If the Toronto Blue Jays roster were a person, it would be the stereotypical meathead who always skips leg day.
The club’s position players form an imposing group with a potent combination of high-upside youngsters and reliable veterans. It’s a collection of talent the organization can be proud of, represented in this admittedly-odd metaphor by impressive biceps, pecs and traps. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, that makes their pitching staff the chicken legs, that will support that talent precariously, if they can manage at all.
Some of the imbalance is the result of bad luck. Robbie Ray was having an encouraging spring before suffering a freak elbow contusion in a fall, and Nate Pearson’s groin strain — and re-aggravation — were tough breaks. This team’s rotation will look significantly better when they’re available. Even if everyone gets healthy at once, though, the fundamental asymmetry of this roster is profound.
In 2020, the Blue Jays scored the seventh-most runs in the major leagues while their run prevention ranked 25th. For a team willing to spend money in free agency — as the Blue Jays clearly were given the franchise-record $150 million deal they gave George Springer — the most intuitive strategy would’ve been to invest in pitching and count on the offence to remain a strength. Instead, this front office opted to drop $168 million on Springer and Marcus Semien while spending just $23.45 million on arms — $5.5 million of which is already a sunk cost thanks to closer Kirby Yates’s season-ending Tommy John surgery.
The end result is a team that has at least 10 players suiting up on Opening Day (11 if Springer is ready) that ZiPS projects to top 2020’s league-average OPS, and as few as five pitchers the projection system likes for an above-average ERA — only one of whom (Hyun-Jin Ryu) is a full-time starter.
That’s not the classic profile of a contender, but it’s also not the composition of a team doomed to fail. While the Blue Jays didn’t patch their most significant holes, they made some massive upgrades. Gone from the infield is Travis Shaw, who was approximately a replacement-level player in 2020. Added to the mix is Semien, an MVP candidate in 2019, and a well above-average player last season despite a cold start that torpedoed his offensive numbers. Randal Grichuk no longer needs to play out of position in centre thanks to Springer, and now the lineup has at least 10 starting-calibre bats. For manager Charlie Montoyo, the biggest worry has shifted from what he’ll do if someone goes down to how he’s going to get all his potent bats onto a single lineup card.
When the Blue Jays step out onto the field for their opener on Thursday, they’ll be a team with obvious weaknesses. The starters behind Ryu are frankly unimpressive, and after the injury to Yates, the bullpen doesn’t look as formidable. Teams are going to score runs on this club, probably at an above-average clip. Injury misfortune has added to that issue, but it’s also just the way this team is designed.
Every team in baseball is constructed for the sole purpose of scoring more runs than its opponents. The 2021 Blue Jays figure to go about that by getting more guys across the plate than almost any club in baseball, and hoping whoever they face can’t keep up with them.
Believing in this roster takes some imagination, because it doesn't come in a cookie-cutter contender shape. For decades we’ve become accustomed to writing off teams that don’t have a reliable five-man rotation, with significant depth to boot. While Steven Matz has some upside, and the Pearson-Ray duo could return relatively soon, that description simply doesn’t fit the Blue Jays.
In an era of openers, bullpen days, and expanded rosters, though, it might not be the prerequisite for success it once was. The Blue Jays clearly have themselves a lopsided team, but what’s not yet clear is whether that will be their downfall.
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