Playing Pepper 2021: Toronto Blue Jays

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Toronto Blue Jays
32-28, third in the AL East, lost in the Wild Card Round
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Someday, when people go back and write books about 2020, there’s going to be a book about the Blue Jays, who spent all year away from their home ballpark.  I mean, I’m sure it was fine in Buffalo but playing in a minor league stadium rather than Rogers Center had to be a tough pill to swallow along with all the other coronavirus issues.  Whenever they do get back to Toronto (they’ll start 2021 in Florida) I’m sure it will be cause for a great celebration.  What about the actual team, though?  Let’s dive in and see what these bloggers say.

Blogger Site Twitter
Jeremy Gibson 500 Level Fan 500LevelFan
Shaun Doyle Jays From The Couch JaysFromCouch
Kate Stanwick Bluebird Banter OhKStan

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Jeremy: The season was definitely different, and to be honest I liked most of the changes. I’ve long been hopeful for a universal DH (it’s a shame MLB isn’t keeping it), and while at first I didn’t like the ghost runner on 2nd extra innings rule, I grew into it. Watching games were definitely different as well, but I think baseball (more than other sports) was better able to pull off games without fans. And with many, including myself, working from home full-time due to the pandemic, I was a fan of different start times, like 6 pm or 6:30.

Shaun: 2020 was a year that will stand out as the weirdest in recent memory, obviously. From a baseball perspective, it certainly impacted things in a number of ways. Teams are crying poor over lost revenues and players had to deal with getting ramped up for a season, shutting everything down and trying to ramp up again. We saw a lot of injuries and outlier performances in 2020. For the Blue Jays, expanded playoffs meant that they could sneak into a postseason spot earlier than planned. They were a young, exciting team and likely benefited from the experience of playoff baseball. The one thing 2020 did for them was serve notice to the league that they are for real. The young, talented group allowed the front office to dream and spend this past offseason. So, 2020 served to make believers out of a number of people, really.

Kate: In 2020, I was torn between being so unbelievably grateful to be able to watch live baseball, and also feeling very much like they should not have been playing. I was a fan of the universal DH, didn’t hate the ghost runner on second (but think it shouldn’t be introduced until much later in extra inning games) and missed the wider variety of opponents. The Blue Jays made the postseason for the first time since 2016 last year, but it didn’t carry the same weight as previous playoff years due to expanded eligibility and the lack of a crowd atmosphere. As innovative as the pumped in cheering and cardboard cutouts were, they were no substitute for the real thing.

C70: Toronto took a big plunge in the free agent pool, signing George Springer. What do you expect his impact will be?

Jeremy: In a word, huge. He brings a power bat, excellent defense at a premium position, winning experience, and a clubhouse presence that should hopefully rub-off on our young core.

Shaun: Considering the pedigree that Springer brings with him, the first thing he brings is legitimacy to this young team. While they took big steps to announcing their presence in 2020, landing arguably the biggest free agent available definitely adds to their confidence. By all counts, Springer is also the kind of clubhouse guy the Blue Jays front office has placed a premium on. The veteran leadership and teammate quality is going to be huge for this team. On the field, he gives them a true center fielder, which is something they needed after trying Randal Grichuk and others in that position. Lastly, adding Springer’s bat to an already solid lineup makes the Blue Jays flat out dangerous.

Kate: Jays fans have certainly caught Sping(er) fever. By all accounts, he was the Blue Jays’ primary target in the offseason, and I am beyond thrilled they landed him. I expect his impact in the lineup to be immediate and significant, as it helps to not only lengthen the lineup, but add offense to one of the field positions the Jays were sorely lacking it. The addition of Springer, and Marcus Semien, also helps to take the pressure off some of the younger stars. The Jays should have no problem scoring runs this year.

C70: Nate Pearson made his debut last year, though he got limited time. Will he be in the starting rotation to begin the year and what can we expect to see out of him?

Jeremy: I fully expect Nate to be in the rotation, maybe even as high as our #2. In terms of what can we expect, I haven’t got a clue. He looked both dominant and at times overwhelmed last year. I think he should settle in and be a very productive starter, but so much depends on how the Jays decide to handle him. Do they cap him at 100 innings? 150? Do they skip his turn in the rotation every-so-often? Keeping him healthy is the #1 concern.

Shaun: A few months ago, I would have said that Pearson is definitely in the starting rotation. Unfortunately, a groin injury this spring has put a question mark around just when he’ll be available to join the starting 5. It is no secret that his injury history is the only thing holding him back from being a potential future ace. So, when he is healthy and at his best, the sky is the limit for this young man. 

