Blue Jays have chance to showcase depth in unique 2020 season

Members of the Toronto Blue Jays leave the field after a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

We still don’t know where the Toronto Blue Jays will report to training camp later this week, what the three-week build-up to a 60-game regular season will look like, or if any of this is a particularly good idea amidst a global pandemic — but we do at least know who will be participating.

On Sunday, the Blue Jays submitted to MLB a list of 58 players who will be eligible to suit up for the club this season. It of course includes all of Toronto’s expected regulars, plus a selection of veterans who were competing for jobs before spring training shut down, young depth pieces on the cusp of the majors, and even some of the franchise’s top prospects from the low minors.

The final 20 or so players in Toronto’s pool are particularly interesting, considering the unique challenges MLB teams will face this season. Expanded rosters, possible COVID-19 infections and the increased likelihood of soft tissue injuries as players ramp back up to full speed in a compressed timeframe will test organizational depth like never before. And for the Blue Jays, that could mean the door opening to an MLB debut for a few young players the club has spent the last few years developing.

On the pitching side, Thomas Hatch is an interesting arm to watch as the 25-year-old tries to establish himself in a crowded field of Blue Jays depth starters. Acquired from the Chicago Cubs for David Phelps last July, Hatch rode increased change-up usage and improved health to a spectacular late-summer run at double-A, finishing his 2019 with a 2.72 ERA over his final 11 starts.

Of course, Hatch will have to compete for opportunities with a number of fellow young starters who have already made their MLB debuts: Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay, Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch and Jacob Waguespack. Remember, this spring’s much-discussed fifth starter competition was a misnomer. It was actually a competition for spots six through 12.

But as always, some pitchers will get hurt, some will transition to bullpen roles (keep an eye on Waguespack and Reid-Foley), and others will underperform. All we know is the Blue Jays ought to have plenty of opportunity as teams seek to manage workloads creatively in this odd season, possibly piggybacking starters or using openers more frequently.

On the position player side, Santiago Espinal was turning heads this spring — he was 10-for-24 with seven extra-base hits — and could play a role if the Blue Jays run into trouble on the infield.

Joe Panik will spell Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette up the middle, while Brandon Drury will get his reps at a number of positions. But Espinal, the return in 2018’s Steve Pearce trade, is right in the mix and has the versatility to play in the outfield as well, potentially making him an ideal candidate for the three-player taxi squad teams will carry in order to guard against last-minute injuries or COVID-19 infections.

Meanwhile, how Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo would deploy his bullpen to protect narrow leads and get the ball to lights-out closer Ken Giles was already a big question during pre-pandemic spring training. Now, in a 60-game sprint in which every late-inning meltdown will have an increased impact on a team’s season, it’s an even bigger one.

As things stood in March, Rafael Dolis, who spent the last four seasons pitching in Japan, and Anthony Bass, an offseason waiver claim, were ticketed to serve as Giles’ set-up men. Wilmer Font and Sam Gaviglio were positioned to face high leverage in mid-to-late innings, joining Giles as the lone arms in Toronto’s bullpen to have spent all of 2019 pitching effectively in the majors.

Shun Yamaguchi — one of NPB’s best pitchers in 2019 — was in the mix if he didn’t earn a spot in Toronto’s rotation. And Jordan Romano — now committed to a relief role after several seasons spent trying to develop a change-up as a starter — was impressing with high-90’s velocity throughout camp and doing everything he needed to win a job.

One presumes that’s still Toronto’s bullpen core as camps start back up, but it’s fair to wonder whether the high-stakes nature of each game this season, coupled with the ability to carry extra arms on an expanded roster for the first few weeks, will open opportunities for some young, hard-throwing arms who would’ve otherwise started the season at triple-A.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Julian Merryweather is finally healthy after a grueling Tommy John rehabilitation and flashed triple-digit velocity this spring. Patrick Murphy showcased his revamped delivery and premium stuff in big-league camp outings. And 24-year-old Hector Perez backs up his mid-90’s heater with a hard slider, a mix he’s used to strike out 10 batters per nine over more than 450 minor-league innings as a starter.

The Blue Jays may first want to see what they have in veterans like A.J. Cole, Jake Petricka, Justin Miller and Brian Moran, all minor-league free agent signees who pitched in the majors in 2019. But considering the lack of build-up to, and expedited nature of, this season, it’s likely clubs will churn through bullpen arms at an accelerated rate.

And then there’s the prospects. It’s pretty amazing that baseball has yet to make an unequivocal public statement about minor-league seasons in 2020. Clubs have made numerous decisions that point to the fact they won’t be played, from furloughing coaches and player development staff, to releasing large swaths of minor-leaguers, to hesitating to commit to paying the meagre weekly stipends of the ones that remain, to including top prospects in their player pools thus precluding them from participating in a season if it occurred. It’s obvious there won’t be minor-league ball in 2020. So why won’t anyone say that directly? But we digress.

In adding top prospects Jordan Groshans, Simeon Woods Richardson, Alek Manoah and Alejandro Kirk to their pool, the Blue Jays have found a way to expanded the opportunities they have to continue their development in a year without games being played. It’s one thing to talk about pitch design on Zoom calls and grind away in a batting cage. It’s another to live and learn in a professional environment with daily instruction from coaches and developers, and compete directly with fellow young, hungry athletes.

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And, yes, the Blue Jays have left two spots open in their 60-man pool, one of which could be filled by 2020 first round pick Austin Martin — assuming he signs. Which should be the assumption, by the way, as the incentives on both sides to get a deal done are so great that it stretches credulity to think they won’t agree to terms prior to the August 15 deadline. It’s certainly worth remembering that Martin’s agent, Scott Boras, is famous for taking negotiations right down to the wire, as he’s done in the past with Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, and other blue chip draftees.

But don’t start dreaming on seeing Martin or any of these Blue Jays prospects playing before swaths of empty seats in MLB games this season. Martin’s never made a professional plate appearance; Groshans and Manoah have yet to play full-season ball; and Woods Richardson’s a teenager. The long-term development of these players will be prioritized over any win-now concerns in a 60-game season that may or may not get to the finish line.

And so, they’ll all report to the Blue Jays’ “alternate training site” — almost certainly Sahlen Field in Buffalo, NY — for a couple months of high-level instruction, simulated games and live reps against one another as the organization tries to continue developing its next wave of young talent amidst a pandemic.

From there, the possibility remains of an expanded Arizona Fall League, in which Blue Jays prospects could compete against minor-leaguers from other organizations for the first time in a year. But for more advanced prospects closer to the majors, that opportunity could come a little bit sooner — on a major-league field.

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