Friday Five: Biggest storylines heading into this Blue Jays season

Nick Reid Apr 1, 2022

Every sports fan loves a narrative. Box scores only tell you so much, and not everyone can get behind advanced stats. A good storyline’s purpose is to get people to tune in, to give them something to look forward to, to MAKE THEM BELIEVE!! In an industry where news sells more than numbers, everyone, including the Toronto Blue Jays, benefits from a good storyline.

And thankfully for Jays fans we have quite a few of those heading into this year. After following up a promising 2021 with a good offseason, there’s a lot to be excited about. And with Opening Day exactly a week away, there’s no better time than now to see what’s ahead of us. Buckle up and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle folks, we’re just about ready for takeoff.

This Friday Five takes a look at my biggest storylines to pay attention to heading into this season of Blue Jays baseball. The expectations are sky-high for this ballclub, and I’m as optimistic as anyone that they can have a great regular season and contend for the World Series. But before I’m buying any champagne there’s some key things I’ll be paying attention to that can make or break this team’s title hopes.

#5: The steadiness of Hyun-Jin Ryu

After a great first season with the Jays, Ryu showed signs of regression in ’21 especially in the second half. He was literally league average with a 100 ERA+, hampered by a crumby 7.55 ERA across the final two months. Ryu struggled with injuries and ended the season on a terrible note, which is why some of you may have a sour taste in your mouth when his comes up. The southpaw limped down the stretch and because of that it may be hard to remember how reliable he was in the first season and a half of his Jays tenure.

When healthy and firing on all cylinders, Ryu is a vital cog in this rotation. The Jays will hope that they can rely on him to go deep in games to alleviate the bullpen, and pitch well enough to give one of the league’s best offenses a fair chance to win ballgames.

Ryu was streaky last season. He had three months where his ERA was 2.73 or below in each, and another three where it was 4.88 or higher. I hope he can avoid as many visits with the trainer and do what we know he’s capable of: get on that mound and shove.

#4: George Springer’s health

Speaking of visiting the trainer, hardly any Blue Jay did so in ’21 as much as George Springer. His season started off on a horrendous note when the outfielder missed nearly all of April with oblique issues, only to get activated to play four games before going down again with a quad injury.

All in all Springer played just 78 games with the Jays, and it makes you wonder whether this club would have still been just one win shy of reaching the postseason if they played more games where the lineup featured the franchise’s record-setting free agent signing. Sometimes the best ability is availability.

So a storyline I’m keeping tabs on is the health of our hundred-and-fifty million dollar man. I hope we get to see more of George Springer. Because when the 32-year old is healthy he is downright DANGEROUS at the plate. The fact that he had a .907 OPS last season while playing almost solely at less than 100% is nothing short of remarkable. And I can’t forget to mention he’s a great defender.

It’s also crazy to think that we saw 22 Springer dingers in less than half a season worth of games! Fans will fall in love with a healthy George Springer.

#3: Breakout season for Nate Pearson?

Some of you may have forgotten about Nate Pearson. Pffft, casuals. Pearson went from a 1st round pick to the top prospect in the Blue Jays’ farm system, putting the league on notice with his triple digit GAS in the Arizona Fall league in ’18. It’s been a while since the Jays had a pitching prospect with as much buzz surrounding them as the 6’6″ right-hander did.

But like many big, hard-throwing pitchers, Pearson dealt with injuries. And mechanical issues. Young arms rarely have an easy road to the Majors (not everyone can be Alek Manoah), and Pearson hasn’t been spared. He had a 6.00 ERA across 5 appearances (4 starts) in 2020, and the Jays’ inability to trust the kid as a starter led him to operate primarily out of the bullpen when he was in Toronto last year. He’s shown us flashes of his potential, but the verdict isn’t out yet on whether his success will translate to the Majors.

This is a big year for Nate Pearson. The 25-year old should break camp with the Blue Jays out of the bullpen, and we’ll hope he strings together enough solid relief appearances to prove that he can hang with the big boys. Pearson has a nasty fastball/breaking ball combo and if he can get his pitches going in the big leagues this season, oooohhh boy watch out.

Ideally I’d like for Pearson to continue on his initial trajectory as a starter, but for now we need to see more from him to get to that point. Given that the Blue Jays’ rotation is among the league’s best there’s less pressure on stretching him out, but hopefully he pitches well enough that manager Charlie Montoyo can have confidence turning to him if injuries create an opening. This could be a make or break campaign for Nate Pearson, and I hope he rises to the occasion.

#2: How much will a full season at home Matter?

When looking back on how last season ended for the Blue Jays (which is still a touchy topic for yours truly), a common “what if” that comes up has to do with this club’s residency. The Jays were nomads in 2021, MLB’s Bondzee some may say, as they called two different parks home before moving back into the Rogers Centre for the first time in nearly 700 days. The club’s return to Toronto was one of the most memorable games of my lifetime.

The Jays had as many distractions as any ballclub last season, and yet they were still so close to playing October baseball. They went 25-11 at the Rogers Centre, good enough for a .694 win percentage that stands as their best single-season home performance in franchise history. They were electric when they moved to the dome, fuelled by a crowd that was thrilled to have the boys in blue back in town.

While it may be unrealistic to extrapolate such dominance across 81 games, if the Blue Jays can come anywhere close to replicating their success at home across a full season then they’re gonna be in great shape. And Jays fans will get to see a whole lot of W’s.

#1: Vladdy Jr. MVP campaign?

I don’t think there was anything I enjoyed last year, across all facets of life, as much as I did watching Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit baseballs. Vladdy had one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history, hitting .311 with 48 home runs and 111 runs batted in. He was tops in the American League with a 1.002 OPS, and led the entire MLB in homers, runs, and total bases. And he did it all as a 22-year old!! We have a real superstar on our hands.

Vladdy Jr. was as good as it gets last season, and figures to be one of the true faces of the sport for years to come. Yet amidst all of his raking last season, he didn’t win a Most Valuable Player award to show for it.

I’m looking for that to change this season. Vladdy’s incredible ’21 was overshadowed by perhaps the most impressive single season by any player in baseball history when Shohei Ohtani did it all at the plate and on the mound, but this year is Vladdy’s year. If he can replicate his success this season, or even come close to it, he’ll have no problem being back in the MVP conversation.

The storyline I’m most excited for heading into this season of Blue Jays baseball is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s quest for an AL MVP award. The guy is must-watch on a nightly basis, and I’ll sure as heck be tuning in. May the year 2022 have an abundance of PLAKATAS.

Nick Reid

Blue Jays Contributor for Sport Management student at Brock University. Have seen a game at all 30 Major League ballparks. Would rather be eating poutine at the Rogers Centre.

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