The Blue Jays and Yankees began a familiarity tour Sunday.
They opened spring training to close February — a 6-4 Toronto win — and still have six more games in March before starting April and the regular season in The Bronx. Six of the first 12 games that count are Tor-NYY.
In all, 13 of the Yankees’ first 40 games — spring plus regular season — are vs. the Blue Jays.
So they will be seeing a lot of each other. And when they look across the field, they can really see a lot of each other. Does this sound familiar to Yankees fans? Toronto has an ace and then are gambling on upside rotation plays behind Hyun-jin Ryu. The Blue Jays have a long, powerful lineup, but it is overly right-handed.
The Yankees bullpen projects as considerably better, which is why the Yankees are generally viewed as the team to beat in the AL East. The Rays are the defending not only division champs, but AL champs. The Red Sox won it all in 2018 and their manager Alex Cora is back after a one-year suspension in 2020. So where do the Blue Jays — the AL’s eighth seed in last year’s expanded playoffs — fit?
Let’s return to that schedule. Through the second week of June, the Yanks will face the Blue Jays 12 times in 68 regular season games, then not again until seven September games, including three to close the season. The expectation is those games will matter to the Yankees. Will they for Toronto? Some thoughts:
1. After signing a four-year, $80 million pact, Ryu finished third for the AL Cy Young in 2020. But that was a 12-start season. Ryu is excellent when he pitches. Only Jacob deGrom (189) has a better ERA-plus than Ryu (172) from 2018-20 (minimum 300 innings). But deGrom has thrown 157 more innings. Ryu has qualified for the ERA title in just three of eight seasons since coming from South Korea. Can he be an ace for six months and 28-ish starts in 2021?
2. Like with the Yankees rotation after Gerrit Cole, the Blue Jays are banking on talent over predictability behind Ryu. Nate Pearson is among the majors’ best pitching prospects. But the fireballer had an elbow injury last year and was limited to just 18 innings. How much can he give in 2021?
This offseason Toronto veered toward starters with a history of underperforming quality stuff in retaining Robbie Ray, signing Tyler Chatwood and trading for Steven Matz. Ray put on muscle, went back to his old delivery and has drawn raves for his command early in camp. The Blue Jays believe that away from his hometown team, the Mets, Matz can find a peace that will allow his skill to consistently flourish.
3. Toronto’s hitting prospects were ahead of the pitching. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — sons of MLB stars — are to the Blue Jays now what Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez were to the Yankees a half decade ago.
The Blue Jays and Mets began the offseason as the teams viewed ready to spend. No club invested more in free agency than the Blue Jays ($186.25 million). Six years at $150 million went to George Springer. The Mets were the favorites for the Connecticut native. Will the Mets regret not being more aggressive in recruiting a player not only with talent, but daily energy? Toronto envisions Springer and Marcus Semien (who is moving from short to second) lengthening its lineup and removing some of the burden of being spokesmen and leaders from the young core.
4. The Blue Jays will need (plural) home fields advantages. The Jays did not play in Canada last year due to the pandemic and at least their first two homestands of 2021 will be at their Dunedin, Fla. spring facility. They do not want to play outdoors in the Florida heat in the summer, so if the Jays cannot return to Toronto they will head to Buffalo, which is where they played last season. It is possible even if that happens that the Jays eventually could still finish in Toronto.
There are many positives the Jays derive from being the only Canadian-based MLB team. But it is a disadvantage frequently in free agent recruitment, in having to take in Canadian dollars but pay players in American and in being nomads the last two years.
5. What are the wild cards as Toronto attempts to be at least a wild card again? Guerrero Jr. says he has shed 42 pounds since showing up overweight for the resumption of spring training last July. That is unlikely to return him to third base. But does the physical improvement also speak to a maturity upgrade, and will that combination allow Guerrero (22 on March 16) to graduate to an elite bat?
Kirby Yates led the majors in relief WAR (Fangraphs) in 2018-19, but was limited to six games (12.46 ERA) last year before needing chips removed from his elbow. A return to form would give Toronto a needed pen anchor.
Can Toronto use a farm system generally viewed as top five plus positional depth (with Springer in center, only two can usually play daily in the outfield from Randall Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel and Teoscar Hernandez) to add pitching between now and July 31?