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The Blue Jays enter 2022 with a chip on their shoulder

After narrowly missing a playoff berth, the Blue Jays appear ready to win the division outright.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It has to be rough to win 90 games and miss the playoffs. It has to be rougher to watch the three teams that finished ahead of you fail to reach the World Series. It has to be roughest to see the World Series won by an 88-win team.

The 2021 Blue Jays were among MLB’s best teams, but they had the misfortune of playing in the American League’s toughest division. They were a top-three team in runs scored, wRC+, and position player fWAR. As a whole, their pitching wasn’t incredible, but they add the AL Cy Young winner leading their rotation.

Last season had a bitter end, but judging from our staff predictions, 2022 will be much better. Three out of five writers picked the Blue Jays to win the AL East this year, myself included. Before any Blue Jays fans use that information to get their hopes up, just know that I was one of those writers and that (A) my predictions are often wrong and (B) I was just pulling a name out of a hat.

The AL East is going to be a crapshoot, and it’s going to be crappier and shootier with every week that Rob Manfred hacks off the schedule and sends to Tony Clark in a box. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing for Toronto.

Before we look at projections, remember that much can change as soon as the lockout ends. Impact free agents like Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Freddie Freeman, and Carlos Rodon are still lurking out there, waiting to upend a playoff race.

Currently, PECOTA projects an AL East-best .583 winning percentage, but generally, the teams at the top suffer from shortened seasons. If the Blue Jays truly are the best team in the division, they want a 162-game season where it’s harder to fluke your way into greatness. The Yankees and Rays aren’t projected to be noticeably worse, however. Four games are all that separate those three teams, and when projections are concerned, that’s almost no difference at all. The Jays might not be the best team in the AL East, so a shortened season could be a benefit so long as they don’t get their foot stuck in a bucket.

On the offensive side, the Jays saw one major departure. Marcus Semien, who finished third in MVP voting, signed a seven-year deal with the Texas Rangers before the owners started the lockout. In his one year with Toronto, Semien hit 45 homers and posted a 131 wRC+. Short of signing Carlos Correa, the Blue Jays won’t be able to replace that production.

The good news is that they don’t necessarily have to. Semien’s 131 wRC+ was only fourth-best on the team as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, and Teoscar Hernández finished with higher marks if only slightly. Bo Bichette wasn't far behind at 121.

It’s no shock that Springer and Guerrero mashed last year, but Hernandez is a different story. The 29-year-old has never been a liability at the plate, but between 2020 and 2021, he kicked it into another gear. Hernández slashed .295/.354/.538 for a 134 wRC+. 2021 was also the first full year in which Hernández put up a strikeout rate under 30 percent, and it’s not because of a sudden change in discipline. His chase rate was actually at a career-high 34.3 percent over the last two seasons. Whether Hernández can keep up his 2021 production will be a major factor in the Blue Jays’ success in 2022.

Regardless, the Blue Jays could do with another free agent bat when the lockout ends. They don’t have to sign Correa or Story, but it sure wouldn’t hurt. Someone like Donovan Solano is likely a more realistic option. Solano could form a nice platoon with the lefty-swinging Cavan Biggio. Biggio only mustered a 51 wRC+ against lefties in 2021, and his bat has never been his greatest tool.

On the other side of the ball, the Jays will have to survive without Robbie Ray, who signed a five-year deal with the Mariners. The extension of midseason pickup José Berríos and the signing of Kevin Gausman more than make up for that though. Berríos came to Toronto in a deadline deal with the Minnesota Twins, and the righty pitched to a 3.28 FIP across 12 starts for the Blue Jays. His performance down the stretch was in line with what he’s done throughout his career.

Aside from a midseason scuffle, Gausman has been excellent since joining the Giants ahead of the 2020 season. In 2021, Gausman finished in the top-10 of ERA, FIP, strikeout rate, and fWAR.

Behind Berríos and Gausman, the Jays have Hyun-jin Ryu, Alek Manoah, and Ross Stripling. Ryu is coming off his worst season in MLB, but his worst is still better than a lot of pitchers’ median year. The 24-year-old Manoah had a strong debut, pitching to a 3.80 FIP in 112 23 innings. Stripling struggled in 2020 and 2021, but he has enough upside to be a solid fifth starter.

To finish out their offseason, the Blue Jays should consider shoring up their bullpen. Big names like Kenley Jansen, Collin McHugh, and Andrew Chafin are still available. Jordan Romano, Tim Mayza, and Adam Cimber didn’t get a ton of regular support in 2021, and hopefully, Nate Pearson can contribute all season long and put things together.

Prediction: 95-67 (.586)*

The Blue Jays will slug their way to contention, but without additions to the pitching staff, they won’t escape the gravitational pull of the AL East scrum. I think they can rise above it, but it won’t be easy.

*Our predictions assume a 162-game season which may or may not happen. Because we don’t know how long the season will be, we’re sticking with 162 for consistency.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.