business, in more ways than one, with a more serious, mature approach they believe will translate to greater on-field results.
That doesn’t mean the fun police have taken control and the party is over. Far from it, in fact. There’s nothing more enjoyable in sports than winning, and it says here the 2023 edition of this club has the potential to do plenty of that.
It has been exactly three decades since Joe Carter “touched ’em all” to complete back-to-back World Series championships for “Canada’s team.” This could be the year the long drought ends.
It’s a fool’s game to put much stock in spring training results, so I’ll try to proceed with caution here. Having caught their last two contests in person — an 8-3 pummelling of the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater on Sunday afternoon, and a 16-3 beatdown of the Boston Red Sox in Dunedin on Monday afternoon — I dare say this group absolutely has what it takes.
Toronto is now 11-6 in pre-season action, with a couple weeks of dress rehearsals left until the bats start swinging for real on March 30. And there’s no shortage of reasons for fans to be excited.
The offence, which was already pretty potent, has the potential to be downright lethal based on some off-season changes. As mentioned, Hernandez and Gurriel Jr. were sent packing, as management decided the club needed to get a bit less predictable — not to mention less reliant on the long ball — when it came to scoring runs. In their place are the likes of Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Belt. There’s more versatility and flexibility for manager John Schneider and his staff to work with over the grind of a 162-game schedule.
Wanna play some small ball, taking advantage of some extra speed? That’s now on the table in a much more significant way.
There’s still plenty of sizzle to go with the steak, led by Vladimir Guerrerro Jr. (who is currently nursing a minor injury and expected to resume game action later this week), George Springer, Alejandro Kirk, Matt Chapman and Bo Bichette, who put on quite the power display over the past two days.
Here’s a summary of the six Bichette at-bats I watched: First inning single on Sunday. Third inning single on Sunday. First inning solo home run on Monday. Third inning groundout on Monday. Fourth inning two-run home run on Monday. Fifth inning grounder that led to a fielding error. That’s a four-for-six performance, with him getting on base five of the six times. Not too shabby.
Armed with a new three-year, US$33.6 million contract, the 25-year-old is showing signs he’s poised for a huge season.
On the mound, there’s plenty to like about the Blue Jays. Alek Manoah was a bit erratic in his start on Monday, but he should be right there with Kevin Gausman once again as co-aces of the staff. Many pundits are predicting a bounce-back campaign from Jose Berrios.
Newcomer Chris Bassitt is looking comfortable so far. Yusei Kikuchi has been terrific at times so far this spring, including the 2.2 scoreless innings I watched him throw on Sunday.
Jordan Romano remains the star closer, while the back-end of the bullpen has been bolstered with the addition of Eric Swanson (who came over from Seattle in the Hernandez trade) joining Yimi Garcia in a late-inning set-up role. The oft-injured Nate Pearson threw absolute gas in his one quick inning of relief Monday. If he can stay healthy, that’s quite a weapon. Tim Mayza also had a dominant six-pitch inning, and there’s a handful of other solid relievers such as Adam Cimber, Zach Pop, Trevor Richards and Anthony Bass.
Last, but certainly not least, is what should be a much-improved Blue Jays defence, Kiermaier and Varsho represent major upgrades over Hernandez and Gurriel Jr. in that department. Remember: A run saved is just as important as a run scored.
The sport itself is changing, too. MLB has introduced a handful of new rules, designed to make the game more enjoyable to watch whether you’re in the ballpark or at home. They appear to be working wonderfully.
At the top of the list is the pitch clock, which was sorely needed in a sport where wasting time had become an art form. No longer can batters repeatedly step in and out of the box, taking off and putting back on their gloves. Nor can pitchers go for long walks on the mound, or repeatedly waving off the signs from their catcher until there’s no choice left but to call time and have a face-to-face chat.
Consider these spring training stats, as compiled by ESPNbaseball reporter Jeff Passan. The average length of a game in 2022 was three hours and one minute. So far this year, it’s down to two hours, 36 minutes. That 25-minute difference is no small thing, considering literally nothing would actually happen of substance in that time other than scores of bored fans either staring into their iPhones or changing the channel.
It must mean less action, right? Wrong. There have been an average of 11 runs per game scored this spring, up from 10.6 last year. There have also been more hits, more stolen bases and fewer strikeouts.
While down here in Florida to cover back-to-back Winnipeg Jets games on Saturday night in Sunrise and Sunday night in Tampa Bay, I actually squeezed in three ball games in between trips to the rinks. All three involved just one pitch clock violation, which resulted in an automatic ball being issued. (Pitchers have 15 seconds to get rid of the ball when nobody is on base, and 20 seconds if there is a runner on). In Manoah’s case on Monday, it was actually ball four, resulting in a walk.
Despite some sloppy baseball at times — it’s still spring training after all, with watered-down lineups and plenty of rust to be worked out — none of the games felt like a “chore” to this particular baseball fan who readily admits the sport had seriously taken a hit in recent years.
The St. Louis Cardinals downed the New York Mets on Friday evening in Jupiter. There were a combined 12 runs scored, along with 17 hits, and the entertaining contest was over in a crisp two hours and 32 minutes. Sunday’s game at the Phillies complex in Clearwater involved 11 combined runs and 27 hits. It dragged a little bit, mainly because 16 different pitchers appeared, but it still was done in three hours and three minutes. Monday’s one-sided tilt at Toronto’s home base in Dunedin had 19 combined runs, 21 hits and 12 different pitchers, finishing in two hours and 51 minutes.
Whether you’re a Blue Jays supporter or not, there’s plenty to look forward to in the coming weeks and months. This has the potential to be a special season.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.