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Olney: Jays' off-season was a 'disappointment,' but there is hope

Justin Turner Toronto Blue Jays Justin Turner - The Canadian Press

The Toronto Blue Jays' off-season opened with excitement, as rumours swirled about two of the sport's biggest names in Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto potentially joining Canada's team.

With Spring Training officially underway, it has ended quietly - the biggest acquisitions being Yariel Rodriguez, a Cuban pitcher with no major-league experience, and a 39-year-old veteran third baseman in Justin Turner.

"I don't think there's any way to look at their off-season as anything other than a disappointment," said ESPN's Buster Olney, speaking on First Up on TSN1050 on Tuesday.

"Last season ended, and there were questions about the offence and why it went downhill," he said. "Taking a run at Ohtani, looking at other options in the free agent market, [they landed on] basically the same group of guys."

The Blue Jays' offence ranked eighth across MLB in batting average (.256) for the entire season, and 11th in on-base plus slugging (.746), but those numbers trailed off in the second half of the year, bottoming out in their wild-card series loss to the Minnesota Twins, where they scored only one run in two games.

Toronto Blue Jays team average and OPS ranks, by month

Period Batting average MLB rank OPS MLB rank
2023 season  .256  .746  11 
April  .249  14  .730  14 
May  .274  .764  11 
June  .251  15  .725  16 
July  .259  .768  10 
August  .248  13  .727  12 
September  .241  19  .739  16 

Their rank in those major hitting categories fell every month after the All-Star break in July, due to a variety of factors. 

Bo Bichette, most notably, struggled with injuries in the second half of the campaign, but many lineup mainstays had stark drops in performance.

Struggles after the All-Star break for Blue Jays hitters

Player First-half ABs Second-half ABs First-half Average Second-half Average First-half OPS Second-half OPS
Whit Merrifield  301  246  .286  .256  .734  .656 
Matt Chapman  324  185  .259  .205  .807  .663 
George Springer  346  267  .269  .243  .752  .707 
Bo Bichette  385  186  .317  .285  .842  .757 

General manager Ross Atkins is confident that the current roster, comprised mainly of returning players, can produce better this year than last.

“We feel like last year was just a blip in terms of run-scoring,” said Atkins in January.

Olney isn't so confident in the lineup, though. "I think there's a reasonable expectation (that they see improvement from multiple players), but do I think they're going to have a marked improvement over the offence last year? I don't," he said. 

"I do think it's a very good sign when you see the images of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in camp following up on his off-season work and in shape," said Olney. "It feels like he went into the off-season with a mission like 'last year was disappointing and I have to step up.'"

The Blue Jays are banking on a return to form for the 24-year-old Guerrero Jr. He finished second in AL MVP voting in 2021, when he hit a league-leading 48 home runs with a .311/.401/.601 slash line - all career-highs by a wide margin. 

However, the slugger's production has fallen significantly in each of the past two seasons.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s yearly production

Season Batting average Runs Home runs RBI OPS
2021  .311  123  48  111  1.002 
2022  .274  90  32  97  .818 
2023  .264  78  26  94  .788 

"I do think there's a reasonable expectation that the offence is going to be better," Olney said. 

"Here's the good thing: they do, on paper, look like they have arguably the best pitching in the American League so we'll see how far that can carry them."