The Blue Jays find themselves well within striking distance of the American League wild card.
Toronto begins a three-game series with the Yankees on Tuesday, followed by a three-game stretch with the Orioles to end the season, while the top wild card team Yankees face the AL East champion Rays and the second wild card Red Sox face the Orioles and Nationals to wrap up the campaign.
Reaching the playoffs not only seems possible for Toronto but well within its control. The Blue Jays might not enter with the best record in the American League, but they might be the team nobody wants to face in pursuit of a World Series.
How did the Blue Jays get to this point, and what will make them so dangerous heading into October? Sporting News breaks it down.
MVP and Cy Young?
Look, Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani is a heavy, heavy favorite to win the AL MVP. His season is unlike any the sport has ever seen.
But if it’s not Ohtani, it will almost certainly be young star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The 22-year-old first baseman leads all American League batters with a Fangraphs WAR of 6.7 and OPS at 1.005. He leads all of baseball with 120 runs scored. He is tied with Royals catcher Salvador Perez for the home run lead at 46 (entering Monday’s games). By OPS+, it has been the ninth-best season ever for a player 22 years old or younger, according to Stathead.
Guerrero’s not the only Blue Jay in award talks, however, and he’s certainly not the one with the best odds of winning. Robbie Ray has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. He leads the league in strikeouts with 244, has the lowest ERA in the AL at 2.68, is tied for the lowest WHIP at 1.04 with the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole and he’s pitched the most innings at 188. His fWAR trails only Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi and Cole in the American League.
Could the Blue Jays sweep the awards?
Few teams have been able to achieve that goal. Here’s a look at each team that has, not counting pitchers that won both the Cy Young and MVP.
|Brewers||1957||Warren Spahn||Hank Aaron|
|White Sox||1959||Early Wynn||Nellie Fox|
|Pirates||1960||Vern Law||Dick Groat|
|Yankees||1961||Whitey Ford||Roger Maris|
|Dodgers||1962||Don Drysdale||Maury Wills|
|Red Sox||1967||Jim Lonborg||Carl Yastrzemski|
|Dodgers||1974||Mike Marshall||Steve Garvey|
|Phillies||1980||Steve Carlton||Mike Schmidt|
|Brewers||1982||Pete Vuckovich||Robin Yount|
|Cubs||1984||Rick Sutcliffe||Ryne Sandberg|
|Dodgers||1988||Orel Hershiser||Kirk Gibson|
|Pirates||1990||Doug Drabek||Barry Bonds|
|Athletics||1990||Bob Welch||Rickey Henderson|
|Braves||1991||Tom Glavine||Terry Pendleton|
|White Sox||1993||Jack McDowell||Frank Thomas|
|Athletics||2002||Barry Zito||Miguel Tejada|
|Cardinals||2005||Chris Carpenter||Albert Pujols|
|Twins||2006||Johan Santana||Justin Morneau|
|Tigers||2013||Max Scherzer||Miguel Cabrera|
Of the 19 that picked up the two major awards, 11 made it to the World Series and five won it all. Only the 1962 Dodgers failed to reach the postseason.
Having a dominant hurler on the bump and the most feared hitter in the playoffs all on the same team? That’ll make for some tough matchups for opponents.
MORE: Juan Soto for NL MVP?
The Blue Jays aren’t just Vlad Jr., however. They’re one of the deepest lineups in the sport.
Toronto is on the verge of being the first team since the 2003 Braves to have four players with at least 100 RBIs, which is tied for the second-most of any team, behind only the 1936 Yankees, who had five, according to Stathead.
Teoscar Hernandez sits at 112, Guerrero is at 105, second baseman Marcus Semien is at 99 and Bo Bichette is at 98. Over the final six games, if Lourdes Gurriel Jr. continues his hot-hitting stretch, he should at least join the 90 club as he’s at 84 RBIs.
Based on weighted runs created-plus, the Blue Jays have the top AL hitter at first base (Guerrero, 167) and second base (Semien, 134), third-best in right field (Hernandez, 136) and fourth-best at shortstop (Bichette, 115).
