With Daulton Varsho at the plate and Twins fireballer Jhoan Duran on the mound, the Blue Jays were down to their last strike of the season during yesterday’s AL Wild Card matchup. One elevated 100 MPH fastball later and the Jays season was over, with the Twins dugout spilling onto the field to celebrate their first postseason series win dating back to 2002.
The 2023 campaign was a major test for even the most hardcore Blue Jays fan, one that steered away from their previous identity of mashing home runs and driving up the scoreboard to one focused more on defense and their pitching staff. A bit more boring on the field, but one that should produce results given the core assembled.
This was evident right from the get-go, as the club traded fan-favorite Teoscar Hernández to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for reliever Erik Swanson while also acquiring Varsho from the Diamondbacks, sending top prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the desert.
The finishing touches were a trio of free agent signings, adding right-hander Chris Bassitt to a multi-year deal while also signing Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Belt to one-year deals to shore up the squad.
All those moves helped the Blue Jays reach the postseason for a second-straight year but they once again fell short, unable to secure a win and getting swept in the Wild Card.
Blue Jays swept by the Minnesota Twins in the AL Wild Card
This is the third-straight postseason appearance where the Jays were unable to win in October and one that has an internal hand in regards to the outcome.
The club decided to take out a surging José Berríos in the fourth inning to play the lefty on lefty matchups with Yusei Kikuchi out of the bullpen, a move that later amounted to two runs which would be the difference maker in the contest.
There is no guarantee that Berríos would have continued his hot stretch late into the game but the decision drew the ire of many Jays fans on social media, as the right-hander was holding the Twins at bay and giving the Jays offense a chance to win the game, although they too came up short.
Factor in a baserunning miscue from Guerrero Jr. who was picked off at second base (the second baserunning error in as many games from a Blue Jays batter) and the lineup struggled against the Twins pitching staff, mustering just one run across both games and getting outmatched on numerous occasions.
The way the season ended for the Jays pretty much sums up how their entire campaign has gone – short of expectations
Blue Jays bats fall short all season long
On paper, the Blue Jays were a solid team that was tasked with facing a tough division in the AL East. One that proved to be a bit of their crutch this season.
The Jays went 21-31 in interdivision contests and also struggled to gain any form of consistency when it came to winning ballgames.
At one point this season the club swept the Atlanta Braves, outscoring the NL East powerhouse by a collective score of 14-7, before going on a 2-9 run against the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays that saw them just struggle to put up more than five runs in any of those games except for a blowout 20-run outing against Tampa.
This inconsistency was a sore point for the fan base this year, with multiple players struggling to find a groove at the plate. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. didn’t look like the powerhouse hitter many expected from his 2021 MVP campaign, while the likes of Varsho, George Springer, and Alejandro Kirk all took a step back in terms of what many would consider their normal baselines.
Besides Bo Bichette and at times Brandon Belt, this Blue Jays offense was a step behind the rest and it really came to the forefront in the AL Wild Card.
Comparison-wise, the Blue Jays bats ranked eighth in average and OBP (.256 and .329), 11th in OPS (.746), and 16th in home runs (188), a category they led in 2021 and 12 knocks behind their 2022 total. They ranked near the bottom of the league in plating runners in scoring position and were just a shade of their former selves.
While no one player can be the pinpoint for their struggles at the plate this season, collectively, this was an outcome that missed the mark.
The Pitching Staff Carried this Team
With the addition of Bassitt this offseason, the Blue Jays rotation was shaping up to be one of the best in the American League and they didn’t disappoint.
Kevin Gausman led the charge and will likely earn some Cy Young votes, while Bassitt broke the 200 innings pitched mark for the first time in his career. José Berríos had an incredible bounce-back campaign after getting roughed up in 2022, while Yusei Kikuchi was able to stick in the rotation this season and finished with a 3.86 ERA on the season.
Even Hyun Jin Ryu played a big part for this club, returning towards the end of August from Tommy John surgery and racking up 52 innings. Altogether, they finished with a 3.85 ERA, just .03 points behind the Twins in the AL.
The biggest surprise this year was Alek Manoah, as the former Cy Young finalist struggled with his command on the mound to the point where the Jays organization sent him down to the Florida Complex League to work with the staff in Dunedin to get back on track.
That would prove to be only a stop-gap, as he just couldn’t find the strike zone and last pitched on August 11th, finishing the year in Triple-A but not appearing in any games as he received injections in his pitching arm which was the final nail in the coffin for his campaign.
Manoah aside, a majority of the Blue Jays pitching staff had great seasons.
Collectively, the bullpen finished with a 3.68 ERA (8th) and held opponents to a .234 average while utilizing more firepower at the back-end.
Southpaw Tim Mayza had a career-year, finishing with a 1.52 ERA through 69 appearances while newcomer Swanson allowed just 22 earned runs all year on route to a 2.97 ERA.
Jordan Romano was solid this year minus a rough last week of the campaign, but still finished with a 2.90 ERA and 36 saves, fifth-best in the Majors this season. Jordan Hicks and Genesis Cabrera joined the team at the trade deadline and helped out in the back-end of the bullpen.
Right-hander Trevor Richards may not have ended the season on a high note but was a strikeout machine, posting a 13.0 K/9 this season, while Yimi Garcia struggled early but turned in a solid second half (3.38 ERA through 29 1/3 innings).
The Jays also got some help internally from Bowden Francis and Jay Jackson, both of whom played integral parts for the club while splitting time between the MLB and Triple-A.
This season, the Blue Jays pitching staff carried the torch and the bats were their sore point, a turn of events from what happened in the 2022 postseason against the Seattle Mariners.
Looking ahead for the Blue Jays
Since Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro joined the organization in the offseason of 2015-2016, the club has struggled to muster any success in the postseason other than the backfill of previous general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s handywork in 2016.
Although the club spent this past offseason and crossed the CBT for the first time in franchise history, it will be interesting to see if ownership still believes in the current group or if changes may be required starting at the top.
This wave of change may also extend down to the coaching staff, as manager John Schneider is currently bearing the brunt of the Berríos decision from yesterday and it wouldn’t be out of the question if changes are made to various coaches on the roster.
Player-wise, the Blue Jays have numerous players heading to free agency including Belt, Kiermaier, Ryu, Chapman, Hicks, Whit Merrifield (option, likely to be declined), and Chad Green (option).
Chapman will likely receive a qualifying offer and Green’s complicated option will likely be picked up in some form as well, but there is a good chance this Blue Jays club will look vastly different next season. This could come in the form of various internal options receiving more playing time like Davis Schneider, Addison Barger, and Orelvis Martinez or whether the club explores the trade/free agent market, both of which are considered weak outside of superstar Shohei Ohtani.
After another early postseason exit, these next few weeks will be interesting to watch in Toronto as major changes could be on the horizon for a Blue Jays organization that is begging for a postseason win.