October 8, 2022 was the worst day of my life, and it definitely ranks among the worst for my fellow Toronto Blue Jays fans. After the Jay’s blew an 8–1 lead to the Seattle Mariners, I proclaimed that I was done with the team, would not buy any tickets next season, and wouldn’t watch any games. But here we are at the dawn of the 2023 season, and I have more than 10 tickets to my name. How did the team win fans back?
The Jays began their offseason trading away fan favourites Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernández for some much-needed relief pitching in Erik Swanson and improved outfield defense in Daulton Varsho. They also signed centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier to a one-year deal, and he has already gained fans’ love with his charming and positive attitude. Stats-wise, Gurriel’s and Hernández’s combined Wins Above Replacement equals that of Varsho alone. They also don’t come close to Kiermaier’s three gold gloves.
The true selling point of the acquisitions was made apparent with the announcement of the new dimensions of the playing field at the Rogers Center. The new venue includes a more shallow outfield, elevated walls, raised bullpens, and more. The new uniquely-shaped outfield would be a nightmare for notoriously bad defenders Gurriel and Hernández.
The Jays’ biggest free agency splash was the signing of Chris Bassit, a versatile pitcher coming off a great season with the New York Mets. Bassit is the Ross Stripling replacement and the new number three in the rotation. Even though he doesn’t solve all the pitching problems, Bassit is an excellent and much needed acquisition.
But the Blue Jays still have concerns with their number four and number five spots in the starting pitching rotation.
José Berríos, a pitcher I thought could be their future ace, was brutal last season. He gave up the most earned runs in the American League (AL) in the first year of a seven-year contract. Yikes. The Jays need a bounce-back season from him if they have any hopes of winning the AL East.
Yusei Kikuchi, who posted an abysmal 5.19 Earned Run Average (ERA) in 2022, came into spring training looking to earn the number-five spot in the rotation. So far, Kikuchi has provided surprising results—he hasn’t allowed a single run in four games in the spring. Some fans attribute his success to his new beard, which he grew over the off-season, and it might just be the only explanation for his miraculous revival.
Some numbers on Yusei Kikuchi since joining the #BlueJays:
No beard: 5.19 ERA, 11.1 K/9
Beard: 0.00 ERA, 22.5 K/9
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) February 25, 2023
The stars have aligned for the Blue Jays to win the American League East in 2023. Their new, smaller ballpark gives every reason for Jays’ superstar Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to return to his MVP-finalist form and offers an opportunity for defence-first players to explode offensively with less surface area to cover. New bench coach and baseball legend Don Mattingly brings a focused mindset and represents the more sophisticated culture in the clubhouse as a veteran coach and former outfielder.
The Red Sox and Orioles are still a few years away from competing, the Rays did nothing to improve their mediocre offense, and the Yankees’ success depends on another historic season by Aaron Judge. Match this with the new, balanced schedule and the new rules that cater to the Jays’ young team, and success seems imminent.
In classic Toronto sports-fan fashion, I am excited for the 2023 season despite a disappointing end to the previous one. With an renovated roster matching the renovated ballpark and a renewed sense of focus, the Blue Jays are positioned to be one of the best teams in the MLB, and I can’t wait to see what they’re capable of.