Finally, mercifully, the spring training schedule is over. After 29 games and more than a month of working out at the crack of dawn, the Toronto Blue Jays have broken camp and are ready to settle back in to the confines of the Rogers Centre for the next six months or so.
Throughout the summer, twice a week every week until October, I’ll be recapping what we’ve learned from each series the Blue Jays play. Following the final out of the final game of each series, I’ll be picking three positive and three negative takeaways. I’m calling it 3 Up 3 Down, because hey: baseball puns.
To get things started, here is the first instalment with takeaways from spring training.
Bo Bichette grabs the spotlight - Most Blue Jays fans came into spring expecting to happily dive deep into Vladdy-mania, eager to catch a glimpse of baseball’s top prospect. It was mostly a flop (more on that below), but with Guerrero mostly a non-factor, Bo Bichette stepped out of the considerable shadow and put on a show. He showed up to camp with the intent to make the opening day roster and used every appearance to prove the point valid. He hit everything thrown his way over the month, finishing with the team lead in OPS and slugging, all while running the bases like a maniac and looking every bit the part of a top-10 prospect. Nothing he could have done would change minds of the Jays front office about his arrival date, but he did enough to change the question from “When is Vlad getting called up?” to “Is there a chance Bo gets a call some time this year?” The answer is still probably no, but if he continues to roll to a hot start in AAA, the question will keep getting asked.
The OF ‘battle’ produced results - Blue Jays spring training camp wasn’t packed with positional battles where a full-time job was available to be won or lost, but none of the outfielders played so well in 2018 that their share of the at-bats could be written in stone. If you squinted hard enough you could shape an argument that the 4th OF duty was up for grabs or that a strong enough showing from a prospect could make an incumbent seem expendable -- *cough Pillar’s CF job cough* -- and the players involved performed like plenty was at stake. Randall Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez looked the part of regulars, while Billy McKinney showed discipline and positional flexibility in a lineup sorely lacking both. Anthony Alford, a prospect the team has been waiting to step up and steal a job, looked hungry and active, making a case that a strong start to his AAA season should earn him first call-up priority if someone lands on the disabled list or grossly underperforms. Outfield depth is not a strength at any level of the organization but the ones jockeying for big league roles spent spring cementing their place in the opening day lineup.
Stroman ready to back it up - Marcus Stroman arrived at camp fired up and talking the talk of an ace. He started off spring training by holding court with the media, asking his own questions about the offseason and the team’s direction going forward. He raised a few questions some fans themselves likely asked at some point over the winter, but not the type you expect coming from someone who had a 5.54 ERA the year prior. For Stroman’s part, he walked the walk once games started. Looking lively and fresh over 12.1 innings, he allowed three runs (including the Troy Tulowitzki homer), walked just one, and posted a 0.568 WHIP while generally breezing through the month. He’ll get the ball on Opening Day and on a pitching staff riddled with question marks, he’ll likely be asked to save stress on relievers every time out.
Everything to do with Vlad - This is not how it was supposed to happen. From the moment it became clear that the 2018 Blue Jays were doomed to disappoint, the conversation around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been an education in service time, team control, and prospect development. After a whole offseason of guessing about his call-up date and when the charade of defensive improvement would be lifted, fans could at least look forward to seeing him mash spring training pitching in the meantime. Instead, an oblique injury kept him on the sidelines, limiting him to 20 plate appearances over 6 games, and only one real highlight worth remembering: a one-handed double off the wall. We will eventually be treated to seeing the top prospect in baseball playing at the highest level, but not before another month plus of the same conversations playing on a loop until he’s ready. We didn’t want the ugly truth, we just wanted to see him sock a few dingers.
Bullpen blahs - Even at 100% health the Blue Jays bullpen was never going to inspire a lot of excitement. Any rose-coloured outlook from the early weeks of spring was dulled by the end of March, as injuries and ineffectiveness plagued the relievers. John Axford had a stress reaction in his elbow, Ryan Tepera experienced elbow pain but avoided the dreaded Tommy John diagnosis, and Bud Norris had an appearance pushed back with arm fatigue. Aside from decent showings by Tim Mayza and Joe Biagini, none of the viable replacements look like ideal options for high leverage spots.
More problems for Pompey and Travis - This spring was framed as a do-or-die month for outfielder Dalton Pompey. Out of minor league options and a full four seasons removed from starting 2015 as the opening day CF, he would have to prove himself capable of stepping onto the 25-man roster or risk being placed on waivers. He didn’t have the breakout spring he needed, and worse, his training ended early after suffering another concussion. For Devon Travis, it was another in a line of lower-body injuries that stole large parts of his last three seasons. Minor surgery was required to repair a small tear in the meniscus of his left knee, and he is already on the 60-day DL. The amount of prime years that both players have spent rehabbing injuries instead of developing their considerable tools is unfortunate, as it is getting harder and harder to see either finding a role on the team going forward.
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