Backed by the stellar hitters, the Blue Jays are also currently leading the league in team OPS+ at 114 and they’ve hit for the most power with an ISO of .197 that also leads the league.
Youngest playoff-contending team
Most playoff teams are loaded with experienced talent that have had years of perfecting their games and getting ready for playoff runs. The younger teams typically take a few years to get ready to compete.
The Blue Jays are a bit different, however. Among the teams competing for the playoffs in the AL, no team has a younger average age than Toronto (27.9 years old), according to ESPN. Only the Phillies (27.5) are younger among teams in MLB with a winning record.
It starts with that core group. Guerrero is only 22, Bichette is 23, Alejandro Kirk is 22, Cavan Biggio is 26 and Gurriel is 27. Toronto only has two players in its starting lineup 30 or older — Semien (30) and George Springer (31).
What should be especially scary to other MLB teams is that outside of Semien and Ray, who are free agents after this season, most of the core is sticking around for a while. Hernandez won’t hit free agency until 2024, Gurriel in 2025, Guerrero and Bichette in 2026 and Springer in 2027, according to Spotrac.
Should they reach the playoffs this year, the Blue Jays will gain valuable experience, and this core is going to be around for a long time.
MORE: MLB standings 2021
Key offseason signings
The Blue Jays’ big splash this offseason was to sign Springer to a six-year, $150 million deal. It says a lot about a team that he hasn’t even seen much of their biggest acquisition.
Springer missed most of the beginning of the season, playing in just four games until rejoining the lineup more regularly on June 22. At that point, the Blue Jays were just 36-35 and four games out of the wild card.
Even though Springer hasn’t been quite up to the level he had been over the past several years in Houston, he has made a huge difference. He has slashed .242/.335/.516 with 19 homers in 72 games and has a wRC+ of 126. According to MLB Networks’ Jon Morosi, the Blue Jays have a record of 44-28 when he’s been in the lineup and just 43-41 when he hasn’t hit.
George Springer, who went 3-for-4 Sunday in a game the @BlueJays needed to win, continues to be a difference maker on his new team: Toronto has a .611 winning percentage when he’s in the lineup (44-28) and .512 otherwise (43-41). @FAN590 @MLBNetwork @Sportsnet
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 27, 2021
But the biggest signings have undoubtedly been Semien and Ray. Semien left Oakland in free agency and signed a one-year, $18 million deal to join Toronto. On that team-friendly deal, he has had an MVP-caliber campaign posting a slash line of .268/.339/.543 with 43 homers and 15 stolen bases, and he’s recorded an fWAR of 4.2.
Ray was acquired by the Blue Jays last season and was a free agent after 2020, but he signed a one-year, $8 million deal to come back.
(Not so) secret bullpen weapon
There are the weapons that the Blue Jays have that have been flourishing throughout the season. Then there’s one more who, while appearing with the team this season, hasn’t yet stood out on paper.
That would be fire-balling right-hander Nate Pearson. The 25-year-old has long been considered one of the game’s top pitching prospects in large part to his fastball that can routinely hit triple digits and a wipeout slider that sits in the mid-80s.
Pearson was expected to be with the team more this season, but has battled injuries and has been limited to just 11 innings with a 5.73 ERA. However, most of that damage came in a start back in May. Since he was called back up in early September, he’s been lights out.
Pearson has appeared in eight games and has recorded a 4.15 ERA in 8.2 innings of work. Even that ERA is ballooned somewhat by an outing in which he allowed two earned runs to cross the plate on Sept. 9 vs. the Yankees. Since that outing, the ERA is 1.59 in 5.2 innings with eight strikeouts and just four hits allowed.
Prospects have often made a difference for teams in the playoffs as bullpen weapons. David Price was promoted in late 2008 as a reliever and helped the Rays reach the World Series. Brandon Finnegan was critical to the Royals in 2014. Garrett Crochet was filthy for the White Sox down the stretch last season.
Pearson’s stuff is electric, and if the Blue Jays opt to have him available in the bullpen in the postseason, he could be a real weapon against opposing hitters.