A few cracks of light have finally broken through the darkness of winter, bringing us another step closer to spring.
Pitchers and catchers officially reported to Toronto Blue Jays spring training in Dunedin, Florida, this week, bringing with them the familiar visuals of the year’s first games of catch and the soothing sound of baseballs hitting gloves at high velocity. For fans eager to soak up the sights and sounds of spring and start forecasting what the 2020 edition of the team will look like a month and a half from now, these early days represent a fresh slate for the entire roster. The 63 men that will report to camp by the end of the weekend all do so with designs on securing their spot in the major leagues.
No team that finishes a season with a 67-95 record can realistically enter into spring without a few roles up for grabs, and there are opportunities to be had in every position group for the Blue Jays this spring.
Before the team’s first spring training game against the New York Yankees here’s an overview of who has been invited to spring camp and where the roster opportunities will be.
Contenders: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark, Matt Shoemaker, Shun Yamaguchi, Trent Thornton.
On the 40-Man: Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy, Sean Reid-Foley, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch.
Non-roster invitees: Phillippe Aumont, Nate Pearson
The big off-season splurge to bring in Ryu to sit at the top of the rotation is part of a lot of turnover to the pitching staff. Veterans Anderson and Roark figure to take on roles as every-fifth-day innings eaters, carrying with them two track records of delivering around exactly league average. League average pitching isn’t the same as having good pitching but it is a step up from 2019’s offering, so it does count as progress despite a lack of much high ceiling intrigue.
Shoemaker is an interesting piece of this puzzle, having looked good in the limited action of five starts last year before succumbing to a season-ending ACL tear. It was another in nearly a half decade’s worth of lost seasons to injury for him, and it is difficult to know how many starts it makes sense to project him for. He hasn’t made more than 14 starts in a season since 2016, and his non-guaranteed arbitration contract could be terminated before opening day with little penalty. The team seems set on giving him every opportunity to stay in the rotation, for however many starts he may make.
The battle for the fifth spot in the rotation will be the first storyline worth watching this spring. Thornton kept his head above water long enough to last the entire season on the major league staff as a rookie in 2019, while Yamaguchi is arriving from Japan talking the talk of someone planning on being in the rotation. It is easy to see a situation where one of these players has the job out of camp while the other is bumped to a bullpen in a bulk / long man role until they switch places.
Behind those options, the rest of the candidates likely figure to sort themselves out in either Triple-A Buffalo or Double-A New Hampshire. Kay, part of the return for Marcus Stroman last season, could blow the doors off in spring and to steal the fifth starter job, and the team would surely love it if Borucki managed to stay healthy and stake a similar claim. More likely, however, is that they file in to the minor leagues for a little more seasoning, ready to receive the call a little later in the season when the depth is inevitably tested.
A couple of these options — namely Reid-Foley — could find themselves in the discussion as part of the bullpen. Reid-Foley has struggled with his command but what he does well (miss bats with a fastball-slider combination) is a decent recipe for being an effective reliever. Merryweather is another guy who could benefit from making this move this year. He reportedly hit triple-digits with his fastball last season in rehab, and as a 28-year-old who has only made 16 appearances above Double-A, the time is coming for him to figure out a spot where he can realistically produce and stay healthy.
Lastly, Pearson will be 2020’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., as regular check-ins on the status of the 23-year-old fireballer’s performance will be the norm until he is ready to make the leap to the majors. He finished last season at Triple-A, and after a little more time proving he can dominate at that level a mid-summer call up sounds about right.
Contenders: Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis, Wilmer Font, Sam Gaviglio, Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano
On the 40-Man: Elvis Luciano, Yennsy Diaz, Hector Perez.
Non-roster invitees: Travis Bergen, A.J. Cole, Ryan Dull, Justin Miller, Brian Moran, Jake Petricka, Kirby Snead, Ty Tice
I examined this collection of players a little more in depth last week, but the succinct version of that piece is this: Ken Giles is good, and will break camp as the closer barring injury. Beyond that, the rest of the options fluctuate between “relatively uninspiring 30-something journeyman” and “converted starter to eat innings.”
