Amid a pivotal offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays have been one of MLB's most active teams, improving several areas of their roster with several new faces set to debut at spring training next month.
Pitchers and catchers participating in the 2023 World Baseball Classic must arrive at the organization's player development complex in Dunedin, Fla., by Feb. 13, with position players due to report a few days later. Everyone else is scheduled to appear on Feb. 21 at the latest.
Once that occurs, those remaining from last season’s roster will have a chance to become familiar with newcomers Chris Bassitt, Erik Swanson, Kevin Kiermaier, Daulton Varsho and Brandon Belt - all of whom are expected to make significant impacts next season.
These new additions are supposed to help the Blue Jays — winners of 90-plus games in each of the past two seasons — enjoy a much deeper playoff run after losing to the Seattle Mariners in the wild-card series last October. And there is no reason to suggest they won’t. As currently constructed, though, Toronto’s roster remains incomplete.
With the bulk of the offseason behind us, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has addressed multiple glaring concerns thus far, namely his club’s outfield defence, lineup balance and pitching depth. But there are still a few rough edges to smooth before Opening Day.
Constructing a perfect roster before the Blue Jays depart for Toronto at the end of March could be challenging, as their Collective Balance Tax payroll ($241.9 million) nears the second luxury tax threshold of $253 million. There is still a tiny bit of wiggle room, though.
As for what still requires addressing, let’s explore the team’s remaining areas of need with just 38 days until their spring training opener.
With a trio of Varhso, Kiermaier and George Springer, the Blue Jays should feature one of the top outfields in the majors next season, particularly from a defensive standpoint. Offensively, though, that group is likely to struggle versus left-handed pitching.
Varsho (career 66 wRC+ versus LHP) and Kiermaier (career 84 wRC+ versus LHP) have historically faltered in these matchups and probably shouldn’t face too many lefties moving forward. The problem is there’s only one proven right-hander, aside from Springer, capable of playing the outfield: Whit Merrifield.
Merrifield, registering minus-three Defensive Runs Saved and plus-two Outs Above Average over 433.1 innings across three outfield positions in 2022, could shift beyond the infield if needed. And that would allow Santiago Espinal, who slashed .301/.375/.451 with a 137 wRC+ versus lefties last season, to play regularly at second base.
Even so, one of Varsho or Kiermaier would remain in the starting lineup with a left-hander on the mound — a troubling situation. And since Cavan Biggio and Nathan Lukes are both left-handed, it would be beneficial for the Blue Jays to acquire a right-handed outfielder.
There aren’t many quality options available in free agency, with Adam Duvall (Boston Red Sox) and Tommy Pham (New York Mets) signing elsewhere Wednesday. As a result, that leaves Robbie Grossman as Toronto’s most realistic remaining target.
The switch-hitting outfielder endured a disappointing 2022 campaign, hitting .209/.310/.311 with seven home runs and an 82 wRC+ across 129 games split between the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves, worth -0.3 fWAR. But as poor as his overall results were, he excelled against lefties.
Grossman logged 149 plate appearances versus left-handers, slashing .320/.436/.443 with a 157 wRC+ and walking (16.8 percent) almost as much as he struck out (24.2 percent). And he was just as effective in 2021, producing a 137 wRC+, 13.1 percent walk rate, 20.4 percent strikeout rate and a .279/.380/.477 slash line over 206 plate appearances.
The 33-year-old can also play all three outfield positions, although he is considered an average defender, proving most effective in left field last season. As a part-time player, he likely wouldn’t need to be anything more than that anyway.
The Blue Jays are in a great spot heading into the spring with a bullpen headlined by closer Jordan Romano, supported by Swanson, Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia. But you can never have too many talented arms at your disposal.
Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards and Mitch White or Yusei Kikuchi are currently poised to occupy the final four spots in Toronto’s bullpen. And there is a prominent wave of young talent beneath them, including Zach Pop, Nate Pearson, Yosver Zulueta, Hayden Juenger, Adrian Hernandez and Hagen Danner.
Additionally, reclamation projects like Julian Fernández, Junior Fernández, Paul Fry and Jay Jackson will receive opportunities to prove themselves this spring.
But for a franchise with World Series aspirations, it wouldn’t hurt to have another MLB-calibre reliever — ideally one on a minor-league contract — in the pipeline. Luckily for the Blue Jays, free agency remains a viable resource for acquisitions of that magnitude.
Alex Reyes, who’s received interest from the Blue Jays this offseason, would be a perfect bounce-back candidate to bring into the fold for next season. The 28-year-old missed all of 2022 due to shoulder surgery but was a reliable strikeout hurler beforehand.
The hard-throwing righty, whose fastball velocity ranked in the 91st percentile in 2021, posted a 30.3 percent strikeout rate in 92 innings with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2020-21. He struggled with walks, resulting in a 13.9 percent strikeout-to-walk rate difference, but finished with a 3.23 ERA and a 4.15 FIP.
Adding a flamethrower like Reyes (if healthy) to Toronto’s bullpen — which desperately lacked in that department last season — could push that unit to another level, potentially transforming it from great to elite. And as a former closer, he’d be another high-leverage weapon for manager John Schneider.
Other intriguing names include Zack Britton, Trevor Rosenthal and Jimmy Nelson. All are coming off significant injuries, but if their medicals clear, they might be worth taking a flier.
The departure of top prospect Gabriel Moreno, sent to Arizona as part of the Varsho trade, has considerably weakened Toronto’s catching depth. And rightly so, as he is considered one of the top young catchers in baseball.
Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen are a dynamic one-two punch behind the plate. That duo has, however, struggled to avoid the injury bug in previous seasons—a concern that could rear its ugly head again in 2023. And if it does, Moreno won’t be around to step in out of necessity.
There is no need to reach for the panic button, at least not yet, as Varsho is well-equipped to take over as the team’s No. 3 catcher. But if Kirk and Jansen end up on the injured list together, the Gold Glove-calibre defender will be thrust into a full-time catching role, removing a vital member of Toronto’s outfield defence.
The Blue Jays will be better with the former Diamondback in the outfield, not behind the plate. So it would make sense to procure a veteran catcher from the open market — like Jason Castro or Robinson Chirinos, perhaps — to ensure the club’s best defensive alignment remains intact.
That way, Toronto could be worry-free knowing its triple-A catching depth — currently featuring Rob Brantly, Chris Bec and Karl Ellison — is secure, biding time until prospect Zach Britton (not the reliever) is closer to MLB-ready.
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