TORONTO — What a time to make predictions.
As one of the most unpredictable years we’ve ever been through gives way to 2021, normalcy is what we crave.
For the Toronto Blue Jays, they hope their new normal is the postseason dance they returned to for the first time in four years this past October as a young, exciting roster now attempts to turn the corner from “nice surprise” to “legitimate contender.”
That’s not easy, but the Blue Jays are in a good spot if they can continue to augment that core in the coming weeks.
Which brings us back to that aforementioned unpredictability and an extremely slow start to the MLB off-season, a process that’s just getting started this new year, rather than starting to wrap up.
With uncertainty the way of the world, there’s really no better time to try to predict exactly how 2021 will go for the Jays.
What could possibly go wrong with 21 predictions in the dead of winter in the middle of a pandemic?
Some of these are bold, some are safe, but the important thing to remember is they’ll all be correct.
Welcome to 2021.
1. Ross Atkins will sign a free agent
I’m just here making sure I’ll be batting 1.000 after the first prediction, and if I’m not, well, something went seriously sideways.
It’s been slow. I know.
There’s a growing frustrating amongst Blue Jays fans after listening to two months of being “in on” every top free agent on the market, only to see little action.
The truth is, they are, but the problem is none of Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer or DJ LeMahieu — the consensus top four free agents available and a diverse group of positional options — have come close to an agreement through the first two months of free agency.
That will change soon and even if it’s not one of them choosing Toronto, it will have big time ramifications when it comes to how things unfold for Atkins & Co. from there.
2. An impact trade will follow, but it will not be for a shortstop
The Francisco Lindor rumours have taken a backseat to all the aces on the move, but make no mistake, the flashy 27-year-old is still very much available and the timing of last year’s Mookie Betts trade, which officially went down Feb. 11, could be the window once again.
Lindor makes sense for virtually every team in baseball that isn’t employing one of the maybe two or three shortstops you’d take over the charismatic switch-hitter.
The front office relationship from their time together in Cleveland — “We think the world of Frankie,” Atkins mentioned in a recent interview — and the fit both at shortstop and atop the lineup make it easy to imagine.
It’s also an extremely tricky one to get done once you factor in the players and prospects heading the other way, the giant $300-plus million contract ownership would have to be comfortable with, and the somewhat sensitive situation of shifting Bo Bichette to second base.
With that said, the trade market is active this winter and the Jays have needs all across the roster.
They’ll trade for a starting pitcher. Joe Musgrove, anyone?
3. The 2021 MLB season will not start as scheduled
I’ll be happy if I strike out on this one, but things aren’t looking good.
Look around at the professional sports landscape, 2021 isn’t going to be normal.
Expecting Major League Baseball to get into camps as usual in mid-February, play games for six weeks in Florida and Arizona, and then head right into their scheduled April 1 opening day in front of no fans without a hiccup or two is unrealistic.
But even with that being said, this is going to be about money once again. If MLB owners don’t think fans are going to be in the stands in April, they’ll want to start in May. If it’s two months with no fans, they’ll want to start in June.
Similar to the negotiations last May and June, things might get messy and this time there’s an expiring CBA ominously hovering in the background at the end of the year.
I’ll give you an exact guess here: a 125-game season in 2021.
4. The Jays will play 69 home games in Toronto this season
No peek behind the curtain here or any deep insight.
Only the virus knows when — hopefully not if — this will come to fruition, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel and Jays’ brass is holding out hope they’ll not only be playing in Toronto to start the season, but they’ll have fans back in the stands later in the summer, too.
The current iteration of the 2021 MLB schedule has the Jays playing 10 home games in April, finishing off a three-game set with the Atlanta Braves on the first weekend of May to make it a dozen Rogers Centre days through May 2.
Let’s say the season starts on time.
The prediction here is the Jays will spend the first six weeks displaced due to virus concerns once again, followed by a triumphant return to Toronto on May 14 to kick off a 10-game homestand against the Philadelphia Phillies.
5. The other 12 home dates will take place in Dunedin
Despite a successful stint in upstate New York, there’s little chance the Jays return to Sahlen Field in Buffalo this year.
Instead, what originally would have been the contingency plan last July had Florida been able to control COVID-19, is back in the picture and their Dunedin spring training complex makes too much sense to deviate from unless they feel they absolutely have to be in a big-league ballpark.
From the now-completed, multi-million dollar renos to the development complex to the convenience of it all, if the Jays can’t play in Toronto to start the campaign, it makes little sense to leave Dunedin when spring training ends.
Setting up shop at TD Ballpark for the first five weeks or so, the Jays will pack up and migrate north when the Canadian federal government signs off in May.
6. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hits 28 homers, plays four games at 3B
The hype surrounding Vladdy Jr.’s entrance into Major League Baseball has left people wanting more.
But despite all of the attention given to his conditioning and defence, it’s the muted results at the plate that have left many wondering if that franchise player ceiling that we all thought was so certain two years ago is still there.
It’s an important year for the soon-to-be 22-year-old in many regards.