Basically: relievers are fungible year-to-year, and any of these guys could either post a sub-3.00 ERA or be cut by the end of March and neither would be especially surprising.
Last year’s opener extraordinaire Font likely did enough to earn a nod out of camp, and it makes sense for Gaviglio to reprise his role as a mop-up long man to pick up the pieces when the rotation gets rocked.
The team thought enough of Dolis to bring him back from Japan, made a point to claim Bass, and used Pannone as the team’s lone left-handed representative out of the pen for large stretches of last season. All of them make a fairly easy case to find a seat somewhere in the bullpen to start the season.
There is a reasonably safe bet to be made here that one of the non-roster invitees could bump an incumbent out of a job, with Cole probably having the best odds to pull it off. The Jays were willing to let Romano go in the Rule 5 draft last off season, so moving him off the 40-man to make room for a veteran they could potentially flip or make use of seems like a possibility.
Additionally, there’s a shot one of Moran or Bergen manages to squeeze in there somewhere, as the aforementioned Pannone is the only lefty reliever currently on the roster.
Last year’s Rule 5 pick and youngest player in the league Luciano proved he belongs in the minors for the foreseeable future, along with Diaz and Perez who worked primarily as starters last year at Double-A.
As mentioned above, there is also a chance one of the names that come up short in the hunt for the starting jobs filter down into the reliever mix. Reid-Foley, Thornton, Yamaguchi, Merryweather, or even Waguespack could feasibly slot in here without moving the ceiling or floor around much.
Contenders: Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire
On the 40-man: N/A
Non-roster invitees: Riley Adams, Patrick Cantwell, Caleb Joseph, Alejandro Kirk
This certainly is easy. Jansen and McGuire are the only two catchers currently available on the team’s 40-man roster, making it a relative lock that they will be the duo behind the plate when the season opens.
Embarrassing legal issues not withstanding, the duo represent a lefty-righty split at the plate and should continue to provide solid defensive presence behind it. Jansen was a gold glove finalist as a rookie last year and defensive work has been McGuire’s calling card for the entirety of his minor league career. Jansen struggled out of the gate as a hitter last year, but having to learn about the obscene amount of pitchers that the team used last year while also facing major league pitching himself was a massive challenge, and he should be a little more comfortable this year handling the duty.
Injury and fatigue usually rear their ugly head at one point or another at the sport’s most physically demanding position, and it is very likely that a third catcher will be on the 40-man at one point or another. The veteran Joseph makes sense as an emergency option should it come down to it, and the team can always wait to pick someone off the waiver scrap heap if something goes wrong for one of the catchers in-season.
Every team is always grooming a “Catcher of the future”, and with both Jansen and McGuire graduating to the big league club, the 21-year-old Kirk represents that this spring. He reached High-A ball last season, and should start the year seeing what he’s capable of at Double-A.
Contenders: Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Brandon Drury, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Travis Shaw, Rowdy Tellez
On the 40-man: Santiago Espinal
Non-roster invitees: Andy Burns, Patrick Kivlehan, Nash Knight, Joe Panik, Ruben Tejada, Logan Warmouth
Finally, we get to the fireworks factory.
The second-generation all-star infield added another legacy name this off season, with Shaw figuring to take a sizeable share of the workload at first base left behind by Justin Smoak. If he can bounce back to the 30-plus home run power he flashed with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017 and 2018, he rounds out the infield nicely with plenty of pop throughout the lineup.
The story of the season will be how Bichette, Biggio, and especially Guerrero continue to develop now that questions about service time and call ups are behind them. This is the core of the team as they move towards their next competitive window, and the front office is going to plan to feed them as many at bats as they can collectively handle this season. Bichette and Biggio met and even exceeded expectation last year in their debuts, but Guerrero routinely fell short of the sky-high and perhaps slightly unfair projections laid in front of him as a 20-year-old. Still, the narrative of 2020 will rest of his massively broad shoulders for better or worse, and a strong season will go a long way in helping the team build buzz about a bright future.
