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Blue Jays on the rise, sign George Springer and more

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Jays following similar path as White Sox, bolstering young playoff core with big bucks

American League Championship Series Game 7: Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros
You just hate to see the Astros lose one of their biggest stars
Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Make some room, Chicago White Sox. There’s another new heavyweight rising in the American League.

The Toronto Blue Jays reached the expanded postseason in 2020, as their young core began to show signs of breaking out. Now they’re doubling down on that early taste of success, and loading up on some big names to enhance the promising framework already in place.

The Blue Jays signed three free agents over the last few days, including arguably the biggest star on the market. George Springer is headed to Toronto on a six-year, $150 million contract. Not only did this move strengthen the Jays, it also weakened a long-time AL contender, as the Houston Astros lose a big piece of their juggernaut.

Springer is a significant addition for the Jays. He’s a three-time All-Star and the 2017 World Series MVP, a center fielder who consistently mashes at the plate (career 134 wRC+, career-high 39 homers in 2019) and earns generally positive marks on defense, adding up to a 5-6 WAR player in his best years. He’ll play at age 31 this season, so there’s long-term risk as he enters the potential decline phase of his career, but in 2021 he’s a massive splash for a team that wants to kick its competitive window into full gear.

He joins a Jays lineup that includes a dynamic young infield (Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio) and a couple strong bats flanking him on the outfield corners (Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel), among others (including 1B/DH Rowdy Tellez). Amid a group with nearly unlimited promise, Springer is immediately the most established star.

Toronto also did some work on their pitching staff, specifically their bullpen. First they added Tyler Chatwood to the mix on an incentive-laden 1yr/$3m deal. The right-hander is coming off a 2020 in which he made only five starts but struck out the world (29% of batters he faced), and he’s expected to work as a reliever this year.

Then they rolled the dice on Kirby Yates, for 1yr/$5.5m with incentives that could nearly double it. Yates was one of the best closers in the game for a couple years, and may have even been better than Liam Hendriks in 2019. But he missed most of 2020 to elbow surgery (bone chips, not TJS), so he’ll be looking to reestablish himself this summer — and if he does, then the Jays could have the 9th inning on lockdown.

Meanwhile, their rotation is led by an ace who finished top-3 in Cy Young voting each of the last two years (Hyun-jin Ryu), plus a Luzardo-level prospect (2020 rookie Nate Pearson), with several notable veterans behind them who are all hoping to bounce back from disappointing summers (Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling).

These moves don’t make Toronto into an instant front-runner, not even in their own division. They’re still up against the defending AL champ Rays, plus the loaded Yankees and the always dangerous Red Sox, and that’s before considering the rest of the league. There’s everything left to prove, but they’ve certainly moved up a notch in the conversation by both raising their floor and further increasing the extreme upside that was already dripping from their roster.

The whole episode is reminiscent of the White Sox, who are in a similar situation. Their young core cracked the playoffs in 2020, and they’ve made multiple power moves this winter to take advantage of the moment. They acquired a new ace in Lance Lynn, and signed the superstar closer who beat them last October in Liam Hendriks. Suddenly they’ve gone from the dumpster in 2019, to fringe contenders in 2020, to The Next Big Thing in 2021, and now the Blue Jays have joined them in that latest stage.

Beyond the on-field ramifications, these signings are also interesting conceptually. The Springer splurge feels more like a Yankee move, and the pricey Yates pillow more like a Dodger gamble, using big money to its fullest effect. The premier free agents don’t often land in Toronto, but this winter a couple of them have, and they might not be done spending. The Jays aren’t just upgrading their WAR at an opportune moment, but also keeping pace with their wallets in a way we haven’t always seen them do.

It’s been a weird winter. Slow overall due to the pandemic, but with a few teams dominating the market with multiple impactful transactions, and not the clubs you’d expect — the Blue Jays, White Sox, San Diego Padres, and New York Mets, so far. When the dust settles this spring and Opening Day arrives, and Oakland A’s fans begin dreaming of our path to and through October, the landscape of the AL will look much different than it did the last few years.

You already knew Chicago was a serious new threat in the Central. But now the Jays are showing they mean business in the East.