Blue Jays vs. Yankees: Who has the upper hand in a position-by-position breakdown?

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays / Vaughn Ridley/GettyImages
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The Blue Jays spent the entire 2022 season looking up at the formidable “Bronx Bombers” in the AL East.

The New York Yankees were in first place in the division for 170 days last season, giving the Blue Jays a blueprint for what they want to be as a franchise. The Yankees were a team seemingly without a weakness: a powerful lineup, led by home run king Aaron Judge; a deep pitching staff anchored by rising star Nestor Cortes and Gerrit Cole; and a dominant bullpen.

The Blue Jays' front office focused this offseason on trying to close the gap between the two franchises. They got deeper and more balanced at the plate. They added another starting pitcher to an already promising rotation and they added a power arm in the bullpen that can rack up strikeouts when they need to stop a rally.

The Yankees believe they are still the kings of the AL East. The Blue Jays are trying to catch up. Here is how the two clubs match up at each position entering the 2023 season.

Starting pitchers

Gerrit Cole gets the headlines and the $324M contract, but the Yankees’ ace in 2022 was a left-hander with a thin mustache affectionally known as “Nasty Nestor.”

Nestor Cortes used his dizzying array of windups and twirls to confuse batters across the American League last season. A former Rule 5 Draft pick who was cast off by the Orioles, Mariners, and even the Yankees twice, Cortes went 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA, seventh among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings, on his way to earning his first All-Star selection and acclaim across the Bronx.

Having Cole and Cortes at the top of their rotation wasn’t enough for a Yankees club trying to contend for a championship, though. They went out and added Carlos Rodón in free agency, signing the former San Francisco Giant to a six-year, $162M contract. Rodon led all starting pitchers striking out 12 batters per nine innings last season and finished in the top 10 in the National League in both ERA and WHIP. Luis Severino is finally healthy after appearing in just seven games over the previous three seasons, and the Yankees also have Frankie Montas after picking up the former Athletics ace at the deadline last August. The Yankees starting rotation is powerful, formidable and potentially dominant.

The Blue Jays also found their star of the future in 2022. Alek Manoah blossomed into a full-fledged Cy Young candidate in just his second season in the big leagues, finishing third in the AL with a 2.24 ERA. The wear of a long season had no effect on Manoah; he was at his best in September, when he posted the best ERA in any calendar month by a Blue Jays starter.

Kevin Gausman got to show off his incredible splitter in his first season with the Blue Jays. His final record—12-10 with a 3.35 ERA—while good, doesn’t accurately portray how effective he was in 2022. Gausman led the AL in Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, suggesting that Gausman has the chance to be even better in 2023. The Blue Jays also made their own big free-agent acquisition with Chris Bassitt. 

It’s the depth of the rotation that gives the edge to the Yankees. José Berríos had a disastrous 2022 season, the first of a seven-year extension he signed with the Blue Jays, as he finished with the worst ERA (5.23) in the AL. The Blue Jays also head into the season uncertain who their fifth starter will be, with both options—Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White—bringing serious concerns and question marks over whether they’re good enough for a team that has postseason aspirations.

Advantage: Yankees

Bullpen

The Blue Jays 2022 season came to a sudden and crushing end when their bullpen couldn’t protect an 8-1 lead in Game 2 of the ALDS. It was a symptom of a much larger problem: the bullpen could be maddingly inconsistent at times.

The front office spent the offseason trying to remedy that problem. Their biggest acquisition was Erik Swanson, a right-hander who posted a 1.68 ERA in 57 appearances for the Seattle Mariners last season. Swanson’s biggest strength happens to be the biggest weakness of the bullpen: missing bats. Swanson was 23rd in among relievers with at least 30 innings last season in strikeouts per nine innings.

Blue Jays relievers were 23rd in whiff percentage last season. That statistic is an accurate predictor of team success: each club in the top five made the postseason, led by the World Series champion Houston Astros. 

The Yankees, meanwhile, had the seventh-highest whiff rate in the league last season. Clay Holmes takes over from the departed Aroldis Chapman as the club’s regular closer. Holmes used his 97 mph sinker to lead the Yankees bullpen to the third-lowest ERA. He gave up just eight extra-base hits off the pitch all season. Lou Trivino, acquired from the Athletics at the deadline last season, is the primary shutdown man out of the bullpen. He uses his slider to dominate hitters, allowing only a .109 average against the pitch last season.

The Blue Jays' bullpen got deeper with the acquisition of Swanson. But they still aren’t at the same level as the formidable arms the Yankees can summon out of the bullpen.

Advantage: Yankees

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