The third base experiment isn’t going to work, and he’ll split the majority of his time between first base and DH — it’s emergency duty only for Vladdy with four games at the hot corner — but the bat is going to come around.
He may not put up a Ronald Acuna-type season, but a .293/.360/.499 slash line with 28 homers will ease some of the concerns and set Vladdy up for a big 2022.
7. Nate Pearson needs more time
As Pearson was racing through the minors with a dominant fastball-slider combination, he was rarely tested.
That’s a testament to the arsenal and how quickly he developed, but there was adversity for Pearson to persevere through in 2020.
After some initial up-and-down struggles, a flexor strain in his elbow alarmingly landed Pearson on IL in August, a concerning moment for the club.
Pearson was able to rehab through that to make it back for one scintillating postseason appearance that saw him punch out five Tampa Bay Rays over two hitless innings, but there are serious questions about how much the 24-year-old can be counted on in 2021.
After eclipsing 100 innings in the minors just once, there were already workload questions last year. Those ramp up even more coming off 20 measly innings in 2020.
There’s no questioning the stuff — it’s absolutely filthy.
But you can easily wonder whether Pearson would be better off polishing up at Triple-A for a couple months in April and May while the front office fills the rotation in other ways this off-season.
Pearson could have a big impact in the second half, but temper expectations early and it may be a severely limited 2021 in terms of bullets for the big righty because the long-term future is the priority.
8. Rafael Dolis leads the team in saves with 16
We’ve gone over this before: The Jays are going to be creative with their reliever usage, a la the Tampa Bay Rays.
That’s a good thing.
The archaic days of saving your best reliever for the ninth inning are mostly over, even if it’s a strategy that still plays fine over the course of a long season.
Jordan Romano is trending towards being manager Charlie Montoyo’s best reliever if he can build on the huge steps he took last year, so he’ll be called upon regularly in high-leverage spots before the save statistic ever comes into play.
Other names will be added to this mix soon, but that will leave the majority of the save spots for Dolis, who saved five games in his first season as a Blue Jay.
Even though he makes molasses look quick when he’s working, Dolis’ sinker-splitter-slider arsenal gets whiffs and limits hard contact, with his hard-hit rate and exit velocity both sitting in the 90th percentile.
Dolis will lead the Jays with 16 saves in 2021, one of six different arms to close out a game for Montoyo.
9. Alejandro Kirk will not be traded
Teams have asked, and to this point the Jays have said no. Teams are going to ask again, too.
Last winter, Cleveland wanted him for Corey Kluber, before the Pittsburgh Pirates tried to pry him away last summer.
With the position an offensive black hole to start last season, the Jays gave Kirk a cameo and he responded with a .375/.400/.583 slash line across 25 plate appearances.
Displaying a solid approach at the plate and an uncanny ability to get the barrel on the baseball, Kirk looks like one of the rare catchers that could produce at an above-average level with the bat.
The glove and ability to control a running game can be questioned, but the bat could be special, and he may be the best right-handed hitting DH option on the team.
One of the five young catchers on the 40-man roster — Kirk, Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Riley Adams and Gabriel Moreno — will be traded this year, it just won’t be Kirk.
10. Teoscar Hernandez is mostly for real
If there was a Blue Jays breakout that mattered last year, it was probably Hernandez.
The club needed to sort out its outfield picture last year, and Hernandez, along with Gurriel Jr. in the other corner, helped provide some clarity with 16 homers in 50 games, elevating him from “interesting option with power” to “potential long-term piece.”
But the small-sample-size nature of a 60-game season creates uncertainty still and Hernandez will have to prove early on that it wasn’t just a two-month hot streak.
There’s evidence of a legitimate breakout, but the strikeout rate (30.4 per cent) can quickly become a concern if the plate approach strides he’s made don’t stick.
He won’t hit .289 again, but 33 homers and an .850 OPS is a very productive middle-of-the-order bat.
11. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in line for age-27 breakout
The question is, what uniform will that be in?
Thanks to his cheap contract, age and untapped upside, LGJ’s name has come up in trade talks a couple of times over the past year and media in Cleveland has already dubbed him as a key piece to a potential Francisco Lindor trade.
Now settled in left field, Gurriel’s 2020 started slow, but it ended up being a productive one overall as he slashed an impressive .308/.348/.534 with 11 homers in 57 games.
Slowly but surely the walks are creeping up, a development that would give him a more well-rounded profile, and there’s an age-27 breakout is in the cards if he can stay healthy.
Often overshadowed by some of the other young players to arrive alongside him, Gurriel might be the most productive of all them in 2021.
12. The Jays finish fifth in baseball in runs scored
Averaging 4.9 runs per game in 2020 left the Jays with the eighth-best offence in baseball, so this isn’t really going out on any sort of limb.
A couple of off-season additions help, but it’s more about the continued development of the young players already on the roster that pushes them into the top five offences in baseball.
13. Hyun-Jin Ryu lands on IL at least once
I’m not excited about predicting an injury, but after avoiding the IL entirely for the first time since his rookie year in 2013, Ryu doesn’t make it through 2021 unscathed.