Now that the feel-good section is out of the way, there is a lingering truth hiding in the shadow behind the optimism for the team’s talented trio of infielders: should one of them get hurt or need some time off, there is very little in the way of reinforcement that can be called on to replace their production. Drury struggled mightily as a utility piece last year, a role he is likely to reprise for another year mainly due to a lack of options. He also is not a suitable option to play shortstop, which is a preferred trait of a bench infielder. Likewise, Tellez hit for good power but struggled to do much else at the big league level last year. Espinal could hypothetically fit the bill as a backup infield option that is already on the 40-man, but he will have to hit a ton in spring to prove himself a viable option already.
Should Drury struggle in spring or the team decide that Tellez isn’t right for a role, there is a chance here for a non-roster player to earn a ticket to Toronto. Panik was an all-star in 2015 and remains a solid-if-unspectacular defensive middle infielder with championship experience, and Tejada has technically played shortstop at the major league level for a full season before, something nobody else on the roster can say.
Contenders: Anthony Alford, Derek Fisher, Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez
On the 40-man: Jonathan Davis, Billy McKinney
Non-roster invitees: Josh Palacios, Forrest Wall
Technically, somebody in this group will be listed as a centrefielder, despite nobody truly fitting that traditional bill.
Grichuk makes the most sense to take the majority of the innings in the middle of the outfield, with his strong arm and ability to quickly get the ball back in contributing to a positive grade as a right fielder last season. His high-power, low on-base profile is a common trait among this outfield core, but the team has committed the to keep him around through 2023, so they may as well use him in the most important spot while he’s here.
Gurriel looked capable in an audition in left field last year after having his arm abandon him as the team’s starting second baseman. His offensive flashes are tantalizing, and he should hit well enough to keep his name in the lineup at one position or another, with left field being the least worrisome place to be. His arm surprised a lot of baserunners who were happy to test him last season, but he still has work to do in learning the position.
Similarly, Hernandez’s misadventures in left are well documented in his Blue Jays tenure, but he actually fared slightly better in centre than it would appear on a casual glance. Regardless of those rose-coloured tints, he is probably best deployed as part of a designated hitter rotation. When his bat is hot he possesses an intoxicating mix of power and speed, he has just struggled to find the best way to package it all together. Entering his third full season with the Jays and heading towards arbitration eligibility, 2020 could be his final opportunity to earn his place as part of the future.
The opportunities here are for the spot of fourth and maybe fifth outfielder positions. Alford and Fisher are both former top prospects that are out of minor league options, so they will either have to make the team out of camp or be placed on waivers free to a good home.
Fisher is a 26-year-old left-handed hitter that checked all the boxes on the prospect scouting report. His tools mix of power, speed, and strike zone awareness are as appealing as they are totally sapped of impact by an overwhelming number of strikeouts. 36.5% of Fisher’s major league at bats have ended in strikeouts, more than any other outcome over his 419 plate appearances. “Just strike out less,” is certainly easy advice to give, but managing to even approach a league average strikeout rate for a stretch of major league games would go a long way for him.
Alford is a 25-year-old prospect from the Anthopolous era that hasn’t managed to carve out much time at all at the major league level. He has played 33 MLB games since 2017, with the team showing the desire to give just about anyone else — Socrates Brito, I’m looking in your direction — a chance to play major league innings ahead of him. He hasn’t done much to force his way into the conversation either, with two sub-100 wRC+ seasons sunk by too many strikeouts at the Triple-A level. The Blue Jays would surely love for him to force his way into the long term plans with an undeniable performance but it doesn’t seem like they have much confidence that occurring. He may get some rope to start the season with the team, but it is unlikely to be a long one.
There’s a chance the Jays will use the expanded 26-man roster to give Davis’ speed and defense package a spot, but that seems unlikely, and McKinney was already given 84 games last year to prove he can resemble something close to a big league regular, to mostly empty results.
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