The Toronto Blue Jays have the bats to do some damage in the American League East this season.
Whether they'll have the arms to hold the opposition at bay remains the big question mark.
General manager Ross Atkins landed a top free agent in outfielder George Springer in the off-season and added some intriguing pieces in infielder Marcus Semien and relievers Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps.
Toronto's young core of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio appears ready for the next step but the starting rotation is mediocre. So coming off a decent 32-28 campaign in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, what does Atkins think the Blue Jays are capable of this time around?
"Being exceptionally competitive and a team that no one else wants to play," Atkins said. "It is an exciting group to be around. They are uplifting one another.
"They are thinking about winning and thinking about one another."
The Blue Jays will kick off the 2021 campaign Thursday at New York against the Yankees, though they will do so without Springer, who is heading to the injured list with a Grade 2 oblique strain.
Ace Hyun-jin Ryu, who starts the opener, will again be counted on at the front of the rotation this season. Nate Pearson could make the jump to the No. 2 spot but he's nursing a groin injury.
Robbie Ray, who will miss his first start with an elbow injury, Steven Matz, Ross Stripling and Tanner Roark have had mixed results in recent years but they will be counted on to eat innings.
The bullpen still looks solid despite the loss of Kirby Yates. He was tabbed for the closer role after signing a one-year deal in the off-season but elbow woes will likely sideline him for the year.
Chatwood and Phelps could get setup opportunities for Rafael Dolis or Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., in the ninth inning. Manager Charlie Montoyo plans to use the closer-by-committee approach that was needed last season when Ken Giles went down to injury.
"We're lucky enough that we've got enough guys that can do the job," said Montoyo, who recently had his contract option picked up for 2022. "So we're going to use different guys just like we did last year."
The Blue Jays made back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances in 2015 and '16 before a three-year rebuild.
Toronto's youngsters are blossoming now and expectations are higher after a brief wild-card series appearance in last year's expanded post-season.
Sluggers Rowdy Tellez and Teoscar Hernandez help round out a potent offensive lineup that includes outfielders Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., and Randal Grichuk.
The off-season addition of Springer — who signed a six-year deal worth a franchise record US$150 million — showed that the front office means business.
The playoffs will now be an expectation instead of a pleasant surprise.
Las Vegas seems to agree. The VegasInsider website pegs the Blue Jays as a 10-1 pick to win the American League pennant — tied with Houston and behind only New York, Chicago and Minnesota — and a 4-1 pick to win the East Division.
Toronto is a 22-1 pick to win its first World Series title since 1993.
"As we've continued to think about how we can have a sustainable winning team here that this city and country could be very proud of, we knew we had to be patient," Atkins said. "We knew we had to provide from within and scout, sign and develop talent from within that we could then complement in free agency and via trade, and this is one step towards that vision.
"We'll never be done. It is never a finished product and there's opportunities to make this team better. But I feel like we've taken a very positive step in the process to bringing championships back to Canada."
The Blue Jays played home games in Buffalo, N.Y., last season due to border restrictions. TD Ballpark at their spring-training base in Dunedin, Fla., will serve as a temporary home until the end of May at a minimum.
The Blue Jays hope to return to Rogers Centre at some point this season. A return to Buffalo's Sahlen Field also remains a possibility.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press