Blue Jays bullpen biggest question mark at spring training’s midway point

MLB insider Arden Zwelling joins Faizal Khamisa to discuss the battle for the Blue Jays final two bullpen spots, with John Axford and Al Alburquerque starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays will officially hit the halfway point of spring training on Tuesday morning. It’s been a fairly typical camp, all told. Injuries have occurred. Position battles have evolved. A picture of what this team will look like come opening day is becoming clearer.

So, what have we learned? And what’s still to come? Let’s get into it.

Around the diamond

Barring any further injuries — it’s spring training, so no sure thing — the Blue Jays are essentially set when it comes to position players.

In the outfield, Randal Grichuk is your everyday right fielder, Kevin Pillar’s holding down centre, and Curtis Granderson and Steve Pearce are forming a platoon in left. Pearce came out of a game on Sunday due to left calf tightness, but the injury isn’t expected to jeopardize his status for opening day. Grichuk very quickly overcame a left wrist injury suffered earlier in camp.

Russell Martin’s behind the plate, with the defensively-minded Luke Maile his backup. Justin Smoak’s the first baseman, Devon Travis will see the majority of work at second and Josh Donaldson’s at third.

Shortstop, meanwhile, is in flux. Incumbent starter Troy Tulowitzki will almost certainly begin the season on the disabled list as he battles a chronic bone spur in his right heel that he aggravated while rehabbing an ankle injury that ended his 2017 season.

Who starts most often in his place? Good question. Aledmys Diaz, Yangervis Solarte and Gift Ngoepe are all expected to come north with the club and have all seen time at short during spring. (Fellow middle infielders Richard Urena and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are likely destined to begin their seasons in the minors as the club prioritizes development.)

The most likely scenario is Blue Jays manager John Gibbons mixes all three in at both short and second base (and occasionally even third), exploiting matchups, riding hot streaks and utilizing superior defenders whenever a groundball pitcher is on the mound. Remember, the Blue Jays are going to be very careful with Travis this season, closely managing his playing time. You’re going to see a lot of different combinations up the middle.

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Gibbons can roll out his lineup much more dynamically this year than last, and it won’t be a surprise to see a different look, both in the field and the batting order, practically every day. Gibbons wants to get Solarte, in particular, a sizable amount of playing time (he made 512 plate appearances last season). Flexibility will be crucial.

To that end, don’t expect to see Kendrys Morales at designated hitter as consistently as he was in 2017. Considering Travis’s injury history, the way Smoak wore down last season under exceptional playing demands and the age of several key contributors such as Martin (35), Granderson (37), Pearce (35 in a month) and even Donaldson (32), the Blue Jays will aim to use the designated-hitter spot more this season as a rest bay for veteran players in need of a day off their feet.

"I think we’re going to have to," Gibbons says. "It’s something we’ve always wanted to do in the past but really haven’t been able to do much. But I think this year it’s something, to be smart, we’re going to have to do."

That will almost certainly cut into Morales’s playing time, considering Smoak was the club’s best hitter last season and neither can play anywhere but first base or designated hitter. You also don’t want to see too much time in the field from Morales, who was a -11 UZR/150 over 103.2 innings at first last season.

But that’s what happens when you raise the floor as the Blue Jays did this winter. There are higher calibre hitters around, deserving of playing time. The good news for Gibbons is no matter how he constructs his starting lineup on a given day, he’ll look down his bench and see switch-hitters (Morales, Smoak, Solarte, Ngoepe) and versatile defenders (Solarte, Ngoepe, Diaz, Granderson/Pearce) that he can deploy in a variety of late-game situations.

The pitching staff

There’s only one question in the starting rotation: Will Marcus Stroman be ready for the beginning of the season? Considering the way Blue Jays management has spoken about it publicly, it sounds like Stroman will most likely get some additional time in late March and early April to recover from right shoulder inflammation. But we’ll see.

We all know Stroman has made a habit of overcoming rehab timelines, and he could certainly do so again, but one gets the sense the Blue Jays want to be particularly cautious with this one, and rightfully so. Stroman was Toronto’s best pitcher in 2017 and has thrown 405 innings for the team over the last two seasons. He’s extremely important. It’d be nice to have him on opening day. It’ll be nicer to have him healthy come fall.

If Stroman begins the year on the disabled list, it opens a door for Joe Biagini to come north as a part of Toronto’s rotation. The Blue Jays front office is justifiably intrigued by his potential as a starter, and he’s been strong so far this spring, allowing only a run on three hits over five innings pitched, striking out five.

The bullpen is a little less certain. Five spots are taken: closer Roberto Osuna, set-up men Ryan Tepera, Seung-hwan Oh and Danny Barnes, and left-handed specialist Aaron Loup. That leaves two spots remaining.

The frontrunners to fill them are John Axford, who has been blowing Blue Jays coaches away at camp with a mid-90s fastball he’s used to get five of his six outs on the ground, and Al Alburquerque, who is working on his two-seamer, which the Blue Jays hope will allow the slider-heavy reliever to show more varied looks to hitters. Alburquerque’s struck out five in 2.2 innings pitched.

Tim Mayza could insert himself into that conversation if the club wants to take a second left-hander north. He’s been strong this spring, allowing only two hits over three innings pitched. The 26-year-old Mayza’s likely moved ahead of fellow left-handers Matt Dermody and Craig Breslow, who have each been hit around this spring. But the Blue Jays may opt to take only the one left-hander north and fill out the rest of the bullpen with righties.

Of course, it’s important to remember a major-league bullpen is a fluid thing. Pitchers will constantly cycle in and out. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see right-hander Luis Santos factor in, as the Blue Jays have been pleased with the way the 27-year-old is throwing this spring. And it’s worth noting Deck McGuire has received plenty of opportunities, and made the most of them. The 28-year-old’s made three appearances, allowing only a hit and a walk while striking out five over four innings.

Rhiner Cruz and Taylor Guerrieri remain considerations, but appear to be on the outside looking in for opening day. Carlos Ramirez is likely out of the running for now after he was backed off recently due to arm soreness.

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