TORONTO — Vladimir Guerrero Jr., captured the Toronto Blue Jays' mood perfectly at spring training when he was asked what his expectations were for this season.
“What we did last year was the trailer,” Guerrero said through a translator on March 17. “Now you guys are going to see the movie."
The Blue Jays finished last season with an impressive 91-71 record but finished fourth in the hyper-competitive American League East, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox grabbing the AL's two wild-card spots.
Toronto missed out on the playoffs by just one game.
Guerrero, his teammates, and the rest of the Blue Jays organization have kept that one game in mind all off-season. Throughout spring training at Toronto's player development centre in Dunedin, Fla., the Blue Jays said that missing out on the post-season by a single game drove them to work harder.
"Definitely, that's one of the biggest motivations that we have," said Guerrero, adding that he was so devastated by missing out on the post-season that he sat and watched the news in his Toronto apartment for three days before returning to the Dominican Republic.
"That's the biggest motivation that we have, to try to win more than 100 games this year."
"Next Level" has become the Blue Jays' slogan for 2022, with the phrase being flashed on the new, larger scoreboard at Rogers Centre and plastered around the stadium. General manager Ross Atkins did his part to help Toronto level up, rebuilding the starting rotation by adding veterans Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi and trading for Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman.
"Every day we're trying to get to the next level," Atkins said Thursday on the field at Rogers Centre. "The endgame is pretty clear. There's 30 teams thinking about winning championships.
"For us, we try to simplify it and think about getting better every day and think about things we can control and that we never rest in thinking about that."
Beyond adding Gausman, Kikuchi, and Chapman, the Blue Jays have three major things going for them heading into the 2022 season.
First, they are finally going to be able to play an entire season with Rogers Centre as their home ballpark. Toronto will welcome the Texas Rangers in their home opener on Friday night, the first time Toronto will kick off a season at their own stadium since 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the Blue Jays to play all of the 2020 season and most of the 2021 season in Dunedin or Buffalo, N.Y. When they did return to Rogers Centre last year, it was with only 15,000 fans in attendance due to the province of Ontario's capacity limits at the time. That increased to 30,000 for the final week of the season.
"If we would have been here the whole year, we would have won one more game. I'm not talking about winning the division, just one more game," said manager Charlie Montoyo. "So yeah, I feel really happy that we're going to be in Toronto from the beginning."
Second, because of current travel restrictions, people entering Canada or the United States must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 two weeks before crossing the border. That effectively means unvaccinated players on visiting teams will be unable to play in Toronto, potentially hampering the Blue Jays' rivals when they visit.
All of the Blue Jays are fully vaccinated and Rangers manager Chris Woodward said on Wednesday that his team had no issues with players crossing the border due to their vaccination status for the home opener. There are reports, however, that the rival Red Sox and Yankees do not have fully vaccinated rosters.
New York slugger Aaron Judge was asked on March 15 if he was vaccinated and he was evasive about his status at the time.
"I'm so focused on just getting to the first game of spring training, so I think we'll cross that bridge whenever the time comes," said Judge. "Right now, so many things can change. I'm not worried about that too much right now."
The Yankees will come to that bridge on May 2, when New York visits Toronto. Any Yankees player wishing to play in Canada on that day will have to have two doses of COVID-19 vaccine by April 18. Boston's first trip north of the border is even sooner, with their series at Rogers Centre beginning on April 25, and their vaccination deadline being this Monday.
Third, Major League Baseball changed its post-season format in the off-season, with the league and its union expanding the playoffs to include a total of 12 teams. The new format will see three division winners from the AL and NL as well as three wild card winners from each league make the post-season.
If the new rules were in place last season Toronto would have qualified as the American League's third wild card, a game ahead of the Seattle Mariners.
José Berríos will take the mound for the Blue Jays on Friday. It will be his first home opener in Toronto after the Blue Jays got him in a trade with the Minnesota Twins last season.
"I'm grateful to have the opportunity to pitch on the first day," said Berríos. "I'm so honoured. I'm so happy and grateful for the opportunity and I'm so excited, so happy to see what my teammate can do out there in front of Toronto Blue Jays fans."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2022.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press