Following a 91 win season in 2021, there are many reasons for optimism about the direction of the Blue Jays as they head into the offseason.
There’s an exciting young core highlighted by MVP finalist and Silver Slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr., shortstop Bo Bichette, the recently extended Jose Berríos, as well as fellow starters Alek Manoah and Nate Pearson, Closer Jordan Romano, catcher Alejandro Kirk, and still youngish outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Exciting young prospects like catcher Gabriel Moreno, infielders Orelvis Martinez and Jordan Groshans, and starter Gunnar Hoglund should be amongst the next wave of minor leaguers finding their way to the show.
Ownership seems willing to spend, as evidenced by the seven-year, $131 million extension to starter Berríos and large free agent contracts in the past two offseasons for starter Hyun Jin Ryu (4 years, $80 million) and centre fielder George Springer (six years, $150 million).
Chance of Regression in 2022?
Is there a chance the Toronto Blue Jays could see a regression in 2022? Both history and the baseball gods remind us that we should always temper our enthusiasm and emotions, and base our projections on facts, data, and statistics to eliminate confirmation bias.
From the AL East pennant to 4th
Jays fans of a certain vintage might remember the 1985 team which won the AL East pennant under Manager Bobby Cox with 99 wins, only to lose 4-3 to George Brett, Willie Wilson and the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS that year. Like the current Jays team, that roster was stacked with a young core including Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Tom Henke, Tony Fernandez and the great young outfield of 25 year olds George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield.
The 1986 team regressed to only 86 wins and finished in 4th place in the AL East under new manager Jimy Williams. Ace Dave Stieb struggled that year, going from a 6.8 WAR in 1985 to -0.2 in 1986. His rotation mate Doyle Alexander went from a 4.8 WAR to a 1.9. First baseman Willie Upshaw also regressed, from an OPS+ of 111 to 91.
The Heartbreak of 1987’s final weekend
Then there was the 96 win team in 1987, also loaded with young talent like Fernandez, Bell, Barfield, Moseby, Fred McGriff and Kelly Gruber.
They led the AL East by 2.5 games heading in to the final week of the season, but collapsed and lost their final seven games, including a final weekend sweep at the hands of the Tigers in Detroit by scores of 4-3, 3-2 (a walk-off loss on a single by Alan Trammell in the bottom of the 12th inning), and 1-0 complete game shutout by Frank Tanana over Jimmy Key on the last day of the season, where a Jays win would have forced a game 163 tiebreaker. Instead, they finished out of the pre-Wild Card era playoffs, 2.0 games back of Detroit.
The 1988 Jays team also regressed to only 87 wins and tied for 3rd place in the AL East, out of the playoffs again. LF George Bell went from winning the AL MVP in 1987 with a WAR of 5.0 to a WAR of only 0.8 that year.
Finally the breakthrough
It wasn’t until the 1991 and 1992 seasons that the Blue Jays finally realized their potential. After 89 wins and a 2nd place finish in 1990 under Cito Gaston, who’d taken over for Jimy Williams in 1989, Pat Gillick made the big Alomar/Carter trade at the December 1990 winter meetings, and the 1991 Jays would go on to win the AL East with 91 wins, losing the ALCS to the Twins that year.
Is there a chance the Toronto Blue Jays could see a regression in 2022? Both history and the baseball gods remind us that it’s possible.
In 1992, the team would actually increase their win total to 96, again winning the AL East behind a dominant pitching staff, solid bats, and a stellar team defense with stars such as Dave Winfield, Roberto Alomar, John Olerud, Manny Lee, Devon White, Joe Carter and Candy Maldonado. That team would go on to beat Oakland in the ALCS behind a clutch Alomar home run off Closer Dennis Eckersley, and then they beat the Braves 4-2 in the World Series, bringing home Toronto’s first MLB Championship.
So will the 2022 Blue Jays regress, or be more like the 1992 Jays?
That 1992 pitching staff was dominant, led by Juan Guzman, Jimmy Key, and Jack Morris, and supplemented by the August addition of David Cone. The bullpen was led by Duane Ward setting up Tom Henke.
