The three seasons since their last postseason appearance have been disappointing for the Toronto Blue Jays. That looks like it’s about to change
On April 26, 2019 the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the Oakland Athletics at the Rogers Centre. It’s the type of middle-of-the-week, ordinary game that is quickly forgotten as soon as the final out is recorded.
The A’s were on their way to the postseason; the Jays were just beginning what would become one of the worst seasons for the franchise in 40 years. The core of the roster that took them to consecutive ALCS appearances in 2015 and 2016 was mostly gone, replaced by a bunch of young players and mediocre veterans. But this game was a turning point for the franchise. It was the day the next generation of Blue Jays baseball began.
Batting fifth and playing third base for the Blue Jays was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Guerrero had been billed as the next franchise superstar from the moment he signed as a 16-year-old in 2015, the type of prospect that only comes around once in a generation. Guerrero didn’t disappoint the 29,000 fans who turned up to see his debut, hitting a double down the right-field line in the ninth inning that sparked a walk-off victory.
Four weeks later, Cavan Biggio made his debut for the Blue Jays. Then, on July 29, Bo Bichette completed the trio, giving the Blue Jays three players with incredible bloodlines. Two of them were sons of Hall of Famers, the other an offspring of a four-time All-Star.
The arrival of Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette, often playing side-by-side in the infield, gave Blue Jays fans a sense that the overhaul being engineered by General Manager Ross Atkins was worth it. It wasn’t enough to save the 2019 season; they would lose 95 games for the first time since 1980. But the future in Toronto suddenly looks brighter than the relatively-recent past.
Guerrero didn’t have the immediate impact that scouts anticipated but still gave a glimpse into what’s to come. He had four of the top-25 hardest-hit balls last season, tied with Aaron Judge for most in the league. From the All-Star break—where he put on a memorable performance in the Home Run Derby—to the end of August he hit .325 with a .926 OPS in 42 games, including seven home runs.
But the 20-year-old slumped over the final month. He had only four extra-base hits in September and his OPS dropped to .557. For how hard he hit the ball, he was still only 149th in launch angle, leading to only 15 home runs, none over his last 118 plate appearances. His play at third base left much to be desired, ranking last among infielders in outs above average.
He had much to work on and needed to get in better shape, so Guerrero went back to his native Dominican Republic in the offseason and began an extensive workout regimen. The results this spring appeared promising. In 12 spring training games, Guerrero hit three home runs and increased his slugging percentage more than .170 points over his 2019 production.
Bichette didn’t face the same rough acclimation to the big leagues. Within his first 15 games, he set a Major League record with a double in nine straight games, became the first in history to begin his career with multiple extra-base hits in five games, and tied the record with 10 multi-hit games. After his first month, he ranked in the top-10 in the AL in batting average, slugging percentage, and was first in doubles.
Biggio displayed patience at the plate that belied his relative inexperience. In his last 26 games, he hit .323 with an on-base percentage of .453, second in the AL to Houston’s Alex Bregman in that span. He hit .361 with a 1.061 OPS over his last 16 games, including the first cycle by a Blue Jays player in 18 years, and was third in the AL in walk rate and eighth in on-base percentage over the final month of the season.
Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette have several things in common beyond their famous fathers: they’re all 25 and under; their contracts are controlled by the Blue Jays through the 2026 season; they’re all batters. In contrast to the exciting young homegrown hitters, the Blue Jays have relied on building their pitching staff by signing veteran free agents like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, and Chase Anderson. That’s where Nate Pearson becomes valuable.
Pearson is 6-foot-6 with a fastball that hovers around 100 mph but has reached as high as 104. Opponents hit .176 against him in the minors last season, eighth-best among pitchers with at least 100 innings. In 16 starts at Double-A, he struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings with a 2.59 ERA, which would’ve ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the Eastern League. Only two MLB starters, Gerrit Cole and Noah Syndergaard, threw fastballs as hard as Pearson did in 2019.
Pearson, though, is still waiting for his Major League debut after missing most of the 2018 season with a broken forearm. He has the makings of a prospect that can have the same impact on the mound as the Blue Jays rookie trio had at the plate. In four appearances in Spring Training, he gave up just two hits in seven innings while striking out 11.
Josh Bell, an All-Star starter for the Pirates last season, didn’t have a chance against Pearson’s fastball. “Without a doubt that’s high-end stuff,” Bell told the Toronto Sun following the March 1 game. “That kind of arm needs to be in the show…that’s the closest thing I’ve seen to unhittable stuff this spring.”
Atkins recognized what he had in the minors and took a patient approach to promoting them, taking full advantage of MLB’s service-time rules. Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio were ready in 2019; Pearson will be this season.
The ALCS appearances of 2015 and 2016 feel like another era for the Blue Jays. Thanks to their infield trio and Pearson’s powerful arm, another is just beginning in 2020.