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Blue Jays enter offseason with clear needs and high expectations

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"Just get in," was Toronto Blue Jays CEO Mark Shapiro's takeaway as he watched the 2021 postseason. “If you’re hot at the right time and you’re playing your best baseball at the right time, your record during the season doesn’t necessarily matter. You can win a World Series.”

The Blue Jays' failure to make the playoffs in 2021 has been well-documented. Toronto fell a game short of a wild-card spot despite finishing atop MLB in runs scored, home runs and OPS, as well as second place in batting average. They were a casualty of the juggernaut that is the American League East and the toll of the pandemic as they bounced around the States before finally making their way back to Canada.

Locking in quality starters such as Robbie Ray is one of the big challenges for the Blue Jays this offseason. (Getty)
Locking in quality starters such as Robbie Ray is one of the big challenges for the Blue Jays this offseason. (Getty)

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves — who won 88 games in the regular season — were just crowned World Series champions in six games over the Houston Astros, much to the dismay of Toronto fans.

So, Shapiro's takeaway seems to track: just get there and you'll have a chance.

The challenge will be finding the right pieces to do so, but the Blue Jays have indicated they're willing to be active and spend big in the winter once again.

Toronto will see some of its most important names enter free agency — namely with Robbie Ray, Steven Matz and Marcus Semien all well-positioned to earn lucrative deals. Pitching will most likely be the team's main priority, but addressing the infield and left-handed hitting should also make the cut over the next couple of months.

This offseason comes with additional drama, with the potential of a work stoppage after Dec. 1. The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire and it seems improbable that team owners and the players' association will reach a new agreement before that deadline. This would freeze all free-agent deals, trades, and the Rule 5 draft until the impasse is resolved, meaning there may be less time to make moves whenever MLB does return to normalcy.

It will all start next week, when the annual GM meetings take place in California — barring COVID-19 obstacles — and all 30 general managers will convene for four days of discussions about on- and off-field matters, as well as negotiations.

With all of that in mind, here's a list of priorities for the Blue Jays as they enter this offseason, as well as some free-agent names to keep in mind.

Starting rotation

With 40 percent of their rotation up in the air, the Blue Jays will have to be smart this winter.

The ideal scenario would likely be to re-sign Ray and Matz and run it back with the same five starting pitchers that finished the 2021 regular season. But Ray's Cy Young campaign and Matz's silently effective year should draw plenty of suitors and make it a challenge for Toronto.

Right-hander Alek Manoah is a lock to return after posting a stellar rookie season that closed with a 3.22 ERA over 111.2 innings pitched. José Berríos, under team control for another year, also has an all but guaranteed spot in the rotation. Hyun-Jin Ryu hasn't looked like the ace of yore, but his pedigree — and $80-million contract — make him an immovable piece of that puzzle, provided he can stay healthy.

That leaves two wide-open spots and the necessity for adding a durable ace. A couple of free-agent names to keep in mind — other than Ray and Matz, who are very much still on the table — are Carlos Rodón, Tyler Anderson and Jon Gray.

One more guy to consider? Marcus Stroman.

Bullpen

If the recently wrapped World Series has taught us anything, it's that you can never have too much relief pitching. And Toronto is far from having too much of it.

The Blue Jays finished the year right in the middle of the pack in reliever ERA, with a 4.08 mark that put them behind every single team who made the postseason this year. 

Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins did address the issue ahead of the July 31 trade deadline, and some of those moves worked out better than others. The Blue Jays got a couple of gems in Trevor Richards and Adam Cimber, but also acquired a shaky Joakim Soria, and a disappointing Brad Hand.

Homegrown arms Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza were phenomenal last season, but it's unrealistic to expect four relievers to carry the load. The Jays will hope guys like Julian Merryweather, Anthony Castro and Ryan Borucki can keep developing into reliable options, but in whatever way you slice it, the club will need to seek external, tried-and-true bullpen arms.

Tim Mayza was terrific as a late-inning reliever for the Blue Jays in 2021. (Getty)
Tim Mayza was terrific as a late-inning reliever for the Blue Jays in 2021. (Getty)

Half of the World Series roster for both Houston and Atlanta was made up of pitchers, and the contest was on pace to break a record of most pitchers used over a single postseason series. Starters remain vital for a team's success, but good relievers have never been more important.

Raisel Iglesias, Ryan Tepera and Kendall Graveman are names worth remembering for a later date. Daniel Hudson, a former Blue Jay, is also intriguing.

Left-handed hitting

Granted, the Blue Jays' lineup supplemented that need by getting video game seasons out of a few of their right-handed batters, but being a playoff team means having versatility at the plate and making it difficult for opponents to plan and prepare for your lineup.am next year.

In his end-of-season media availability, Atkins singled out left-handed hitting as an offseason priority, and it's easy to see why. Toronto was dead last in plate appearances and RBIs by left-handed batters, and managed just a .231 average from that side of the plate.

Granted, the Blue Jays' lineup supplemented that need by getting videogame seasons out of a few of their right-handed batters, but being a playoff team means having versatility at the plate and making it difficult for opponents to plan and prepare for your lineup.

Bringing back Dickerson himself might be the best move here, but other interesting free agents are Leury Garcia and Mitch Moreland. 

Infield

While the Jays' outfield is in good shape, questions surround the infield with Semien about to enter free agency. After appearing in all 162 games, earning a Gold Glove nomination and exploding for a historic 45 home runs last season, Semien is another guy poised to get a big contract. If that doesn't happen in Toronto, the Blue Jays will have their work cut out for them in finding a matching replacement.

But that doesn't necessarily need to come at second base.

Instead, the Blue Jays could be in the market for an elite third baseman. Biggio struggled mightily at the hot corner before going down with an injury, and though Santiago Espinal emerged as a solid everyday third baseman in the second half of the season, the Blue Jays would likely rather move him back to a utility, platoon role.

Prospect Kevin Smith had a couple of stints with the major-league team, but he still has a lot of growth to do and doesn't have the offensive ceiling to make a big impact.

If Toronto wants to go for a third baseman, Biggio could slide back into second — where he's most comfortable — and open up the corner for a big signing. Kyle Seager is an enticing option and Kris Bryant is also entering free agency.

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