Blue Jays desperately need the old Jose Berrios back

Berrios struggled mightily last season after a strong start to his Blue Jays career in 2021.

Jose Berrios will need to find his 2021 form again if he wants to be the impact starter the Blue Jays projected him to be when he signed a lucrative seven-year contract. (Getty Images)
Jose Berrios will need to find his 2021 form again if he wants to be the impact starter the Blue Jays projected him to be when he signed a lucrative seven-year contract. (Getty Images)

José Berríos has many bright qualities. He’s hard-working, he’s kind, and when the Toronto Blue Jays sold two top prospects to get him, the fan base was rightfully fired up. In his Jays debut, the right-hander electrified a then-restricted Rogers Centre crowd as he torched the Kansas City Royals for six shutout innings. It was fantastic stuff and a good teaser of how much talent he possesses.

Eighteen months later, following a dozen excellent starts in 2021, a seven-year, $131-million extension, and an atomic disaster of a 2022 season, it’s hard to believe that same guy has drummed up so much concern. As time passed, Blue Jays fans gradually became numb to Berríos’s incomprehensible struggles. No longer could you live and die on every pitch because the results would’ve been lethal.

So, as a fan, what do you do? You cope, and you tell yourself last season, when Berríos allowed more hits (199) and earned runs (100) than any AL pitcher, was a fluke. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. For the club to succeed, though, Toronto desperately needs the old version of Berríos back – and if that pitcher is truly dead and gone, then the Blue Jays are screwed in more ways than one.

The early results haven’t been super promising. The 28-year-old has pitched five innings over two spring training starts and allowed two runs on seven hits. His 3.60 ERA is fine, but the 1.80 WHIP isn’t, and it’s a good indication of continued sketchy command.

Berríos’s lone start for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic was concerning. Team Venezuela battered the righty, scoring six runs on five hits before Berríos could get a single out in the second inning. His breaking ball got punished for an untimely home run, and while his fastball command wasn’t dreadful, he fell behind consistently. A worst-case scenario, no doubt.

So now, it’ll be back to spring training, where Berríos takes on the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday with redemption on his mind. Mercifully, it’ll just be about tinkering with the fastball placement and a new stretch delivery for now. If Berríos can paint his heater away and not groove it down the pipe, especially to lefties, his powerful breaking ball can do its job. That's a simpler blueprint than last year, when the Blue Jays tried everything, from adjusting his glove to moving his start point on the rubber, as they tried to plug each leak that rapidly popped up.

But if the flood doesn’t stop and Berríos begins this season the way he ended 2022, Toronto will face a previously unfathomable prospect: what if Berríos simply can’t be fixed? In the short term, it would amp up the pressure on the Jays’ top three starters. If Berríos is pitching to a 5.00 ERA, Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, and Chris Bassitt must be on their A games.

There’s also the question of depth behind Toronto’s five penciled-in starters. The club basically did the same dance a year ago, pitching with only three reliable rotation pieces (Manoah, Gausman, Ross Stripling) and leaning on offensive star power to club its opponents to death. Unfortunately, that strategy is unsustainable. One injury could derail everything.

Let’s say Bassitt strains his shoulder or Gausman has a tender elbow and misses time. With Berríos fighting his demons and Yusei Kikuchi inevitably producing a twirling pinwheel of random results, the Jays are in big trouble. Nate Pearson is a reliever now and can’t take on a starter’s workload. After that, Toronto has Mitch White, Zach Thompson, and Drew Hutchison, none of whom inspire tons of confidence. Toronto can add pitchers at the 2023 trade deadline, but its farm system isn't exactly flush with tradeable assets.

Then there’s the conundrum of how Berríos’ sseven-year, $131-million deal profiles beyond 2023. Once considered a team-friendly contract, this long-term pact could morph into a nightmare for the Blue Jays. If Berríos can’t rekindle the magic from 2021, he’s bound to ignore the opt-out clause in 2026, which would then stamp him on the books for $49.4 million from 2027-28.

George Springer and Gausman could be off the books, but the Blue Jays should be broaching the idea of a Manoah extension by then. There’s also the Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette mega-extensions to consider, though perhaps not both players will re-sign.

For many reasons, Berríos’s future with the Blue Jays could become a jumbled mess, but this year is crucial. The stakes are high for all parties, including the organization itself, which wants to fight like hell while its competitive window remains open. Everything is better when Berríos pitches well. And if he doesn’t bounce back, the ripple of consequences could be disastrous.