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Quiet winter aside, Jays still seen as serious threat with current roster


TORONTO — An off-season that started with a whole lot of excitement and drama and airplanes and big-game hunting is likely to end in exact opposite fashion — very quietly.

By design or by accident is a very fair question at this point, but despite a quiet winter on the roster building side, the Toronto Blue Jays are still a very good baseball team.

Across baseball, rival clubs and analytics-leaning front offices have the Jays projected as a top-five team and view them as a serious threat.

That’s a much better barometer of reality than social media takes and the disappointment that was initially fuelled by expectations, which were set by Mark Shapiro and the front office group back in October.

Fans expected more splashy acquisitions and rightfully so, given the competitive window talk and the failures of the past two postseasons.

But this free-agent market never aligned with the Jays’ team needs, and it was always a murky picture of exactly how GM Ross Atkins would go about improving an offence that fell short of expectations in 2023 in just about every way imaginable when it mattered most.

It was apparent at the start of the winter that without major core-swapping trades or something unforeseen, internal positive regression was always going to be a huge factor in how this team improved offensively in order to navigate its way through the toughest division in baseball.

The number of down years from key Jays hitters last year is still quite stunning.

No one could have predicted Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Alejandro Kirk, George Springer and Daulton Varsho all failing to meet expectations at the exact same time.

That foursome alone went from 15.8 fWAR in 2022 to 6.9 last year. Their home run output dropped from 98 to 75.

In terms of true talent level and expectations moving forward, that group of bats is much closer to the former than the latter, even with projections taking a hit due to the lack of offensive numbers last year.

There’s positive regression coming, and even factoring in negative regression from a very healthy pitching staff last season that finished fourth in baseball with a 3.73 ERA, the Jays land right back in the same 89-win range as last year.

This is where the consternation and worry that dots social media these days enters the conversation.

Are the Jays done?

Is there money left to spend?

That’s an answer with a number of variables.

Already into the Competitive Balance Tax for a second straight year after hitting that threshold for the first time ever as a franchise in 2023, the Jays are not flush with cash left to spend.

After handing veteran Justin Turner $13 million on Tuesday to be the primary DH, the heavy lifting is likely done, with maybe a few depth adds coming down the pipe in the next couple of weeks as they tend to the fringes of the roster.

No one is going to be happy with that, but it will all be forgotten like every “successful off-season” is once you get into May and everything changes.

That’s just how baseball works.

It’s the most predictable unpredictable sport going, where opinions and perceptions change almost in the blink of an eye, especially in a social media world.

The Jays are in bargain-hunting mode right now, which allows room for a different answer to the “Are they done?” question.

With the amount of talent still on the market — Cody Bellinger and old friend Matt Chapman are the main game-changers left — there’s a chance the Jays could get involved in the late stages if Scott Boras’ demands aren’t being met. To this point, they haven’t been met.

It won’t be the Jays hitting those contract expectations, either, but there could be flexibility, according to those in the know, if in two weeks there’s still an obvious upgrade looking for a home.

Another wrinkle is rarely does a front office head into opening day with a fully complete team that won’t need to undergo some sort of change to get where they want to go.

Three years ago at this time, the rotation was in tatters but the offence was good enough to get them by.

A few months later, Alek Manoah had emerged, and the Jose Berrios trade was engineered.

Poof. Problem solved.

Right now, the pitching may have to keep the offence afloat in the same fashion it did last summer, and one look around the division places just about every team in the same situation.

The Boston Red Sox have retooled a bit and spent some cash on Lucas Giolito, but they’re no juggernaut, closer to rebuilding than contending it seems.

The New York Yankees have done the most, trading for a superstar in Juan Soto and adding a couple of potentially very valuable pieces in Alex Verdugo and Marcus Stroman, but like the Jays they’re also counting on a ton of internal improvement from the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Carlos Rodon and Nestor Cortes.

The Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays are the AL East favourites, but neither team has added much of significance this winter and you can argue they’ve both had more subtraction than addition with various non-baseball and injury-related losses over the last year.

Has the Jays’ off-season gone as planned? Absolutely not.

They struck out on the big game, tried but failed to engineer large-scale trades, and seemingly didn’t address the element missing most — power.

Turner, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and a return engagement with Kevin Kiermaier is an uninspiring haul given the October talk, but nobody needs to be inspired in February.

A right-handed hitting outfielder is still a need, but as of today Davis Schneider is slated to act as that left field platoon bat against left-handed pitching, pushing either Kiermaier or Varsho to the bench.

How the infield shakes out will be interesting to watch, and pressure will be on Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal to have good camps, but there’s a group at Triple-A in Orelvis Martinez, Addison Barger, Leo Jimenez and Damiano Palmegiani that seems to be on the verge of contributing.

There’s also that Ricky Tiedemann kid entering the equation sometime soon, and the yet-to-be announced signing of Yariel Rodriguez, an electric arm with a whole lot of upside in a couple of different roles.

This reads like a column defending the Jays front office and most will take it that way.

It’s not. 

Things absolutely could have gone much differently this winter.

It’s just that perspective is needed and it’s impossible to do that 280 characters at a time in an environment where the most accurate take is rarely the most popular one.

If the Jays crater and are a sub-.500 team in May, you absolutely have permission to remind me that the off-season was a failure.

Given the talent on the roster, that’s simply unlikely to be the case.

It’s just easy to forget that when a meaningful pitch hasn’t been thrown in four months.