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Blue Jays looking for more in 2024 after third wild-card sweep in four years


There was no roster makeover, blockbuster trade or eye-popping free-agent signing for the Toronto Blue Jays this past off-season.

The club is essentially running it back with virtually the same core as last year and hoping the bats return to form.

"The mindset is just more excitement," said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. "Excitement for guys to get back to their norms a little bit offensively. Excitement for the pitching staff to do what they've done and find out ways to get better."

The 2023 edition of Canada's lone big-league team snagged the last American League playoff berth but was swept in the wild-card round.

Team brass did take a run at landing two-way superstar free agent Shohei Ohtani in the off-season but missed out. The Blue Jays then shifted focus to the foundation in place while hoping a few additions and some tinkering to team approach pays dividends.

The key cogs in the starting rotation were reliable last year and team defence improved significantly. However, offensive play was mediocre and proved to be the team's undoing in a brief two-game playoff run.

Some changes were made to the coaching structure with bench coach Don Mattingly adding offensive coordinator to his title and DeMarlo Hale returning to the club as an associate manager.

If the bats deliver and the pitching remains on point, the Blue Jays could contend in the American League East.

"It's just a complete club," said veteran slugger Justin Turner, who signed a one-year deal with Toronto. "I think the starting pitching, the bullpen, the defence, the potential lineup is insane.

"There aren't a lot of holes in this room. I'm excited to be a part of it."

The pitching staff — particularly the starting rotation — was durable last season. But this year's spring training was not as kind.

Among the starters, Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah experienced shoulder issues. In the bullpen, closer Jordan Romano (elbow) of Markham, Ont., and Erik Swanson (forearm) are also building up after arm woes.

Jose Berrios will get the Opening Day start Thursday at Tampa Bay. He'll be a key cog in this season's rotation with Gausman, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi.

Bowden Francis will get a turn at the start of the campaign after a strong spring. Manoah, Yariel Rodriguez, top prospect Ricky Tiedemann will also be options throughout the year.

The bullpen lost Jordan Hicks to free agency but will have Chad Green for the start of the season this time around. Rodriguez, a Cuban right-hander who previously played in Japan, signed a five-year deal and could be used in a variety of roles.

Turner should provide some pop in the middle of the order behind leadoff man George Springer and homegrown stars Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

"It's just going to be playing every game like it's almost a playoff game," Green said in a recent interview. "It's just playing every game to win, not taking days off and days for granted.

"As long as you can do that, that's what sets yourself up for success."

Third baseman Matt Chapman — a defensive whiz who was inconsistent with the bat — was lost to free agency. Infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who signed a two-year deal, will likely spend most of his time at the hot corner.

Kevin Kiermaier returned on a one-year deal to keep the outfield trio with Daulton Varsho and Springer intact. With the recent departure of Santiago Espinal via trade, Cavan Biggio and Davis Schneider should see time at second base as part of their utilityman roles.

Catcher Alejandro Kirk will have an increased workload in the early going while Danny Jansen recovers from a small bone fracture in his wrist. Brian Serven will serve as a backup behind the plate.

A Toronto team that's in win-now mode will again have a tough task getting over the hump in a solid East division.

The Baltimore Orioles have a strong young team, the big-spending New York Yankees added superstar Juan Soto, the Tampa Bay Rays are always a challenge and the Boston Red Sox can be a handful too.

The Blue Jays, who have been swept in the wild-card round in three of the last four years, last won a playoff game in 2016.

"We know where we are," Romano said. "We know there's a sense of urgency."

The Blue Jays will play their first 10 games on the road. Toronto's home opener at the renovated Rogers Centre is April 8 against the Seattle Mariners.

'The little things are going to be important," Schneider said. "You try to make adjustments every year with what you need to do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2024.

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