The Blue Jays undoubtedly had one of the best and most durable rotations in the Majors last season. They finished the 2023 campaign with the third-best team ERA among all starters, while also pitching the fifth-most innings.
Kevin Gausman proved himself as the staff ace, on the way to finishing third in AL Cy Young voting. Chris Bassitt was as reliable as expected, José Berríos had a bounce-back campaign and Yusei Kikuchi surprised everyone with a career year.
All are set to be back in 2024 and if they continue from where they left off last year, it will mean major problems again for opposing lineups. The thing is though, the rotation could potentially be even better, depending on a certain X factor.
More specifically, what version of Alek Manoah the Blue Jays get, i.e. the one from 2022 or last year? The answer could mean all the difference in the team underachieving and taking their game to another level.
The 2022 version of Manoah was sensational, despite it only being his second year in the Majors. He produced a 16-7 record, 2.24 ERA, 3.35 FIP and 0.992 WHIP in 31 starts, as he was named to the All-MLB first team and came third in AL Cy Young Voting.
It seemed like the sky was the limit for the Homestead, Florida native, with him set to be the Blue Jays' staff ace for many years. Instead, last season turned into a living nightmare as he experienced an equally sensational crash landing that no one could have predicted.
The early omens were bad when Manoah turned up for spring training overweight. He was pulled from the season opener during the fourth inning after allowing nine hits, two walks and five earned runs, and he never recovered.
At one point the 25-year-old was sent down to the Florida Complex League to work on his game, before the Blue Jays recalled him arguably quicker than they should have done. His situation continued to trend downwards and his season eventually ended early, in part due to his refusal to report to Buffalo.
When it was all said and done, Manoah went 3-9 in 19 starts, as he produced a pitiful stat line that included a 5.87 ERA, 6.01 FIP and 1.740 WHIP. The hope is that everything that has happened will serve as a wake-up call, which both humbles and motivates him to put in more effort.
If nothing else, the 2022 All-Star will at least get the opportunity to compete for the fifth starting spot in the rotation - Atkins said he deserves as much. In truth even if he can be a slightly above average pitcher this year then it will help, but if he can return to somewhere close to his previous form, then the Blue Jays will be really onto something.