It’s showtime for the Jays. Box-office hit or big-budget flop?


Everybody take a seat, turn on the television or pick up your mobile device. The feature presentation is about to begin.

About six months after the Blue Jays were eliminated from playoff contention, they’re back and looking for redemption.

The Jays will officially kick off their 2022 campaign on Friday night at the Rogers Centre against the Texas Rangers, and the days of being overlooked in the American League East are over. These guys are the favourites.

Expectations haven’t been this high in six years — some might argue even longer, as far back as the World Series years in the early 1990s. Last season was the teaser, or as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. likes to call it “the trailer.” This year is the movie.

Now the rest of us are about to find out whether the hype leads to a box-office hit or becomes a big-budget flop. The answer could determine whether this group starts a dynasty or joins the long list of “what could have beens” in Toronto sports history.

“That’s our goal, to get to there and win the World Series,” Guerrero said through an interpreter. “There are 29 other teams trying to do the same thing. That’s our goal for this year: work hard and stay focused, the whole team. If we get there, we get there, and hopefully we can win it, too.”

This project has been in the works for seven years, before current president Mark Shapiro was even hired, and just like in Hollywood it began with the star.

In the summer of 2015, while the Jays were chasing a pennant, former general manager Alex Anthopoulos convinced a 16-year-old prodigy with a familiar name to sign for $3.9 million (U.S.). Guerrero, the son of Hall of Famer and former Montreal Expos star Vlad Guerrero Sr., was deemed a generational talent from the outset. The legend grew during his ascent to the majors, and along the way he was joined by the likes of Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández and Cavan Biggio — either through trades or the draft by a new regime.

At times, the rebuild that followed back-to-back runs to the AL Championship Series was painful to watch, particularly in 2019 when the Jays finished 24 games below .500. Proven vets were forced out to allow the young core to grow; others were cut loose simply to cut costs. Throughout the lows, the organization vowed money wouldn’t be an issue when the time was right.

Eventually, that turned out to be true. As the Jays inched toward their maturity date, high-profile stars were brought in via free agency. First it was Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, then centre-fielder George Springer. Potential ace José Berríos arrived at the trade deadline and signed a contract extension, and this past winter front-line starter Kevin Gausman and third baseman Matt Chapman were added to the mix.

The Jays might not have the highest payroll in the AL East — both the Yankees and Red Sox still spend more — but they arguably have the most talented roster.

Similar things were said late last season, but that opportunity slipped away. It’s a mistake they don’t want to repeat.

“We obviously have a great team; we did last year, too,” Biggio said, referencing a 91-win squad that fell one victory shy of a play-in game. “But the past couple years we’ve always kind of been the underdog, especially in our division, which is probably the toughest in baseball. Now teams in the league and the world, they’re looking at us to win this division. That’s what we always saw for the past couple years, but now it’s finally time for us to go and take it.”

The Jays have been down this road before. Expectations for the 2015 team that went on to win the division didn’t reach a fever pitch until the trade deadline, but two years earlier they were crowned the off-season champions after a blockbuster deal with Miami. They finished that season last in the East.

A decade prior, there were positive reviews for the work done by former GM J.P. Ricciardi, signing A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan and trading for Troy Glaus. In the ensuing years, other big names such as Frank Thomas signed on, but none of those teams led by Roy Halladay finished better than 10 games back. Another wasted era, just like the Carlos Delgado/Shawn Green teams before.

Major League Baseball is almost impossible to predict, so the title of perceived favourite doesn’t guarantee much of anything. A 162-game season becomes a war of attrition, and injuries often end up playing just as big a role as performance. This team won’t be immune, but with the best roster on paper the Jays should be able to handle adversity better than most, and that’s about all you can ask for.

“There are always a range of things you can’t control: player health and things you can’t anticipate,” Shapiro said recently. “We are guaranteed to face some adversity and challenges this year. That’s just the nature of 162 (games). You know, something’s going to happen. It’s going to be tough. It ain’t going to be easy.”

Nobody is saying it will, but the reasons to believe in this team should be rather obvious:

  • Led by Berríos, Gausman, Ryu, Alek Manoah and Yusei Kikuchi, the Jays have one of the deepest and most talented starting rotations in baseball.
  • A lineup that finished third in runs returns with almost all of the pieces intact, save swapping Marcus Semien for Chapman.
  • The bullpen isn’t necessarily a strength, but it shouldn’t be the weakness it was a year ago, and all the key players are at least two years away from free agency.
  • To top it off, the Jays will be home for a first full season for the first time in three years.

The last time an opening day was played in this city, Guerrero had yet to make his debut. Now he returns as one of the game’s biggest stars and a betting favourite for league MVP on a team that hopes to win a World Series.

Those are lofty expectations that only a select group can meet, but last season’s highlights from Dunedin, Buffalo and at the very tail end from Toronto led to this high bar. Now everyone gets to sit back, watch the show and determine whether it was worth the wait.

Settle in. The opening credits will start shortly.


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