When we look back on this period of Toronto Blue Jays history, 2020 could easily stand out as the starting point of the team’s competitive window.
After all, the team added Hyun-Jin Ryu prior to the season in a move that proved they weren’t solely interested in future wins, rode a young core to offensive success, and went on to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
While that sounds like a classic Chapter 1 in the tale of a sustainable contender — this front office’s North Star since Alex Anthopoulos left town — in many ways it was deceptive.
Last season the Blue Jays snuck into the last spot in an expanded playoff field. That came on the strength of a 32-28 record they may not have deserved considering they were outscored by 10 runs. The bullpen that was their backbone for much of the season was largely composed of starters who would’ve been in the minor leagues if there was MiLB baseball to be played.
Nothing should be taken away from a team that undoubtedly took a step, but there were extenuating circumstances that allowed them to reach the playoffs. This year, the road in front of them is significantly more perilous.
The good news for the Blue Jays is that they haven’t rested on their laurels. In George Springer the team has acquired a star who’s been one of the best hitters in the league over the last two years. Springer also plugs a hole in centre field that’s been an issue since Kevin Pillar was traded.
Marcus Semien was one of the best players in the majors in 2019, and should make a strong two-way contribution. Even the pitchers they added, like Steven Matz and Tyler Chatwood, looked good in Grapefruit League action, and bring interesting traits to the table. Considering they didn’t lose any key contributors (with the possible exception of trade deadline acquisition Taijuan Walker) it’s clear that this is a better team.
Even so, the Blue Jays haven’t gone from playoff team to World Series favourite. They’ve gone from a .500-ish team that got some breaks to playoff hopeful. Most projection systems have them between 84 (FiveThirtyEight) and 87 (FanGraphs) wins, which means they’ll likely be fighting tooth-and-nail to play October baseball.
Those numbers might end up being conservative if they make major moves at the deadline — which seems likely considering their prospect capital and pitching needs — but they indicate that this isn’t a runaway train speeding up after 2020, it’s a team taking its first steps as a contender.
While winning now is the priority, there’s still a great deal this team has to learn about itself. It’s unclear if last year’s small-sample breakouts by Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez have staying power. Bo Bichette has played just 75 games at the MLB level, leaving room for doubt about what his year-in year-out production looks like.
A slimmed-down Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could prove that his bat is everything it appeared to be when he was the top prospect in baseball, or look like more of a complementary piece hampered by a continued inability to elevate the ball. It would be extremely helpful for the Blue Jays to learn more about what Nate Pearson has to offer at the highest level, although definitive answers will likely remain elusive for the injured right-hander.
The Blue Jays’ goal is to become a force to be reckoned with, armed with a significant MLB payroll and a reliable pipeline of young talent providing depth, upside and trade ammunition. That’s not an impossible goal for a team with their financial resources and commitment to player development, but they haven’t gotten there yet. Last year was more of an aberration than a master plan clicking into place.
Now this regime’s vision is coming together. The 2021 Blue Jays are unlikely to add to the franchise’s trophy case — and could easily fall short of the playoffs — but on Thursday we're going to see the first iteration of the “sustainable contender” this fanbase has been promised since 2017.
More from Yahoo Sports: