Remember the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays? That team kicked so much ass.
Between Toronto’s 1993 World Series–winning group and that one, the Blue Jays had rolled out an assembly line of homegrown power hitters surrounded by well-paid veterans past their prime. That led to some ugly uniforms, a lot of hovering around .500, and zero postseason appearances. But in 2015, it all came together. José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación were as good as ever. Veterans like Russell Martin, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle put together some of their last good seasons. And a few young players started to poke up through the grass: Marcus Stroman returned from injury to spark the rotation late in the season, while rookie second baseman Devon Travis came up and hit like Joe Morgan.
But most of all, this franchise, which for decades had scuttled by as another Great Lakes also-ran, woke up one morning and realized it had titanically wealthy corporate owners and sole possession of a home market bigger than Chicago. So the Jays traded for Josh Donaldson, who hit 41 home runs and won the AL MVP award in his first season in Toronto. And in one feverish three-day span in July, they added shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and eventual Cy Young runner-up David Price.
This team could hit, pitch, run, dance, laugh, cry, and do your taxes. They won the AL East by six games, and their plus-221 run differential led all of baseball by nearly 100 runs. Once in the playoffs, they gave us one of the most nerve-racking, ludicrous innings in baseball history, capped by the most famous celebration in sports this side of the Funky Chicken.
The Jays didn’t win it all that year—the Kansas City Royals took Toronto out in the ALCS. But this dream team, this relentless offensive juggernaut, had popped up almost overnight in a city that’s way more sports-obsessed than most Americans realize. It was match-in-the-gas-can stuff. My own lifelong rooting interests notwithstanding, the 2015 Blue Jays are my favorite baseball team ever, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close.
The Blue Jays aren’t good that often, but it seems like when they are, they get there by following a similar blueprint. Like that 2015 team, the 1992-93 iteration was also packed with elite hitters and cycled through ring-chasing superstars like they were ice cream samples at Jeni’s: Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, David Cone, Paul Molitor, and so on. And this year, with this roster, the cycle seems primed to repeat itself.
Last year’s Blue Jays made the playoffs thanks only to the expanded postseason structure, but they were far from a one-year fluke. The 2020 Jays played to what would have been an 86-win pace in a 162-game season, and they did so while gradually turning a great farm system into a competitive MLB roster.
Other contenders, like the Braves and White Sox, dove into rebuilds voluntarily by selling off and parting out competitive rosters. But the Blue Jays’ current core was already in the organization by the time they were knocked out of the 2016 ALCS. In July 2015, Toronto signed Canadian-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr., then 16 years old, to a $3.9 million deal. In the 2016 draft, they selected high school shortstop Bo Bichette in the second round and Notre Dame second baseman Cavan Biggio in the fifth. That November, they inked Cuban infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to a seven-year deal.
That these four all came from legendary baseball families made for a nice narrative tie-in, but they’re all very good big leaguers in their own right. Bichette looks like the best of the bunch so far, an elite two-way shortstop with good power for his slight 6-foot frame and MVP-level charisma and self-confidence to boot. Guerrero, the former no. 1 overall prospect in baseball, came in with such hype that his first two seasons—in which he hit .269/.336/.442 at age 20 and 21—were viewed as a disappointment. But his youth, skill, and new commitment to fitness portend more and better in years to come. Biggio posted a .375 OBP last year, and Gurriel, through three major league seasons, has a career slash line of .287/.327/.508.
This was already a playoff-quality core, and Toronto is building a full contender around it. In 2020, first baseman Rowdy Tellez (one of far too few dudes named Rowdy in the sports universe) rebounded from a disappointing 2019 by posting a 133 wRC+ and cutting his strikeout rate almost in half. The Blue Jays also granted big league debuts to two other top prospects last year: Alejandro Kirk, a 5-foot-8, 265-pound 22-year-old with a phenomenal hit tool, and Nate Pearson, a 6-foot-6 right-hander whose pure stuff can match that of any pitching prospect on the planet. And the Jays didn’t make the mistake of compiling prospects and then hoping the rest of the team would just drop from the sky. During their rebuild, Toronto has managed to find playing time for Teoscar Hernández, who was a fourth outfielder on the 2016 Astros, but won a Silver Slugger Award with the Jays last year.
Plus, they started spending again.
Last offseason, Toronto lavished a four-year, $80 million deal on former Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who was coming off a second-place finish in NL Cy Young voting. Ryu had a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts last year, and seems to have grown past the injury problems that threatened to derail his career a few years ago. This offseason, the Jays invested in closer Kirby Yates and veteran left-hander Robbie Ray, who struggled to find the strike zone in 2020 but could be a front-of-the-rotation starter if he regains his form from a few years ago.
