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The last time the Toronto Blue Jays played at Rogers Centre they had just completed the very last steps of a multi-year teardown with contention but a speck on the horizon.
On Thursday morning, Blue Jays fans will begin buying tickets to see a team with lofty short-term ambitions and massive long-term promise. There are 670 days separating the last game at Rogers Centre and the next, and that time has completely changed the face of this franchise.
When Toronto wrapped up the 2019 season there were legitimate reasons for hope, but existential doubt was also easy to come by. The trio of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio had arrived — and performed well on balance despite some of Vladdy’s hiccups — but it was unclear who would comprise the rest of the core.
Teoscar Hernandez had finished the season hot, and Anthony Kay had shown some promise, but the rest of the haul the Blue Jays had received for selling off veterans (like Derek Fisher, Brandon Drury, Billy McKinney, Hector Perez, David Paulino, Samad Taylor, Thomas Pannone, Jacob Waguespack and Thomas Hatch) didn’t exactly look like building blocks. The Randal Grichuk extension was a head scratcher. There wasn’t much evidence the team was willing to spend big in free agency.
Even if the Guerrero Jr., Bichette, and Biggio were able to form a position-player core — an impossible thing to know after just 269 games from them combined in 2019 — the pitching situation was dire. Here’s a list of the Blue Jays’ innings leaders in September 2019, when they last played in Toronto, and how they’re doing today:
Trent Thornton: Demoted on July 7, 2021 after -0.6 WAR out of the bullpen
Jacob Waguespack: No longer on the Blue Jays 40-man roster, working at Triple-A
T.J. Zeuch: Designated for assignment on July 20, 2021 after -0.4 career WAR as a Blue Jay
Clay Buchholz: Retired after 2019 (6.56 ERA in 59 innings with the Blue Jays)
Wilmer Font: Pitching in the KBO
Sam Gaviglio: Pitching in the KBO
There are legitimate quibbles to be made with the Blue Jays' current pitching staff, but at the end of 2019 there was the promise Pearson offered, recent draftee Alek Manoah mowing down Single-A hitters and not much else to speak of. As the club is finding out now, it’s hard to win without at least an average group of arms. That’s still something they’re working towards, but the road to clearing that relatively low bar looked daunting as 2019 wrapped up.
When examining the differences between the 2019 Blue Jays team we saw last and the one that’s finally returning, there are a number of unexpected factors that drove them to the playoffs in 2020 and helped the 2021 team position themselves as trade deadline buyers. Vladdy became a dominant offensive force, Bichette continued raking despite his unorthodox approach, Hernandez became an all-star and Grichuk even cut down on the Ks and started providing a little more consistency at the dish. On the pitching side, Jordan Romano has emerged as a legitimate closer and Manoah is already establishing himself as a solid MLB starter.
For all those positive developments, the biggest factor in this team’s ascent since the end of 2019 is their willingness to make a splash in free agency. The Hyun-Jin Ryu deal gave the 2020 squad an ace to build a rotation around. The Blue Jays would be out of contention if they hadn’t signed Marcus Semien this year. The story of the George Springer signing has yet to be written, but he’s capable of superstar-level production.
Not only have the players they’ve signed made outsized contributions (FanGraphs values what Semien has done in just 92 games at a whopping $31.9 million), showing the willingness to heavily invest in veteran players bodes well for the team’s future. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins didn’t have much big spending on their resumes from their time in Cleveland and cut payroll early in their Blue Jays tenure. There was reason to doubt whether they’d ever make a significant splash, but the moves they’ve made in recent years demonstrate the lack of spending in 2017-2019 was simply a result of where the team was in its competitive cycle as opposed to a disinclination to run a significant payroll. In the offseasons to come — especially while their stars remain relatively inexpensive — the Blue Jays can be considered major players in free agency, a tag that would've seemed like extremely wishful thinking not long ago.
This team is far from perfect. The returning Blue Jays are saddled with numerous flaws, and barring some significant trade deadline additions even making the playoffs is less than a 50/50 proposition. They aren’t a financial juggernaut like the New York Yankees or player development wizards like the Tampa Bay Rays. The future looks bright, but the road they have to walk is difficult.
The last time they were in town the Blue Jays were a team with some promising young players, a smoking crater where a pitching staff should’ve been, a .444 win percentage in their last three seasons, and an unclear willingness or ability to upgrade through free agency. Now they are coming off a playoff appearance, possess one of the deadliest lineups in the league, and have added three all-stars in the last two offseasons, not including Robbie Ray, who deserved consideration this season. They’ve managed these improvements without borrowing from a farm system that still consistently ranks in the top 10 league-wide despite all of the young players they’ve promoted.
Even in a span of 670 days, that’s a heck of a step forward.
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