Kate: Sadly, Nate Pearson has been sidelined with a groin injury and will not make the opening day roster, although he figures to be a huge part of the Jays pitching staff this season. With the starting rotation being the one area that wasn’t fully addressed in the offseason, the Jays need him to be an impact player (as much as we’ve all turned to fawning over Alek Manoah this Spring). He is certainly capable of being a frontline starter, however he has yet to perform as one during his very brief big league tenure. While the Jays certainly have much better depth in that field than they have previously, we really hope he won’t be down for too long.

C70: Steven Matz and Robbie Ray were added to the rotation this winter. Who do you think will have the best 2021?

Jeremy: I’ve always been a fan of Robbie Ray dating back to my early days in fantasy baseball. He looked pretty good in his few starts as a Blue Jay last year, and appears to be locked into a rotation spot. I don’t have much hope with Matz, and it looks like he might be used a long-relief / piggyback specialist. My money is on Ray.

Shaun: This is an interesting question. Both of these guys would be considered question marks. Can Ray return to piling up the strike outs and keeping walks to a reasonable level? If so, he could very much be the number 2 starter this club needs. As for Matz, he is an interesting guy in that the Blue Jays could use him as a swing man, a multi inning guy to follow an opener, etc etc. He could have some versatility. Right now, with the Pearson injury, he looks to be in the rotation. Both of these guys have had good spring performances so far and are impressing, leading many to wonder if this pitching staff may be a surprise in 2021.

Kate: Oof – that’s hard to say. Robbie Ray seemed to really enjoy his time with the team post trade at the end of last season, and it’s quite possible pitching coach Pete Walker has helped him to get him back on track. Matz has really impressed in Spring Training, so he has a good chance of putting up a great season as well. Getting even league average or slightly better from both these players would be very welcomed. 

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Jeremy: I’m excited, but with the gaps on the starting rotation and the relative young age of a lot of the core, I don’t think Toronto is a true contender for the AL East. Next year? For sure. But this year I would expect them to at least challenge, and hopefully win, one of the Wild Card slots.

Shaun: It is reasonable to expect the 2021 Blue Jays to reach the postseason via the Wild Card. 87 wins is certainly a fair estimate. That said, they could very well challenge for the AL East title. A lot would have to go right and the rotation would need to be that surprise I mentioned earlier. If the starters are just just good enough to keep the team in games, then you can expect a Wild Card spot. If they are in fact a surprise, then they could move that much closer to challenging for the division.

Kate: My expectation for the Blue Jays in 2021 is to look like a team that is no longer coming out of a rebuild, but is in the first of what we hope to be many competitive years. The Blue Jays had a pretty terrific offseason, and they have shown they can and will spend money to put out a quality team. After several years of underperformance and freak injuries, I’m counting on and hoping for a blissful and fun season hopefully topped off by another trip to the playoffs. 

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Jeremy: It’s funny – the level of criticism of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins was through the roof for the last several years. But in the end, they essentially were transparent and followed through with what they said. They wanted to avoid big expenditures and continue to collect young talent, and when that young talent was ready to take the next step, they would open their wallets. Well, they brought in Hyun Jin Ryu last year, and now Springer and Marcus Semien, all the while building up one of baseball’s top prospect pipelines. They might never have the personality of Alex Anthopoulos, but I think they’ve done a good job. Pencil me in for a B, with a chance to improve in the next year or two.

Shaun: Over the last few years, the Toronto Blue Jays have rebuilt on the fly and have one of the best minor league systems in the game. They’ve created an on field product that will be exciting and competitive. They’ve spent big time in free agency and landed some very nice talent. And, they’ve done all of that without spending their valuable prospect capital. I would say this organization is in excellent shape and prepared for a window of winning year after year, which should be the goal of every organization. I’d give them an A.

Kate: It would be hard for me at this point to grade them any lower than an A-. They were huge spenders in the offseason, and targeted players who seem to be really solid people all around. They have an incredible new state of the art training facility and revamped ballpark in Dunedin, and they managed to make the playoffs last year in a year where they didn’t have a home park to start the season. While some may still hold some resentment toward the former trades of fan favorite players for minimal return, it’s hard to find too much to complain about in the last year or so. I’m really looking forward to watching this team tap into their true potential, with several more exciting players coming down the pipeline.

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