By James Wagner
The Toronto Blue Jays were one of the most electrifying teams in Major League Baseball last season. They relied on young, vibrant and dynamic players, from first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to shortstop Bo Bichette to pitcher Alek Manoah. Seven players hit at least 20 home runs. They had the year’s American League Cy Young Award winner (Robbie Ray) and the runner-up for the MVP Award (Guerrero). They won 91 games.
But playing in a tough division, the AL East, from which three teams reached the postseason in October, the Blue Jays fell one game short of the playoffs. Watching on Rogers Centre’s big screen as the rival Boston Red Sox claimed a postseason spot on the final day of the regular season, Guerrero sat quietly in the dugout.
Normally after a team’s season ends, players head right to their permanent homes. Guerrero, rather than flying to his native Dominican Republic, lingered in Toronto for three more days in disbelief. He coped by sitting around watching TV.
“It didn’t feel the same,” he said last week.
Months removed from those sad days, Guerrero conjured a much different emotion at the Blue Jays’ spring training site in Dunedin, Florida last Thursday. The day before, the Blue Jays had completed a trade with the Oakland Athletics for power-hitting, slick-fielding third baseman Matt Chapman, 28, adding him to a team whose talented young core remained intact.
“What we did last year was a trailer,” Guerrero said. “I think they’re now going to see the movie.”
The losses to the cast over the offseason were significant: Second baseman Marcus Semien, who hit 45 home runs, signed a seven-year, $175 million contract with the Texas Rangers; starting pitcher Steven Matz, who had a 3.82 ERA, signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Ray, the Cy Young winner, signed a five-year, $115 million pact with the Seattle Mariners.
But on a team so talented, those departures barely dented the team’s depth. They still had three 2021 All-Stars (right fielder Teoscar Hernández, Guerrero and Bichette), former All-Star center fielder George Springer (who hit 22 home runs in an injury-plagued season), the hard-throwing Manoah (who posted a 3.22 ERA in his rookie year) and a rotation that includes former All-Stars José Berríos and Hyun-jin Ryu.
“Last year, I got to see how they were at such a young age, and now they’re one year older,” Springer, 32, said of Bichette, 24; Hernández, 29; and Guerrero, 23. “So you just hope that you learn from that experience and you build on it.”
Among the reinforcements brought in for 2022: starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (whose breakout 2021 season with the San Francisco Giants, with a 2.81 ERA, earned him an All-Star spot and a five-year, $115 million deal) and starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi (who had a 4.41 ERA last year as the Mariners’ lone All-Star). And, of course, there is Chapman, who arrived Thursday from the Athletics’ spring training site in Arizona and was in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse at 5:55 a.m. Friday.
“Which is like 2:55 in Arizona,” he said, laughing. (Arizona is only two time zones away from Florida but currently has a three-hour time difference because it does not observe daylight saving time.) “I knew I was going to have a busy day today. I wanted to make sure I can meet all my teammates.”
He added: “I couldn’t sleep. It felt like my first day of school.”
After he was informed of his trade last Wednesday, Chapman said, he heard from several new teammates, including Bichette and Springer. He said Semien, his teammate in Oakland from 2017 to 2020, had called to give him the rundown of what to expect with the Blue Jays and living in Canada and to tell him that he was going to love his new team. (Chapman said Semien, who left Oakland for Toronto after the 2020 season, had previously raved about the Blue Jays’ facilities and resources.)
Chapman said he and his wife had been bracing for a trade, so they had packed light for spring training. While the Athletics are owned by a billionaire, have made the postseason in three of the past four seasons and play in the populous Bay Area, they operate more like a small-market franchise, call an old ballpark home and are consistently ranked near the bottom in MLB in attendance. In the last two weeks, they traded away a group of All-Stars who had two years or less left before free agency and were getting expensive: starting pitcher Chris Bassitt (to the New York Mets), first baseman Matt Olson (to Atlanta) and Chapman.
To acquire Chapman, the Blue Jays coughed up four prospects, only two of whom were ranked in Toronto’s top 10. Inserted into a lineup that led the major leagues in home runs and on-base-plus-slugging percentage last year, Chapman softens the loss of Semien and upgrades the team’s production at third base.
Last year, Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal led a group that combined to hit .249 with 10 home runs and a .691 OPS. During a down 2021 season, Chapman hit .210 with 27 home runs and a .716 OPS. In his previous four seasons combined, he posted an .839 OPS, and he smashed 36 home runs in 2019.
In explaining the dip in offense last year, Chapman pointed to hip surgery he had undergone in September 2020 that required rehabilitation during the offseason and thus cut into his strength and conditioning heading into the 2021 season. He said he had felt the weakness more at the plate than in the field. Over the winter, he said, he lifted weights, ran and built his power as he normally would.
Chapman will make his mark on defense. Blue Jays pitchers produced a lot of ground balls toward third base last season — something Chapman was already salivating over — and that should work well for the three-time Gold Glove award winner. In 2018 and 2019, he reached an even higher level, winning the Platinum Glove, an annual prize given to the single best defender in each league regardless of position. The Blue Jays hope the enormous defensive upgrade can help them win their first championship since 1993.
“At the end there in Oakland, a lot were starting to question the direction it was going,” he said. “But coming here, the direction is clear: wanting to win a World Series.”
In the coming days and weeks, Guerrero said, his goal is to get to know all of the new faces on the team. Falling short of the postseason last year, he said, will motivate the Blue Jays to win “more than 100 games” this season. (Thankfully for them, the postseason has expanded from 10 to 12 teams.) And in his mind, the movie he has dreamed of has one particular ending.
“There are 29 other teams competing, too,” Guerrero said, “but that’s the mindset here: to reach the World Series and win it.”