When the Blue Jays parted ways with their players, manager and coaching staff for the final time on Thursday, the feeling was far different than usual. There was a sense of accomplishment from reaching the postseason for the first time in four years, of course, but beyond that, there was shared satisfaction from having endured through the calamity of COVID-19 and the resulting havoc of being made to play home games in a different country.
“A lot of the things we experienced, you couldn’t possibly simulate,” general manager Ross Atkins said Friday during a wrap-up call about the campaign with broadcasters and sports writers. "It is something I hope we will never have to go through again, but it was a powerful experience.
“It is something I am sure we will always remember.”
A season in which there were few expectations concluded with a brief foray into the playoffs, where Toronto was dispatched in two games by the Tampa Bay Rays. Disappointment from that is outweighed by the improvement shown. For the past few years, the team has talked a good game and played a bad one. Now, it has some tangible results to offer as proof that perhaps fortunes are changing.
“If we had played 162 games, I think our team would have gotten better and better,” Atkins said. The schedule was abbreviated to 60 games during the regular season. “I am proud of the progress they have made and feel we are in a very good position. It is just an exciting group to be around.”
After accumulating 86, 89 and 95 losses in the previous three years, the Blue Jays won two more than they lost. Say what you will, but in a crazy time that proved good enough to lock down a postseason berth. Nobody is mistaking them for the Dodgers right now, but at least they have risen above the cycle of defeats.
For certain, in the young Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., they have promising pieces to build around. The same was being said at this time last year, but now evidence exists that it is not simply blind optimism. More improvement can certainly be expected.
Atkins said he will meet next week with the club’s scouting and operational staff and priorities will be laid out for next season.
“There are three ways that we can get better – through adding talent, development and execution," Atkins said. "We are going to look to complement this team. We feel very good about where we are at certain positions, but we have to be open minded.
“Our defence has to improve and the number of walks we gave up was way too high.”
Atkins would not commit to permanently leaving Guerrero Jr. at first base and said other positional shifts could be part of the equation. He also said that pitcher Julian Merryweather, who was added to the roster late, will be groomed to be a starter. Excitement also abounds over Nate Pearson, who threw 162 kilometres an hour in Wednesday’s elimination game. The rookie struck out five of the six batters he faced.
Atkins heads into the off-season pleased, but also faces great uncertainty. A second wave of COVID-19 has begun, and there is no way to know how long it will last and how the 2021 season will take shape. Will it be shortened again? Will the Blue Jays be permitted to play at Rogers Centre, or will they make their home in Buffalo for a second successive year.
“What we experienced in baseball this year is beyond anything we could have predicted,” Atkins said. "As we think about the impacts and what that could mean, we know we have solid alternatives that could go beyond Buffalo. Fortunately, time is on our side.
“We are thinking about what our contingencies are. It’s so difficult for us to put a hard timeline on being in Toronto.”