The Blue Jays are back and looking like a contender


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Spring* is here

*OK, not actually. Most of Canada is still in winter’s grip. But there are signs it’s loosening. One of those comes to us from Dunedin, Fla., where the Toronto Blue Jays are now holding full-squad spring training workouts. Seems like a good time for a quick catchup on the Jays as they prepare for opening day on April 1 at Yankee Stadium:

They won’t be back in Canada for a while.

The Jays announced last week that, due to ongoing health/travel restrictions, they’ll remain in Dunedin for at least their first two homestands of the regular season. That means they’ll be playing out of their spring-training stadium until May 14 at the earliest.

Team president Mark Shapiro said the Jays want to return to Toronto “as soon as it is safe to do so.” But there’s no timetable for the move and it’ll probably depend on the Canadian government easing its restrictions on cross-border travel. So there’s a good chance the Jays remain in Florida (or at least in the United States) past mid-May. Once the summer heat/humidity/thunderstorms bear down on central Florida, the Jays could head north to Buffalo, where they played their home games last season.

There are some new faces in camp.

The big one is centre-fielder George Springer, who was lured from Houston with the richest contract ($150 million US over six years) in Blue Jays history. Springer, 31, was one of the top free agents on the market. He won the World Series MVP award in 2017, averaged 31 home runs in the last four full seasons and homered at even higher rate in pandemic-shortened 2020.

Toronto also signed Marcus Semien to be its new second baseman. He played shortstop for Oakland, where he hit 39 home runs in 2019 and finished third in the American League MVP vote. Semien was awful at the plate last year, but the Jays gave him a one-year, $18-million deal that should motivate him to rebound.

Toronto took a similar approach to trying to upgrade its pitching behind ace Hyun-jin Ryu, rolling the dice on one-year deals with several players. Those include lefty starter Steven Matz, who’s coming off an atrocious season for the Mets, and potential closer Kirby Yates, who led the majors with 41 saves in 2019 for San Diego but had his 2020 ruined by an elbow injury.

But it’s the “old” faces who will make or break this team.

Quotation marks around “old” because we’re talking about the Jays’ young core. Shortstop Bo Bichette, who turns 23 next week, hopes to bounce back after a knee injury cost him a month last season and sapped him of his power once he returned. Twenty-five-year-old Swiss Army knife Cavan Biggio will probably spend more time at third base with Semien taking over at second. Corner outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Teoscar Hernández are both coming off excellent seasons and are still on the right side of 30. Twenty-one-year-old catcher Alejandro Kirk showed promise last year, and 24-year-old pitcher Nate Pearson could be a godsend for the thin rotation if he taps into his potential.

But all eyes, again, will be on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The almost-22-year-old slugger has shown flashes, but he still hasn’t lived up the hype accompanying his arrival in the majors two years ago. Guerrero appears to be in much better shape this year (with the requisite Instagram workout pics to prove it) but the pressure is on him to start producing like the all-star everyone figured he’d be.

The Jays can build on last year.

Their surprise playoff appearance was more a product of the shortened season and expanded post-season field than the actual quality of the roster. But Toronto is a good, young team that made some solid additions and should challenge for a spot in the back-to-normal playoffs.

It’ll be tough to top the Yankees in the AL East, but here’s a warm thought to help you through the last few weeks of winter: Fangraphs’ respected projection system has Toronto finishing second in the division at 88-74 — ahead of the improving Red Sox and declining AL-champion Rays. According to the model, that would tie the Jays for the second-best record in the AL and would land them a wild-card playoff spot for the second year in a row.

Shortstop Bo Bichette looks to bounce back after a knee injury sidelined him for a month last season. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press)

Quickly…

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts is heating up. It’s the final day of the opening round, and only eight teams will advance to the championship pool, which starts tomorrow. Defending champion Kerri Einarson’s Team Canada (7-0) will be there, and so will Ontario’s Rachel Homan (6-1). They’d already clinched spots heading into their Pool A showdown at 3:30 p.m. ET, which is a rematch of last year’s final. Pool B was more crowded at the top, with Saskatchewan’s Sherry Anderson, six-time champ Jennifer Jones of Manitoba and Quebec’s Laurie St-Georges tied at 5-2 after the morning draw. The wild-card team skipped by Chelsea Carey was just behind at 5-3. Read more about today’s results here. Watch last night’s episode of That Curling Show, which featured a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Brad Gushue’s Olympic gold medal, here. And watch tonight’s show live at 7:30 p.m. ET on the CBC Olympics Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

Oklahoma City’s Canadians had a big night. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a career-high 42 points and Lu Dort hit the game-winning three at the buzzer in the Thunder’s 102-99 victory over San Antonio last night. Dort finished with 16 points and is now averaging 12.6 on the season — up nearly six points from his rookie year. Gilgeous-Alexander is seizing the opportunity to be OKC’s go-to guy after the Thunder traded away future hall-of-famer Chris Paul in the off-season. The third-year guard is averaging 33 points over his last three games and now ranks 20th in NBA scoring at 23.5 per game. He’s also averaging 6.4 assists and 5.3 rebounds.

The Canadian women’s soccer team ended its comeback tournament on a sour note. Playing for the first time since the pandemic hit nearly a year ago, Canada scored only one goal and won only one of its three matches at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando. After an encouraging 1-0 loss to the juggernaut United States, Canada beat Argentina 1-0 before getting blanked 2-0 by Brazil yesterday. Seven key Canadian players were absent from the mini-tournament, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions about the team’s chances of winning a third consecutive Olympic medal this summer. We might learn more when Canada plays its next match, an away friendly vs. No. 6-ranked England, on April 13. Read more about Canada’s performance at the SheBelieves Cup here.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League will tip off its third season in June. The start was pushed back from mid-May and the number of games cut from 20 to 14 for each team in hopes that fans will be allowed in arenas when the season opens. Last summer, the seven-team CEBL became one of the first North American leagues to return after the pandemic shutdown when it played a month-long tournament in St. Catharines, Ont., to crown a 2020 champion. This year, seven consecutive Saturday games will be broadcast on the CBC TV network, starting with the June 5 season opener between defending champion Edmonton and Fraser Valley. Games will also be streamed live on CBC Gem, CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app. Read more about the CEBL’s 2021 season here.

Coming up from CBC Sports

Alpine skiing: Watch a World Cup women’s downhill race in Italy live Friday at 5:45 a.m. ET here.

CBC Sports U: Anyone pursuing a career in sports media might want to check out this free, interactive virtual summit on March 3. CBC Sports is bringing together some well-known sports-media personalities to give students an inside look at their experiences and an opportunity to ask questions. Get more details and sign up here.

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