The 2024 Blue Jays appear to be taking the opposite approach of last year's team

Can they flip the script on the 2023 season and be a complete team?

MLB: Spring Training - Philadelphia Phillies at Toronto Blue Jays
MLB: Spring Training - Philadelphia Phillies at Toronto Blue Jays / VIEW press/GettyImages

Baseball is back! With the start of a new season this week, renewed hopes of a World Series run are upon us. This is year five of the current competitive window in Toronto, and Blue Jays fans remain ever hopeful, with a core in their prime and most of their excellent 2023 pitching staff returning.

We all know the mark of a successful 162-game regular season is a playoff seeding, and even after running the gauntlet of 52 games against the very competitive AL East - with four teams in MLB’s preseason power ranking’s top ten - this team again appears ready to compete for postseason glory.

As the 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks and 90-win Texas Rangers proved yet again last fall, once you get in to the playoffs, anything can happen. So expectations are sky high for the 2024 Blue Jays to break a 31-year World Series championship drought, especially as the current competitive window nears its conclusion: over half of the Opening Day roster this year - absent contract extensions - should hit free agency in the next two years.

Flip the script on 2023?

The frustrating, 89-win 2023 Blue Jays were a study in contrasts: one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, with the 4th-lowest ERA in the league at 3.79, and the 5th-highest fWAR of 18.6. The starting pitchers had the 3rd-lowest ERA at 3.85, with four qualified starters who each pitched more than 162 innings. The bullpen - led by closer Jordan Romano and his high leverage colleagues Erik Swanson, Tim Mayza, Yimi García and Chad Green - had a 3.68 ERA and 51 saves, good for third in the league.

However, the 2023 offence was clearly flawed and mediocre, with most of the hitters apart from Bo Bichette, Danny Jansen and Kevin Kiermaier below their career norms. The team combined for an OPS of .746, which ranked 11th in the league. There was also a distinct power outage, with only 188 home runs (16th), down from a league leading 262 in 2021, and 200 in 2022 (7th). That helped limit the team to only 746 runs, which ranked them 14th in a 30-team league.

That was most evident to the casual fans’ eye in their struggles with runners in scoring position (RISP), when the team only combined for an OPS of .730 to rank 20th overall. Despite the 8th most at-bats with RISP, Toronto hitters only drove in 491 of those runners (19th), with only 34 home runs in those situations (tied for 26th). The team also tied for the 3rd most ground into double plays (GIDP) at 49, with only 32 sacrifice flies (26th) when a fly-ball out to the outfield or foul territory allows a runner to score.

Following a quiet offseason, the Blue Jays’ brain trust are betting on a big internal improvement from their offence to flip that script. As team president Mark Shapiro said in his annual spring media availability, “We're not playing Strat-O-Matic baseball. We've got a strong core in place, so we doubled down in the belief of our own players and still added – we added $50 million dollars in payroll… But the core of this off-season, without a doubt, was built upon the belief in our players.”

Promising signs of internal improvement

*All stats are up-to-date entering March 25's games.

So far, so good this spring on the internal improvement upside with the hitters. The core bats of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer, Daulton Varsho and Alejandro Kirk have all come alive, driving an .842 OPS in Florida which ranks them 4th overall. Their 13 home runs and 120 RBI are also top five this spring.

Bichette has slashed .339/.362/.464/.826 and looks ready to lead the league in hits again, while Guerrero has hammered some MVP-like moonshots, with 3 home runs and 11 RBI in only 41 at-bats, while slashing .463/.511/.707/1.218.

As MLB's Jays beat writer Julia Kreuz noted in her 2024 Blue Jays’ preview, “Entering “the prime” of his career, as president and CEO Mark Shapiro put it during Spring Training, Vladdy is in great shape, and he’s pulling the ball a lot more consistently than he did last year.”

Varsho has also flashed some hopeful adjustments to his swing, slashing .286/.400/.408/.808. Kirk and Springer have 3 home runs each, and newcomers Justin Turner and Isiah Kiner-Falefa have fit right in and contributed with their bats as well.

But what about the pitchers?

Left unsaid in the front office’s comments this offseason about “internal improvement” has been the clear assumption that the pitching staff will run it back, and repeat their outstanding 2023 performance.

Obviously a World Series contender needs a solid mix of pitching and defense for run prevention, combined with a powerful offence that can drive a big run differential over the grind of the regular season and then deep into October.

But are we taking that pitching staff for granted? With ace Kevin Gausman, rebound candidate Alex Manoah, and top prospect Ricky Tiedemann all slow to ramp up this spring, and lingering arm issues with key relievers Romano and Swanson, what happens if the batters improve, but the pitchers regress?

Yes, it’s only spring training, and yes, that’s not always a fair predictor for regular season and playoff success. However, the early returns suggest the 2024 Blue Jays could feature a strong hitting line-up driven by that projected internal improvement, but a pitching staff that falls back to earth and regresses to career averages. In other words, the opposite of last year’s team.

Will that be enough to get this team deep into the postseason? Certainly there is still some payroll capacity under the more punitive $257M, 2nd-tier of the luxury tax threshold this year, which suggests the team could improve this roster at the trade deadline if they’re in the playoff hunt come late July.