TORONTO – Amid these maelstrom times in baseball — fallout from the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal ongoing; existential rancour between the minor and major leagues; wild post-season trial balloons — the Toronto Blue Jays arrive at spring training with far less baggage.
The long-awaited graduations of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, among others, during a dismal 95-loss 2019 symbolized a transition away from three years of descent after the playoff years of 2015-16. An off-season remake of the starting rotation – capped by the signing of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu – is an important first step toward augmenting what’s in place.
Maybe it’s months of sub-zero temperatures and relentless snow shovelling talking, but tangible progress in 2020 seems possible.
Now, let’s not get all sunshine and lollipops. Much work remains, in the micro sense over the next six weeks of spring training beginning with pitchers and catchers reporting Wednesday, and in the macro sense ahead of the July 31 trade deadline and leading into next winter.
The rotation is stable but needs more impact, something the eventual arrival of top prospect Nate Pearson at some point this season will advance. The bullpen appears thin, although more minor-league contracts in the days ahead could change that outlook. The outfield is unresolved and more external adds are needed for this group to get over the hump.
But as things stand, the Blue Jays look like a team emerging from a dreadful bottom. The guts of what could develop into a competitive group appear to be in place. A better present, not just chatter of a brighter future, seems to have arrived.
Here’s what to watch for as camp opens.
HELLO — LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu; RHP Tanner Roark; RHP Chase Anderson; RHP Shun Yamaguchi; RHP Rafael Dolis; RHP Anthony Bass; 1B Travis Shaw.
GOODBYE – C Luke Maile; 1B Justin Smoak; 2B Devon Travis; IF Richard Urena; RHP Clay Buchholz; RHP Ryan Tepera; RHP Derek Law; RHP Justin Shafer; RHP Jason Adam.
NEW NON-ROSTER INVITEES – RHP Phillippe Aumont; RHP Justin Miller; RHP A.J. Cole; LHP Brian Moran; C Caleb Joseph; IF Joe Panik; IF Ruben Tejada.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH – RHP Nate Pearson; LHP Anthony Kay; RHP Patrick Murphy; RHP Thomas Hatch; LHP Kirby Snead; C Riley Adams; C Alejandro Kirk.
WHO’S NO. 5?
Shun Yamaguchi will compete for the job as the fifth starter and given that the Blue Jays want to see how he looks in the rotation, he may be the early favourite. Incumbents Trent Thornton and Ryan Borucki, who essentially missed all 2019 with elbow issues, are the prime challengers.
A wild-card in the mix is Matt Shoemaker, who is tentatively slotted into the rotation, but the Blue Jays didn’t guarantee his contract so he’ll need to show the knee injury that felled him last season is a thing of the past. Youngsters like Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, Jacob Waguespack, Thomas Pannone and Julian Merryweather will be pressuring from behind.
STARTING IN CENTRE
The Blue Jays explored a number of trade possibilities during the off-season, including Joc Pederson and Jackie Bradley Jr., but seem determined to give Teoscar Hernandez some more runway, hoping he can put together his ample tools and execute the way he did in the second half on a more consistent basis. As things stand, he’s their best current option in centre.
Derek Fisher and Anthony Alford are both out of options and it’s likely one of the toolsy outfielders, at least, breaks camp with the club, especially with rosters expanding to 26 with a maximum of 13 pitchers. Fisher, the return from Houston for Aaron Sanchez, continues to intrigue the front office, and at this point is ahead of Alford on the pecking order.
Jonathan Davis offers a solid glove-first option and spent the off-season addressing some issues he identified at the plate.
COMING OUT OF THE BULLPEN
Pending free agent Ken Giles is still here and while his contractual status will lurk in the foreground until there’s a resolution, for the time being he gives the Blue Jays a closer to count on. The more immediate question is who else will be coming out of the bullpen to help get him the ball with a lead?
Innings-eater Sam Gaviglio and Mr. Opener Wilmer Font look to be the only sure bets among the relief returnees, while new additions Anthony Bass and Rafael Dolis are on guaranteed contracts. That leaves three spots up for grabs unless Yamaguchi doesn’t stick in the rotation.
From there, internal options such as Jordan Romano, Sean-Reid Foley, Waguespack and Pannone, a lefty, are all in the mix, as are non-roster invitees like Justin Miller, A.J. Cole, Jake Petricka and Brian Moran. Tim Mayza’s recovery from Tommy John surgery leaves the relief corps without an established lefty, but the new three-batter minimum means any southpaw the clubs carries must be able to handle righties, too.
NEW COACH ON THE SCENE
The Blue Jays made a late addition to their coaching staff last week when they promoted director of player development Gil Kim into the mix. His role isn’t easily articulated – he’ll provide a player-development lens in the big-league environment – but aligns with the current trend toward staffing creativity in the sport.
To a degree, he replaces Shelley Duncan, who was moved from the major-league field co-ordinator role into a pro/advanced scouting role within the front office midway through last year, although their work won’t be the same. For now, Kim will continue to oversee the farm system, although the Blue Jays are likely to eventually transition him out of that role and hire a replacement.
The day-to-day work will fall to the leaders beneath Kim until then, Joe Sclafani and Casey Candaele among them.