The Blue Jays and Yankees began a familiarity tour Sunday.
They opened spring training to close out February, a 6-4 Toronto win, and they 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 against the Blue Jays.
Then they will see each other a lot. And when they look across the field, they can really see a lot from each other. Does this sound familiar to Yankees fans? Toronto has an ace and then is betting on upward rotation plays behind Hyun-jin Ryu. The Blue Jays have a long and powerful lineup, but it’s too dexterous.
The Yankees’ bullpen projects are considerably better, which is why the Yankees are generally viewed as the team to beat in the American League East. The Rays are the defending champions of not only the division, but also the American League. 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 extended playoffs, fit in?
Let’s go back to that schedule. During the second week of June, the Yankees will face the Blue Jays 12 times in 68 regular-season games, and not again until seven games in September, including three to close out the season. The expectation is that those games will be important to the Yankees. Will they do it for Toronto? Some thoughts:
1. After signing a four-year, $ 80 million deal, Ryu finished third for the AL Cy Young in 2020. But that was a 12-start season. Ryu is excellent when he throws. Only Jacob deGrom (189) has a better ERA-plus than Ryu (172) of 2018-20 (minimum 300 innings). But deGrom has released 157 more entries. Ryu has qualified for the ERA title in just three of the eight seasons since arriving from South Korea. Can you be an ace for six months and start at 28 in 2021?
2. As with the Yankees’ rotation after Gerrit Cole, the Blue Jays rely on talent over predictability behind Ryu. Nate Pearson is among the top pitcher prospects in the majors. But the fiery player had an elbow injury last year and was limited to just 18 innings. How much can you give in 2021?
This offseason, Toronto leaned into the headlines with a record of underperforming quality by retaining Robbie Ray, signing Tyler Chatwood and trading for Steven Matz. Ray put on muscle, returned to his old delivery, and has drawn praise 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 constantly flourish.
3. Toronto prospects were ahead of the pitching. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., sons of MLB stars, are now to the Blue Jays what Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez were to the Yankees half a decade ago.
The Blue Jays and Mets started the offseason when teams looked ready to spend. No club invested more in free agency than the Blue Jays ($ 186.25 million). Six years for $ 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 just with talent, but with daily energy? Toronto anticipates that Springer and Marcus Semien (moving from short to second) will lengthen their lineup and remove some of the burden of being spokespersons and leaders of the young core.
4. Blue Jays will need (plural) home field leads. The Blue Jays did not play in Canada last year due to the pandemic and at least their first two homestays of 2021 will be at their spring facility in Dunedin, Florida. They don’t want to play outside in the Florida heat in the summer, so if the Jays can’t return to Toronto, they’ll head to Buffalo, which is where they played last season. It’s possible, even if that happens, that the Blue Jays could eventually end up in Toronto.
There are many positives that the Blue Jays derive from being the only MLB team based in Canada. But it is often a disadvantage in recruiting free agents, having to accept Canadian dollars but paying players in the United States and being nomads for the last two years.
5. What are the wild cards when Toronto tries to be at least one wild card again? Guerrero Jr. says he has lost 42 pounds since he was overweight for the resumption of spring training last July. That is unlikely to get him back to third base. But does the physical improvement also speak of an improvement in maturity, and will that combination allow Guerrero (March 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 to have the chips removed from his elbow. A return to form would give Toronto a necessary feather anchor.
Can Toronto use a farm system generally seen as the top five plus positional depth (with Springer at the center, only two can play daily in the outfields of Randall Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel and Teoscar Hernandez) to add pitches from now until the 31st? of July?