14. Bo Bichette leads the club in WAR
Despite playing just 29 games thanks to a knee injury, Bichette was still able to finish fourth on the club in terms of position players with 0.9 fWAR in 2020.
The sky is obviously the limit and while his age-23 season won’t be the ceiling, expect it to be pretty darn good.
For the sake of being specific, let’s say a 3.8 fWAR season is in Bichette’s immediate future, which would make him one of the 10 most valuable shortstops in the game.
15. Thomas Hatch becomes a reliable rotation option
Since the off-season hasn’t really started yet, it’s hard to say what the back-end of the Blue Jays rotation will look like, but Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling and Tanner Roark would all be ahead of Hatch.
But remember this: Whatever the rotation looks like on opening day won’t be what it looks like in June or August.
Depth will be needed, and after debuting in 2020 with 26.1 solid innings out of the bullpen, Hatch is expected to transition back into a more traditional starter, likely beginning the year in Triple-A, as long as that’s a possibility.
By no means was Hatch dominant as a 25-year-old rookie, but he mixes four pitches well and his high-spin fastball induces weak contact.
With a smooth and repeatable delivery, he looks like a starter and where Hatch sits on the depth chart will depend on what additions are made between now and opening day.
Either way, once Hatch is called upon, he’ll pitch well.
16. The other half of the Marcus Stroman trade makes impact
Anthony Kay arrived pretty quickly after the July 2019 trade with the New York Mets, but it’s Simeon Woods Richardson who has people excited.
Since being acquired, SWR’s prospect stock has been on the upswing, with most seeing a mid-rotation starter in the 20-year-old right-hander, a package he put on display last July against major-league hitters at summer camp.
Woods Richardson continued to pitch well at the alternate site last summer and, despite his age, could be a major-league option at some point in 2021.
It may not necessarily be as a starter initially, however.
Here’s the scenario: In mid-August, with the Jays in the thick of the playoff race, they call up SWR for some bullpen depth and he ends up pitching so well that’s he’s in high-leverage spots by the end of September.
17. Miguel Hiraldo is system’s breakout prospect
It’s been a slow burn for Hiraldo, who signed for $750,000 out of the Dominican back in 2017.
After turning 20 in September, he’s the same age as Woods Richardson, who’s close to the majors, while Hiraldo has played just one game above rookie ball.
But that’s why he’s off the radar, and his first full season assignment in 2021 will come with some buzz in either Low-A Dunedin or High-A Vancouver.
It’s progress from names like Hiraldo that’s going to make it easier for Atkins to start flipping prospects in trades.
18. Ha-Seong Kim makes Jays regret not pushing harder
One of the finalists for the versatile 25-year-old Korean’s services, what teams know about Kim is he’ll provide a versatile infield glove at three positions and comes with a nice package of speed and athletic ability.
The one question no can answer with any sort of certainty when it comes to making the jump from KBO to MLB is how the bat will adjust to more velocity — the average fastball in the KBO hovers around 90 mph — and different pitching philosophies.
It hasn’t gone well in the past, but Kim bucks that trend and proves to be an exciting combo of power and speed at second base in San Diego, hitting 16 homers, stealing 23 bases and taking home NL rookie of the year.
The Jays’ front office is going to be wishing they scheduled one more Zoom call with Kim’s agent.
19. Cavan Biggio will just miss franchise’s single-season walks record
Through his first 159 games, Biggio’s walk rate sits at a gaudy 16.1 per cent.
His dad Craig, a hall of famer, walked at a 9.3 per cent clip.
Walks aren’t everything, of course, and Biggio has some holes in both his swing and approach, but the pitch recognition is elite.
If it’s a ball, Biggio isn’t swinging, and it’s going to lead to a franchise record sooner or later.
Jose Bautista set the single-season walks record with 132 back in 2011 when nobody wanted to pitch to him — he was issued a free pass in 20.2 per cent of his trips to the plate — and that number is going to be within reach for Biggio if he can stay in the lineup for 155-plus games.
Through 159 games, Biggio’s walked 112 times.
20. Big Maple bounces back
I wanted to predict the Jays will sign James Paxton to a one-year deal, but we’ll go with something with a little more shelf life.
Since I had him at No. 5 overall on my personal top 50 free agents list, I’ll say that, health permitting, I have confidence in a Big Maple bounce back.
His agent, Scott Boras, said Paxton will be able to throw for teams this month and there’s no way he’s getting — or should want — a multi-year deal, so it’s a low-risk gamble on a pitcher who, save for a 6.64 ERA across five starts this year, has been very, very good when able to take the mound.
A four-year streak of 3.5-plus WAR seasons may have ended in 2020, but Paxton will rebound with another on the strength of a 3.45 ERA and 24 healthy starts.
21. The Jays finish 10 games above .500
In a normal year, that would be good for an 86-76 record and they’d be on the fringes of the American League wild-card race.
Expanded playoffs will obviously help them, but it’s still a team that needs a lot of pitching help to compete with the best teams in baseball and they’re a year away from being labelled as a true contender.