That team also had a good mix of young studs in Alomar, Olerud, Guzman, and Hentgen, plus Jeff Kent who was traded for David Cone in an August deal that Pat Gillick says was one of his best trades ever as a General Manager.
They had players in their prime like Key, Ward, Henke, White, Gruber and Carter Todd Stottlemyre, Mike Timlin, David Wells, Pat Borders, plus a good group of veterans who already been paid and just wanted to win like Winfield and Morris, who signed free agent contracts on consecutive days in December 1991.
In fact, this current Blue Jays roster is probably one top of the rotation starter, two more high leverage relievers, and another positional player in their prime away from being a very similar team to the 1992 Jays.
With Robbie Ray, Marcus Semien and Stephen Matz opting for free agency, the front office needs to replace over 16.0 WAR just to replicate the 91 win team in 2021.
Will added payroll to sign free agents help to do that? MLB Rumors projects it will take a six year, $138 million contract to resign Semien and they predict he’ll sign with one of Boston, the Dodgers or Angels. They do think Robbie Ray will resign with the Jays on a 5 year deal for $130 million.
Signing a Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw would potentially be a lot like the Jack Morris signing on December 18, 1991. Dave Winfield, who signed the very next day on December 19, 1991 might have a comparable in Nelson Cruz or Freddie Freeman?
One other caveat is that a Mark Shapiro-led team has never progressed beyond 90+ wins the following year in his now twenty years of front office leadership. The 2005, 2007, and 2013 Indians all won 90+ games, but regressed the following season to under 90 wins.
And those teams were also loaded with young cores, like the 2005 and 2007 teams with players including Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Coco Crisp, Victor Martinez, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona.
The 2013 edition that won 92 games and finished second in the AL Central included young stars such as Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Jose Ramírez, Yan Gomes and Asdrubal Cabrera, plus a young Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Cody Allen.
The following year in 2014, they regressed to only 85 wins despite an All-Star and MVP finalist year for breakout star Brantley (7.0 WAR), and a Cy Young award winning season for Kluber (8.1 WAR).
That sounds eerily familiar to the 2021 Jays, with MVP finalists Vlad Guerrero Jr., and Marcus Semien, plus newly crowned AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray.
The other big unknown this offseason is how much payroll room the team will have to work under versus the current projected estimate of $115 million, down $20 million from the 2021 Opening Day payroll of $135 million even after the Berríos extension.
There are two question marks there:
1) at what level will the competitive balance payroll (or “luxury tax”) kick in at under a pending new CBA compared to $210 million in 2021; and,
2) how focused will ownership be on the team given the uncertainty facing Rogers Communications and their board?
The Blue Jays are 100% owned by Rogers, which just went through a real life ’Succession’ style family feud, with Chairman Edward Rogers exerting his will on the board and firing CEO Joe Natale. Could that be a distraction in 2022?
Rogers only own 37.5% of the Maple Leafs and Raptors through their stake in MLSE, but those two teams have regularly had payrolls in the top ten of their respective leagues. The Jays haven’t had a top ten MLB payroll since Opening Day 2018 when they ranked 8th at $162 million.
Could that all finally change in 2022? So far we’ve heard the Jays have pursued the three top free agent starting pitchers to sign new contracts so far in Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander.
Would a Robbie Ray reunion (he rejected the Jays $18.4 million qualifying offer), or a Max Scherzer, Carlos Rodon, or Kevin Gausman free agent signing help reduce the risk of a regression in 2022?
Closer Raisel Iglesias has also rejected his QO (MLBTR sees him as a potential Toronto signing for 4 years and $56 million), and Matz is also still available (at an MLBTR projected contract of three years and $27 million). MLBTR thinks Closer Kenley Jansen could sign with Toronto for 2 years and $26 million.
Could they also look at a 3B like Kyle Seager (MLBTR projects 2 years/$24 million), Eduardo Escobar (MLBTR estimates 2 years, $20 million) or trade for All-Star 3B Jose Ramírez from Cleveland?
What do you think? What will it take for this team to not regress and win the 92~108 games that were needed to win either a Wild Card or the AL East pennant in the past three full 162 game seasons since 2018? Or could the Jays regress in 2022?