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Blue Jays look to take next step in 2023 after falling in wild-card round last fall

TORONTO — The sting of a quick wild-card round exit long faded, an air of confidence hovered at the Toronto Blue Jays' camp during spring training. It was there for good reason.
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman met by teammates in the dugout after throwing an inning of action against the Tampa Bay Rays in their spring training game in Dunedin, Florida on Friday, March 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill

TORONTO — The sting of a quick wild-card round exit long faded, an air of confidence hovered at the Toronto Blue Jays' camp during spring training. 

It was there for good reason. There's plenty to like about a roster that had defensive upgrades made in the off-season to supplement a young core still entering its prime.

The pieces appear to be in place for a strong year and potential playoff run. Now it's a matter of delivering during the 162-game campaign and getting past the opening round for the first time since 2016.

"The sky is the limit," said right-hander Kevin Gausman. "It's just a matter of putting it all together."

That has proven to be easier said than done of late. Optimism was high last year too but a 92-win season only secured a top wild-card seed in the American League. 

The Seattle Mariners would sweep Toronto in a best-of-three series, delivering the knockout blow by coming back from a seven-run deficit in a 10-9 win. It was the second time in three years that the Blue Jays were dispatched from the playoffs without a victory. 

General manager Ross Atkins sought to address two key areas of need in the off-season: run prevention and left-handed depth at the plate. 

Starting outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., were shipped out along with top prospect Gabriel Moreno. Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Belt were brought in.

Big bats and prospect capital are never easy to give up. But this team's competitive window is now so Atkins felt it was time to strike.

Speaking at a recent media availability, he said he likes the team's versatility and balance.

"In addition to that, (I'm) really excited about the potential high-impact additions that we feel will take some pressure off the young core … that just puts us in a really healthy position to compete and to take another step."

Avoiding the wild-card round altogether will be a main goal this year. But if the Blue Jays are going to win their first AL East crown since 2015, they'll need to avoid the defensive hiccups that were too frequent last year.

"We have to learn from our mistakes and learn from our failures," said shortstop Bo Bichette.

The Blue Jays have some of the game's best young players in Bichette, ace Alek Manoah and first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 

Leadoff man George Springer is a playoff-tested veteran and Matt Chapman is a rock at third base. Closer Jordan Romano anchors a quality bullpen while Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk are a potent tandem behind the plate.

New arrival Chris Bassitt bolsters a sound starting rotation fronted by Manoah and Gausman that also includes Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi. Hyun-Jin Ryu, who underwent Tommy John surgery last year, is a possibility to return later this season.

With Toronto's core essentially locked in, the only real battles at spring training were on the fringes. The No. 5 spot in the rotation was eventually sealed by Kikuchi, who impressed in Grapefruit League play.

This will be John Schneider's first full season as manager. He signed a three-year deal in the off-season after guiding the team to a 46-28 mark (. 622) after taking over from the fired Charlie Montoyo last July. 

"We want to be one of the best teams in the division," Schneider said. "We want to be one of the best teams in the game and we want to make a long playoff run."

Expect Schneider to try to utilize team speed more often. Bigger bases will be used this season which could result in more stolen base attempts and first-to-third type running plays. 

Pitch clocks will also be used as part of new Major League Baseball rules designed to improve and speed up the game. Infield shift rules have also been adjusted.

Toronto opens the regular season on the road Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Blue Jays' home opener is set for April 11 at a new-look Rogers Centre that was renovated in the off-season. 

The outfield has new dimensions with an asymmetrical wall that has been brought in at some sections and raised in others. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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