AL East crown, attention to detail are Jays' focuses in 2023
ST. LOUIS — Failure, while maybe difficult to swallow at first, is always an opportunity to learn and improve.
Failure can also be a very loose definition in the sport of baseball.
The Toronto Blue Jays have posted back-to-back 90-plus-win seasons, and made the postseason two out of the last three years.
There’s a large cohort of franchises across the league that might call that success these days, and some longtime followers of the Jays during the down years might define it that way, too.
But that’s not what the Mark Shapiro regime, now heading into its eighth year, is in this for, and the expectations are set much higher than being “really good.”
World Series or bust is a bit of a cliche, but that’s where this club is at these days. There are no consolation prizes.
On the heels of their early postseason exit in front of the home fans last October, that disappointment has led to a club-wide mantra of attention to detail in 2023.
“Play good baseball,” manager John Schneider stated simply in the visitors’ dugout at Busch Stadium on Wednesday when asked what his expectations are for this season. “And that sounds really, really bland and boring, but we want to win and our goal every night is to win. I think when you take care of the stuff you need to take care of consistently, good things happen. We get that we’re looked at as a good team, which is awesome, we put ourselves in that spot, but what are you going to do to maintain that over the course of the year? No one has higher expectations than the guys in the clubhouse on themselves. They are focused and they are ready to do what it takes to win every night.”
So what has this franchise learned over the last two years?
The answer is a lot.
The front office learned it must do everything it can to balance out a righty-heavy lineup, one of the easy-to-spot flaws the 2022 club had, while also realizing there must be more of an emphasis on speed, defence and athleticism.
The roster has without a doubt been improved since last October, with every area touched in some capacity and the club spending into the luxury tax orbit for the first time ever.
“The strides that have been made internally and externally to improve from a defensive standpoint and a base-running standpoint, I feel very good about the way we’re going to be able to deploy the 26-man roster to win games,” GM Ross Atkins said on the eve of opening day. “I feel like we’re a better team than we were a year ago.”
The players have also learned that every game matters — missing the postseason by one game in 2021 will do that — and that attention to detail is everything.
It’s been evident this spring, and the focus is on keeping that thought at the forefront as they head into opening day Thursday in St. Louis against a very good Cardinals team that will provide a bit of a day one measuring stick.
“I was constantly checking in on that message continuing to resonate throughout the clubhouse, and it did,” Schneider said. “It’s easy when you have the personnel to kind of live it and lead it, and it’s a different group of guys than we’ve had in years past. We’re going to score in different ways and we’re going to prevent runs in different ways, and they’re embracing that.”
For years, winning a division pennant was usually a pretty easy goal to set for every contender across baseball, but the new playoff format further emphasizes being the best in your group of five, as it hands the top two division winners a first-round bye.
That cuts out three potential wild-card games, and also allows clubs to set up their pitching the way they truly want.
The Jays aren’t hiding the fact that the AL East crown, which would be their first since 2015, is the goal.
“I expect us on the daily to be prepared to play every day, to not give anything away, and make it really hard to beat us,” said Matt Chapman, who has taken on much more of a leadership role in his second season as a Blue Jay. “You don’t want to look too far ahead, but obviously you want to win your division. That’s our goal.”
That makes Schneider’s message a lot easier.
“I think that should be every team’s goal to start the season, for sure,” Schneider said. “The postseason is crazy as we saw last year, a lot of stuff has to go right. It’s very tricky once you do get in. I think first step is you want to get in and if you can control your own fate and win the division, that’s even better and you can line things up the way you want to line them up. These guys talk about it. It’s not me or Pete (Walker) or Ross saying, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta win the AL East.’ It’s not that. It’s these guys expect to do that so it makes it way easier for us (as a coaching staff).”
The best way to describe the changes in the clubhouse vibe is it feels more blue collar in a way.
More lunchpail types.
Chapman, Daulton Varsho and noted veteran leaders Brandon Belt, Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Bassitt all quietly go about their work and don’t spend much time fraternizing.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. relayed a story Wednesday, saying every single member of the 26-man roster was on the first bus to the stadium for workout day, a big change from years past.
No one is saying this clubhouse chemistry is better at this point, it’s just different.
When you combine last year’s bitter finish galvanizing the group of holdovers with the imported veteran leadership, it’s a group that feels ready to take the next step.
“It feels like we’ve got a lot of guys pulling from the same end of the rope here and it’s just exciting,” Chapman said.
“Last year, I think we had the right idea, but this year we have a better understanding of how to achieve it.”
There’s very little doubt this club is a legitimate playoff team.
A World Series contender, though?
We’ve got 162 games teed up to find out.