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Pressure is on as Blue Jays attempt to take the next step

Toronto Blue Jays John Schneider Ross Atkins Daulton Varsho John Schneider Ross Atkins Daulton Varsho - The Canadian Press

TAMPA, Fla. — Pressure isn’t just something you put in your tires, it’s a very real aspect and potential roadblock that a baseball team with high expectations has to navigate.

The Toronto Blue Jays have felt it for a couple of years now, and bowing out in the Wild-Card round for a second straight October is the first time this organization has failed to make progress of any sort from one season to the next over the last half decade.

The postseason appearances are nice and all, but progress is needed for this club in 2024.

The first day of pitchers and catchers in sunny Florida is always a time for optimism.

But manager John Schneider is a realist and he had no problem admitting there’s pressure on all of them as camp gets underway.

“I think everyone (feels pressure) because you want to do better than you did last year … it’s a unique opportunity,” said Schneider, who’s heading into his second full season at the helm. “We’re not young anymore. Our young core isn’t young. Bo Bichette said it. It’s time to win. And with that comes pressure, yeah, sure, but you want to be in those situations. You definitely feel it. You want to do better for the fan base, for the guys in the clubhouse, and the guys feel it, too. Being really good comes with pressure, but I think it’s more excitement.”

Two years ago at this time, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. viewed 2021 as the trailer and the last couple of years were supposed to be the movie.

It’s mostly the same cast of characters, too, with the front office deciding to bank on internal improvement over wholesale roster changes, but they desperately need to find a way to rewrite the ending in October.

The front office truly believes last year’s run scoring failures were an anomaly, and the feeling is that this group is ready to get back to being a top-10 offence.

Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli sort of agrees.

“They have a deep lineup,” Baldelli commented Thursday. “They have a very good lineup and one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. That’s a good formula. That’s a really good formula.”

Maybe the continuity helps.

“It’s always different every year, but having a very similar group is actually a good thing because we’ve all kind of been through those things together,” Schneider said. “The mindset is just excitement. Excitement for guys to get back to their norms a little bit offensively. Excitement for the pitching staff to continue to do what they’ve done and find out ways to get better.

“I get the narrative of the last couple years has been disappointing finishes, quick exits in the playoffs, not making it in 2021, that part of it, yeah, sure that catches up to guys a little bit and guys talk about it, but we’re focused on the guys that we have returning and that we’ve added and just getting better. We feel really strongly if they do we’re going to be a lot better than last year.”

Bichette saying over winter that the time to win is now set the tone.

Schneider was smiling from ear to ear when his sixth-year shortstop didn’t mince words.

“I love it,” the manager said. “When players like that who are leaders on your team and are obviously really talented, it holds a lot of weight.”

The group that takes the field next week for the club’s first full team workout on Tuesday is likely to be the one that heads into the regular season March 28.

Even though there are still some attractive free agents available that would absolutely make the Blue Jays a deeper and more talented team, there isn’t a whole lot of financial wiggle room left it seems.

That will likely change to a degree at the trade deadline and that time of year is when reinforcements could arrive if the current group meets expectations through the month of July.

“At this point, additions of significance would mean some level of subtraction,” GM Ross Atkins said on Thursday at a Spring Training media day at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. “We feel good about the team that we have and feel good about the work that’s been done over the last five offseasons and the last four trade deadlines. We hope coming into another trade deadline that we’re in position to add to that team. I know that we will.”

Nothing but a deep October run will satisfy Atkins, or anyone else for that matter, and getting past the Wild-Card round is step No. 1.

“Last year, as frustrating as it was for us to be out of the playoffs so quickly, it quickly went back to excitement of this core and they’re capable of contending again, for sure, and a strong push into the World Series is certainly our hope.”

Hope is plentiful in February, but the long, winding road to get to back October — and all the unknowns that come with the 162-game grind — has only just begun.