But the biggest moves came most recently. The Blue Jays signed outfielder George Springer, one of the top handful of free agents on the market, to a team-record six-year, $150 million contract last week. Then on Tuesday, infielder Marcus Semien joined the team on a one-year deal for $18 million.
These are two absolute monster players—two-way, up-the-middle stars who combined for 72 home runs in 2019, a year in which both finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. Springer flew under the radar on the Astros, as José Altuve and Alex Bregman made runs at the MVP award, and Carlos Correa and Yordan Álvarez popped up to grab headlines with Rookie of the Year campaigns. But Springer has been astoundingly consistent from the moment he debuted in 2014. In that seven-year span, Springer is fifth among MLB outfielders in bWAR and sixth in home runs.
Semien struggled in an injury-plagued 2020 campaign, but up to then he was one of the most durable players in baseball. In 2019, he completed a gradual evolution into one of the best shortstops in baseball, hitting .285/.369/.522 while leading the majors in games played and plate appearances. Because Semien disappointed in the last year of his contract, the Jays were able to get him on a short-term deal for relatively cheap, with the expectation that his struggles in 2020 were the result of small-sample variance and a nagging core injury.
Whenever a team transitions from rebuilding to contending, there are always one or two transactions that serve as an inflection point. One trade or signing signals to the fans that it’s time to get back on the bandwagon, and tells the young players that they’re expected to compete. The 2015 Blue Jays are one of the best examples of this, as the additions of Donaldson, Price, and Tulowitzki changed not only the talent level but the tone and tenor of the club. They went from hopeful to swaggering championship favorites in a matter of a couple months.
Springer and Semien could be those guys for the 2021 team. Both have gravitas and experience like no one else in the Jays’ clubhouse, with the possible exception of Ryu. Even if Bichette and Guerrero grow to outshine these new signings eventually, as Fernando Tatís has with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper with Jayson Werth, they can still draw on their new teammates’ experience.
Of course, the most important quality these two bring is their on-field ability. Springer is a huge upgrade over Randal Grichuk, and Semien is a huge upgrade over Joe Panik, and both players reduce the pressure on Bichette, Guerrero, and Tellez to carry the offense. A lineup with Springer at the top and Biggio somewhere around fifth or sixth is stronger than one with Biggio leading off (as he did 46 times last season) and someone like the departed Travis Shaw attempting to drive him in.
This offense could end up resembling the Astros lineup Springer made his name with—jokes about trash cans aside. The Jays now have eight or nine good on-base guys who are capable of stringing together long offensive innings. And in a world where patience is considered a virtue for hitters, Toronto’s youngsters are a refreshing change of pace in that most of them are free swingers. Bichette, Guerrero, Gurriel, and Kirk (if and when he returns to the majors) all have the kind of exceptional bat-to-ball skills that embolden them to swing at just about anything, which makes for a more aggressive and honestly more fun brand of baseball.
And the offense will need to be that good, because Toronto’s rotation has a lot of question marks after Ryu. Ray, Matt Shoemaker, and Tanner Roark have all been hurt, bad, or both quite frequently in the past few years. Likewise Steven Matz, who arrived from the Mets in a trade Wednesday night. Matz, a consensus top-15 prospect before injuries derailed his career, wasn’t terrible in 2018 and 2019, but he allowed 14 home runs in 30 2/3 innings last year. Even Pearson is far from a sure thing. He could be a Cy Young contender in the next year or two if everything clicks, but he still has a lot to prove in terms of durability and command. His mind-bending stuff didn’t translate to great results in 2020: 16 strikeouts, 12 earned runs, 13 walks, and five home runs in just 18 innings.
It would be pretty entertaining if this lineup and an iffy pitching staff combine to produce a season full of seesawing 9-8 games. But the Blue Jays’ goal is not just to entertain, but to win. And while the AL East is certainly never easy, with all five teams having dominated at one time or another in the past decade, the division is eminently winnable in 2021.
The Rays built the best team in the AL last year for next to no money, and instead of supplementing their pennant-winning team with additional talent, they let Charlie Morton walk and traded Blake Snell to the Padres, gutting their team’s strongest unit in the process. The Red Sox are still recovering from their post-2018 teardown, and if the Orioles spend any longer at the bottom of the division, an enterprising local is going to scoop them out of the water and cover them in Old Bay. The Yankees are still the Yankees, but Toronto’s path to a division title, or at least a wild-card berth, is clear.
In fact, the division hasn’t been this winnable since 2015—and we all know how that turned out.