Is it time for another fresh start for the Blue Jays in 2024? Not exactly

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A fresh start (or something like that) was the unofficial theme for the Toronto Blue Jays heading into last season.

Coming off a deflating first-round sweep at the hands of Seattle, the Jays had overhauled their outfield (quite literally) as part of their efforts to return to World Series contention. Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier, both exceptional glovemen, were brought in to patrol the turf in front of the stylishly reconfigured fences and trendy new patios installed during a massive stadium renovation aimed at turning the musty Rogers Centre into something resembling an actual ballpark. Pricey free-agent righty Chris Bassitt promised to bolster an already-strong pitching rotation, and surely young slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr., would rebound from a down year.

But the more things changed, the more they stayed the same — or got worse. The 2023 Jays won just 89 games (three fewer than the year before) to finish third in the stacked American League East before once again getting swept in the best-of-three Wild Card round, this time by a Minnesota team that had lost 18 consecutive post-season games.

Instead of recapturing his 2021 MVP-calibre form, Guerrero regressed even further at the plate as Toronto fell from fourth in the majors in runs scored to 14th. 2022 Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah struggled so badly that he was demoted to the lowest rung of the minors. A remarkably deep and durable pitching rotation — led by strikeout artist Kevin Gausman, the steady Bassitt and the rejuvenated Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi — dragged the Jays’ sleepy bats into the playoffs, where they mustered a grand total of one run in the two-game sweep by the Twins.

So, time for another fresh start? Not exactly. After whiffing on their big swing for superstar free agent Shohei Ohtani (in hindsight, maybe a blessing a disguise), top execs Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins opted to essentially stand pat and just hope everyone plays better this year.

Shapiro and Atkins let Gold Glove (but bronze bat) third baseman Matt Chapman leave for San Francisco, while their “major” acquisitions were 39-year-old DH Justin Turner, utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Cuban righty Yariel Rodríguez, who they hope can crack the starting rotation.

The team president and the GM also elected to bring back manager John Schneider, despite the puzzling decision to yank Berrios after three scoreless innings in Game 2 of the Minnesota series. But that may have something to do with the possibility that the move came down from up high, as Schneider indicated after the season-ending loss.

Even the stadium renos are more muted this year. The players got a new clubhouse, rich fans got new premium-seating areas, and the lower bowl got an upgrade with new, wider seats that actually face toward home-plate now and — are you ready for this? — include cupholders. Fans can try out that state-of-the-art technology on April 8, when the Jays play their home opener against Seattle.

With everything looking pretty similar to last year, it’s hard to feel that usual springtime sense of renewal around the Jays as they prepare for their Opening Day matchup at Tampa Bay on Thursday at 4:10 p.m. ET. But there are reasons for optimism.

The bull case for the Jays rests on the hope that some of the hitters who underachieved last year — including Guerrero, Varsho, catcher Alejandro Kirk and outfielder George Springer — will bounce back.

Guerrero is the biggest x-factor. In 2021, he looked poised to follow his dad into the Hall of Fame, bashing a big-league-high 48 home runs and finishing second in AL MVP voting at the age of just 22. But his production has been in decline ever since, especially in the power categories. Last season, Guerrero managed just 26 homers while posting his worst slugging percentage since his rookie year.

Is Guerrero a flash in the pan? Or is he simply going through normal growing pains in a sport that’s notoriously difficult to master? That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars question as Guerrero approaches free agency after the 2025 season. Also scheduled to hit the market that year is 26-year-old shortstop Bo Bichette, who’s coming off another strong year at the plate (.306 average, 20 homers) despite missing significant time due to injury.

Guerrero and Bichette are certainly capable of posting eye-popping numbers and leading the Blue Jays back into World Series contention. If they do, they’ll make themselves a lot of money and restore Jays fans’ dimming faith in the organization. But if they don’t, things are going to look very stale in Toronto.

For more on the Blue Jays’ 2024 outlook, read this.

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