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Rotation is Jays' backbone, but can they be even better in 2024?

Alek Manoah Chris Bassitt Toronto Blue Jays Alek Manoah Chris Bassitt - The Canadian Press

CLEARWATER, Fla. — If the Toronto Blue Jays are going to meet expectations this season, it’ll likely have to be the rotation leading the way once again.

The backbone of the club from start to finish in 2023, Chris Bassitt believes it’s a group that’s just scratching the surface of its potential and is only going to get better.

“We’re not just trying to have another year like last year — we’re trying to be a lot better than last year,” Bassitt said as pitchers and catchers went through their work at the club’s player development complex in Dunedin, Fla., ahead of main camp starting officially on Tuesday. “With that in mind, I think we all came into camp ready to do that physically and mentally.”

“Obviously, a lot of people made a big deal about how good our rotation was last year, but I think we’re a lot better this year. The confidence of Jose Berrios to start the year. Last year, there were a lot of talks about how good are Berrios and [Yusei] Kikuchi? Now, we know they’re really good and now their confidence coming into camp is sky high and [Alek] Manoah is hopefully back to what he can be. Now, it’s just stay healthy.”

That’s the key for any rotation and something the Jays were able to successfully do better than any team in the league last year, with Gausman, Berrios, Bassitt and Kikuchi all avoiding IL time last summer.

That’s a rare occurrence and probably something the Jays can’t bank on happening again, placing an importance on the depth pieces.

Amazingly, one year after being the opening day starter and the de facto ace, Manoah is a depth piece, but one with the upside to be a whole lot more than that.

Past Manoah, who’s pencilled in as the No. 5 starter and would need to implode this spring not to break camp with that job, it’s a group headlined by Cuban righty Yariel Rodriguez, Mitch White and Bowden Francis, who all could be shifted to the bullpen if everyone is healthy come March 28.

Rodriguez is going to be stretched out as a starter to begin the year and may end up in Triple-A, but with $100,000 bonuses built into his contract this season for 60, 70, 80 and 90 innings, it’s very clear that his biggest impact may be as a high-octane bullpen arm in the second half of the season.

Then there’s Ricky Tiedemann, who came into camp at a rock solid 240 pounds after a healthy off-season, and the young lefty seems to be trending towards a June-ish arrival in the big leagues if all goes according to plan with his Triple-A development in the first half of the season.

Last year’s rotation posted a 3.85 ERA, third-best in baseball, behind only the San Diego Padres (3.69) and Minnesota Twins (3.82) and the diversity of the group is an interesting mix.

Gausman is the perennial Cy Young contender, capable of double-digit K dominance every fifth day.

Behind the ace, Berrios and Bassitt are the innings eaters, while Kikuchi and Manoah represent intriguing upside in certain ways.

Bassitt is truly overlooked and undervalued.

After hitting the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career, he feels ready to shoulder another heavy workload in his age-35 season.

“I think the 200 inning thing is a big deal for me because my only goal is to win a World Series and for us to have the best chance to win a World Series, I feel like my job is to eat innings,” Bassitt said. “I’m an innings eater. The bullpen takes the day off.

“If I come out and throw 140 innings, I don’t think that’s too good for the Blue Jays. I try to eat as many innings and it’s not so much that I’m trying to throw 200 innings on my arm, I don’t really care about that, it’s more so that I’m trying to take 50 innings away from the bullpen and I know how much that adds up. The fresher our bullpen can be, that gives us the best chance to win a World Series.”

The importance of Bassitt’s season flew under the radar a bit last year, but if the Jays get the top four in their rotation replicating their 2023 seasons, they’ll likely be in a very good spot come September.

“I think I might tweak some stuff in camp just to make sure I start off strong, and then I’m obviously expecting another really big workload,” Bassitt said.

“I don’t think there’s any concern about it at all. I feel really good and I felt really good last year, so now I think the biggest thing for all of us is just get through spring healthy and we’re trying to be as smart as we possibly can about that.”