Photo By: Donna Lay from Unsplash
Well, the 2021 season is over for the Toronto Blue Jays, who at 91-71, finished one game back of a playoff spot after receiving no help at all from the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals on Sunday. Despite sweeping the Orioles this weekend, the Jays were going to need some help in order to live another day. They did not receive said help.
The Yankees and Red Sox will face off at Fenway Park in the American League Wild Card game on Tuesday, while the Blue Jays will watch their fellow AL East rivals fight to the death for the right to get smoked by the Rays in the ALDS, another AL East adversary. Such is life for the teams in the American League East, a division that is so unrelenting and ruthless that you could win 91 games and finish in fourth place in a five-team division. The National League East, mind you, saw the 88-win Atlanta Braves finish first.
Having to play the first four months of the season on the road was the biggest difference between making or missing the playoffs. George Springer missing more than half of the season didn’t help, nor did the bullpen, but more on that in a bit. Just coming back home to Toronto was already such a huge milestone after over 600 days away.
Still, it is a bit disappointing that this team won’t be playing into October given just how good the offence and starting pitching was. Contending windows in sports are never open as long as you think they’ll be, which is why it’s so crucial to go for it even if it’s open only slightly.
There’s not going to be many other years where you get a Robbie Ray and a Marcus Semien on such team-friendly deals, your superstars aren’t going to stay healthy for the whole season like Bo and Vlad and Semien all did, almost never will you have a rookie pitcher come up and deal the way Alek Manoah did. So for all the things that went wrong — Springer’s injuries, the bullpen, the pandemic-induced homelessness — a lot of things also went very right, which is why trading for José Berríos at the deadline was absolutely the right decision, even if it meant giving up two highly-touted prospects.
The bullpen was obviously the big weakness all season long, and you can point to any number of games that the bullpen blew as to why the Jays missed the playoffs, but I think the way the front office reacted to their bleeding wound is telling, and in a good way. They were willing to admit their mistakes by eating tens of millions of dead money for players who weren’t performing. Tanner Roark got paid $12 million this year and was rightfully released after three brief, terrible outings in April. Tyler Chatwood and Rafael Dolis were DFA’d, as was Brad Hand, whom they traded for at the deadline, after they all failed to get the job done.
The Blue Jays certainly have a lot on their plate this offseason, but you can be sure shoring up the bullpen will be a priority. As will two key free agents, Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien, who both had about as good of an audition as possible heading into their respective paydays. Steven Matz quietly had a terrific year as the fifth starter and has also set himself up nicely for success, albeit not nearly as well as Ray and Semien.
Third base is also a question mark for now, and was clearly the Jays’ weakest position all year long. Santiago Espinal was terrific on both sides of the ball this year, but is probably better suited as a fifth infielder rather than an everyday player. Now, I still very much believe in Cavan Biggio, who had the third base job heading into the season, but missed over half the season due to a smattering of injuries to his fingers, neck, back, and elbow. He played most of the season pretty banged up, which partially amounted to his struggles at the plate. It was just a bad year for him overall, one which I will chalk up largely to injuries and a change in position.
Starting from the day he came off the IL in mid-June (this was after his neck injury, I believe), he had a 17-game stretch where he slashed .304/.412/.554 with 11 walks to 12 strikeouts and eight extra-base hits. When healthy I truly believe he is a valuable, everyday player who can contribute to this team. He’d obviously hit towards the bottom of the order, acting as a sort of second leadoff man who can draw a walk to flip the lineup over. I’ve always said he’s the best baserunner on the team, and his terrific performance on Friday night just further proves my point.
If Semien doesn’t re-sign, I think they move Biggio back to primarily second, where he’s looked far more comfortable in his career than back at third. Then you can use him at first to occasionally give Vladdy a DH day, plug him in the outfield corners if need be, use him as a “let’s-get-X-off-his-feet” guy when he isn’t at second. Point is, there’s a place for Cavan Biggio on this team in 2022, drawing walks and working counts at the bottom of the lineup, making smart baserunning decisions, and moving around the diamond defensively.
Alas, I had a great time watching this team play 162 games this season, watching Ray and Manoah and Romano shove all season long, shaking my head in disbelief at every Vladdy 114 mph missile, and groaning lamently every time I saw Randal Grichuk’s name in the lineup.
I am very much looking forward to Spring Training 2022, but until then, I will be tuning into tonight’s AL Wild Card game between the Yankees and Red Sox, which is only a little bit like choosing death by hanging or guillotine. I’ll most likely be using future SIDELINES to write about the rest of the MLB playoffs, so stay tuned for that, as that’ll smoothly take us through the end of October… right into basketball season.