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Three ways the Jays cruise to the postseason (and three ways they miss)

Toronto Blue Jays Vladimir Guerrero Jr. - The Canadian Press

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The difference between a postseason appearance and falling a few games short can be a very fine line.

Injuries usually play a huge role, while breakouts and poor performances can swing things in either direction in a hurry.

Assigned a 47.3 per cent chance of making the postseason this year by FanGraphs, it truly feels like a season that could go any number of ways for the Toronto Blue Jays.

With some bounce-back bats and more great pitching, winning 95 games is on the bingo card.

If they’re hit by the injury bug and carry another middling offence, missing the postseason altogether is on the card, too.

Here are three things that need to happen to win 95 and cruise to the playoffs, and three scenarios that could send them home when game 162 is over.


Three ways they win 95 games


1. Vladdy returns to being an MVP candidate

The numbers make this an easy one to understand.

In 2021, when Guerrero bashed 48 homers and finished second to Shohei Ohtani in MVP voting, he was worth 6.3 fWAR.

Last year, when he hit just 26 and seemed to be searching for things all season long, he was worth just 1.0 fWAR.

That five-plus win gap is massive and changes things in a lot of analytical ways.

In a day-to-day way, Vladdy being the type of impact bat that everyone fears again would help everyone in the lineup around him and they’d produce more offensively because of it.

It’s really the one clear and easy way to see this group getting back to being an elite offence — by having a truly elite bat sitting there in the middle of the lineup on a daily basis.

With a winter to recover from nagging knee and wrist issues that he dealt with last season, it’s easy to envision a much better Vladdy in 2024.

How much better exactly might be the standings difference-maker in the end.


2. One bat has big breakout season

If the vets and stars do their thing around them, there are three clear-cut breakout candidates to point at on this team, and they were also a big part of the reason the Jays didn’t score enough last year.

With Matt Chapman gone, there’s a lot riding on Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen and Daulton Varsho to provide that complementary offence and lengthen the lineup.

Kirk has done it before, hitting cleanup for a good portion of 2022 as he danced to an All-Star Game appearance, a 129 wRC+ and 3.9 fWAR.

In 2023, those numbers fell to 96 and 1.6.

Jansen simply needs to stay healthy.

You probably didn’t know that he’s hit the 10th-most home runs amongst big-league catchers since the 2021 season started, but the important part here is he’s done it in just 754 plate appearances.

The nine names ahead of him all have more than 1,100 trips to the plate during that timeframe, and a lot of them are in the 1,500-1,600 range.

There’s been a surprise Jonah Heim-type breakout loading here for a while if he can stay on the field.

Varsho is the hot-button topic in this group, if only because Gabriel Moreno is probably going to get some headlines this year as the everyday catcher in Arizona now.

His first season in Toronto produced an ugly .674 OPS for a player who was brought in to provide lefty pop, in addition to elite outfield defence.

If one or more of these players has a major breakout with the bat, it completely changes the dynamic of the lineup behind Vladdy and Bo.


3. The rotation replicates 2023

This is the most obvious and boring one in this column, but starting pitching is the most important element for any contender.

Teams can get past bullpen issues with midseason tweaks or maybe a prospect or two helping out, but if your starting pitching falls apart is going to be a postseason-less year for just about any team.

Ask the New York Mets and New York Yankees last year. Their rotations fell apart and their playoff hopes went right along with them.

Health is the most important aspect, but Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios and even Yusei Kikuchi were so consistent last year that it almost flew under the radar because quality starts became the norm.

This year’s rotation group may not need to finish third in baseball in ERA again, but unless you expect the offence to get back to 2021 ways when they averaged 5.2 runs per game, mostly in minor-league parks, then the Gausman-led five-some needs to be at least top 12.

Last year, seven of the 12 teams that made the postseason were top 12 in the league in rotation ERA.


Three ways they miss the playoffs


1. Two of Gausman, Bichette or Romano get hurt early

These are the three most indispensable players on the roster right now.

They might be able to overcome losing one of these key players, but losing two for a long stretch of time would be really tough.

Gausman would leave a huge hole in the rotation and his every-fifth-day dominance would be gone, leaving a whole lot on the shoulders of maybe Alek Manoah and the minor-league depth.

Losing multiple starting pitchers would also not be good, and after fully healthy seasons for four of them in 2023, it’s probably smart to expect at least one IL stint or two that they’ll have to backfill with a name like Ricky Tiedemann, if he’s deemed ready, Yariel Rodriguez, if he’s still stretched out, or Bowden Francis.

Tiedemann and Francis are slated to start the first two Grapefruit League games for the Jays this weekend.

I probably don’t need to outline how a Bichette injury could change things, especially offensively for a team that needs to score more runs this year.

Romano is the backbone of what’s expected to be a very good bullpen, but losing the closer for a significant amount of time would shift every single role.

Even though there’s lots of quality depth with Erik Swanson, Tim Mayza and Chad Green, Romano is the glue that holds everything into place.


2. The older bats are already cooked

Here’s the one that’s probably really scary for the Jays as an organization, and not just for 2024.

Two key players head into their age-34 seasons in George Springer and Kevin Kiermaier, while the club’s most important offensive addition Justin Turner is 39.

We’ll start with Turner because the equation is pretty simple.

At his age, you just never know when the cliff is going to come.

Turner was productive last year for the Boston Red Sox, but his 114 wRC+ was also the lowest he’s posted since 2013 with the New York Mets.

Enter shrug emoji here.

He could continue to rake, or Father Time could unexpectedly catch up.

It happens to players across the league every year.

Kiermaier’s injury issues have been well-documented, and even though he was able to stay mostly healthy last year and play 129 games, the more concerning part may be the fact that after a multi-hit game on May 26 where his numbers peaked, he slashed just .232/.295/.362 with an 82 wRC+ the rest of the way.

That looks much different than his full year mark of 104.

Both of those players are on one-year deals, but the important name in this trio is for sure Springer.

With three more years to go on his mega-deal, it’s slightly concerning to see a career-worst 104 wRC+ last season, and that’s despite playing 154 games.

The back of the baseball card doesn’t look too bad with a 21-homer, 20-steal campaign, but the drop in power was the concern, as Springer slugged just .405 and his .147 isolated power was by far the lowest of his career.

When GM Ross Atkins talks about internal improvement offensively, Springer is definitely a player they’re banking on getting back to career norms.


3. The pitching staff regresses as a whole

After a few years of struggling to piece together a postseason calibre pitching staff, the Jays have really figured it out the last couple of years, hitting on signings like Chris Bassitt, Yimi Garcia, and of course Gausman, while also quietly trading for an elite bullpen arm in Swanson.

Even Kikuchi had a career year, limiting the walks and suddenly keeping the ball in the ballpark.

A lot went right for the Jays pitching staff in 2023, health included for almost all of them, a rare occurrence in this sport.

Overall, they had a 3.79 ERA as a staff, fourth best in baseball.

The rotation was even better, sitting third in baseball, while the bullpen was eighth overall.

Consistent, quality pitching kept them afloat when the bats went quiet.

A bit of regression towards the middle of the pack could mean the difference between 89 wins and a postseason spot like last year and being a couple games short.