Playing Pepper 2020: Toronto Blue Jays

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Toronto Blue Jays
67-95, fourth in AL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Let the kids play.  Surprisingly, that’s NOT the motto of the Blue Jays this year, but it well could be.  With all service time issues for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and company out of the way, Toronto has a load of young talent that is ready to take the league by storm.  Whether they can do so in the always-dangerous AL East still remains to be seen.  Let’s see what our Blue Jay blogger friends have to say about it!

Blogger Site Twitter
Jeremy Gibson 500 Level Fan 500LevelFan
Joshua Howsam Baseball Prospectus JoshuaHowsam
Kate Stanwick Bluebird Banter OhKStan

C70: The young wave of talent finally made it to Toronto in 2019. Was there one moment that stood out from these guys?

Jeremy: The real moment that stood out for me was Vladdy’s debut. It was easily the most exciting moment we’ve had since the playoff years. The stadium was electric, the TV audience was huge, and people were hanging on every pitch. Sure it didn’t go as we all hoped – there no mammoth home runs – but he did double in the ninth and the Jays won via walk-off, so everybody ended up happy!

Joshua: With all apologies to Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio who actually outperformed him, 2019 was all about Vlad. The obvious one would be Vlad’s performance in the home run derby, as it showed the baseball world what he can really be, but I’d actually have to say it was an at-bat Guerrero had against Aroldis Chapman. With the Yankees up by 1, Vlad fell behind 0-2. He then began fouling off a bunch of ridiculously tough pitches, laid off a nasty slider down and in, crushed one into the second deck that was just foul and worked the count to 3-2. On the 13th pitch he hit a 96.5 mph grounder for a double play, but the AB against one of the elite relievers in the history of the game showed Guerrero’s tremendous bat to ball skills that get lost in the discussion of his power. 

Kate: A personal favorite of mine was watching Bo Bichette hit two home runs off Clayton Kershaw – mostly in part because I was there – but also because it showed us just how high the ceilings for these players are. Outside of that, the one moment that stands out to me was Vladdy’s ridiculous 13 pitch at bat against Aroldis Chapman. It ended in a ground out, but the skill he showed was elite, and I can’t wait to see so much more of that. 

C70: What are you expecting from the signing of Hyun-jin Ryu?

Jeremy: I feel like I need to reel in my expectations a bit as there a number of things that might go against him: his injury history, moving to the AL East, not a very strong defense behind him. But it’s hard not be excited. The Jays were a gong show on the mound last year: 39 different players pitched, the team leader in wins had 6, and Edwin Jackson made five starts. So bringing in the defending NL ERA leader who finished second in Cy Young voting? That’s awesome. I’m expecting at the very least a sub-3.50 ERA and 25 starts, along with providing the kind of stability that this young staff needs.

Joshua: From an on-field standpoint, Ryu should continue to be the excellent pitcher he has been since coming over from Korea. He mixes pitches well and commands all of them, including one of the best changeups in baseball. He’ll probably miss a bit of time, as he always does, but I’m cautiously optimistic for a 180 inning season again. Off the field, the signing shows the rest of the league and the fanbase that the Jays are serious about moving out of this rebuild and into contention very soon.

Kate: Good things, mostly! I know there are a lot of injury concerns with Ryu, but I have high hopes and expectations for him. If he can stay healthy and be the pitcher he was last year for the Dodgers, the Blue Jays will be extremely pleased. The announcement of his signing was the most exciting transaction for Blue Jays fans since all the 2015 trades, and it brought back morale and excitement (which had been extremely depleted at that point). 

C70: The Cardinals did some powder blue jerseys last year, which I personally didn’t care for, and I see the Jays will be doing that this year. What are your thoughts on the new threads?

Jeremy: Personally I like them. I was a fan of the powder blues they brought back in the early 2010’s, and I like the looks of these ones, especially the hats. As long as they remain an alternate, and not the primary jersey, I’m cool with them.

Joshua: I don’t particularly care for them either. I think the colour matching is weird and I really don’t like non white/grey pants. I would’ve been more accepting of them if they just changed the shirt. I do like the hats though. They’re pretty. 

Kate: I actually quite like them! I thought the Blue Jays should have had another slightly different option to begin with, and the red jerseys they used for Sunday home games a couple years ago didn’t look right. Bring on the powder blue! 

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Jeremy: I’d love to say third and challenge for a Wild Card, but I can’t envision them catching New York or Tampa Bay, and Boston should still be decent, even without Mookie Betts. Still I’d hope they at least flirt with .500 and give us relatively meaningful baseball into August.

Joshua: I think the Jays are still the probably fourth place team in the division, probably hovering somewhere around 78-82 wins, but the recent slate of injuries to the Yankees and Red Sox (not to mention the trade of Mookie Betts) makes it at least plausible that they could push higher in 2020, especially if Nate Pearson makes an impact in the last 2/3s of the season.

Kate: My expectations is that this year will be witnessing a lot of growing pains that comes with such a young team, but they will be fun to watch. 4th place again seems like a safe bet for the Jays. There’s a chance they could end up in a bit of a battle with the Red Sox for third, but it seems highly unlikely they will overtake the Yankees or the Rays, and they most certainly can’t be worse than the Orioles.

C70: What’s the main topic Blue Jays fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Jeremy: The rise of Nate Pearson, our top pitching prospect. His first appearance this Spring saw him strike out the side on 12 pitches. He can touch 100 on the gun and is one of MLBs top prospects. All indications are that he should be in the big leagues at some point this summer. I can’t wait.

Joshua: I would say the Nate Pearson potentially being sent to the minors to start the year (which I think is actually development-inspired, not service time), but other fans seem to have become aware of that. Instead, it’s the return of Matt Shoemaker. Shoemaker was quietly excellent in his five starts before tearing his leg and missing the rest of the year. If he can actually, somehow, stay healthy and be the slightly-better-than-league-average starter he has always been, the Jays’ rotation gets a lot better. 

Kate: One thing that comes to mind is the continued employment of Dave Hudgens as the team’s bench coach, as he was the Astros’ hitting coach during the 2017 season. He wasn’t listed as a person responsible in the commissioner’s report, but a lot of fans were understandably upset that someone who had the knowledge of it that he did would get to keep their job.  Outside of that, we are very much looking forward to Nate Pearson’s arrival in the big leagues. 

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Jeremy: Hope. There has been little-to-no hope around here since 2016, but to now have Vladdy, Bo, Cavan, Lourdes Gurriel, and Danny Janssen in the lineup along with some actual major league quality arms and Pearson on the way, has people excited. I feel like the core of the next contending Jays team is here and it will be great to watch them grow.

Joshua: I’m really looking forward to seeing Ryu in a Jays uniform and to seeing how the young players adjust to the league in year two and how the league adjusts back. 

Kate: The signing of Ryu signaled to fans that the Blue Jays have turned the corner, and are on their way back to contention from the rebuild they’ve been in for the past couple years. While they surely aren’t going to be strong contenders this year, they should do a lot better than they have in previous years, and they have a ton of very likable young players to watch. With a bolstered rotation and tantalizing young hitters, the Jays have some good potential should everything swing right. There are also a large number of players on the roster who the team needs to make decisions on as to whether they will be a part of the team long term, and this in theory is the final year where they have a bit of that flexibility before they start prioritizing winning. So, a lot of interesting stories to watch for, and so many players to dream on. 

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