Blue Jays must be sure to preserve depth with roster deadline looming

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo and shortstop Bo Bichette reflect on Hyun-jin Ryu's start against the Atlanta Braves and how effective the southpaw was.

They’ve only played nine games this year, but it’s already time for the Toronto Blue Jays to start trimming their roster.

MLB teams have until Thursday at noon ET to reduce their active rosters from 30 to 28. For the Blue Jays, this deadline sets up some potentially difficult decisions, especially since right-hander Chase Anderson is nearly ready to be activated, at which point a third roster spot will be required.

With the deadline approaching, the Toronto front office faces some tough questions. Among them: how many relievers does manager Charlie Montoyo need? Can we draw any meaningful conclusions from players’ early-season performances? And do the Blue Jays dare try to sneak any player through waivers at a time when the Miami Marlins are claiming anyone and everyone?

The answers to these questions will tell us something about the Blue Jays’ strategic approach to this shortened season. And while the final decisions likely won’t be made until the last possible minute, some front office officials around the league expect the unprecedented nature of the shortened 2020 season to lead to a shift in priorities. Now, more than ever, depth must be preserved.

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Even in a typical season, the Blue Jays prioritize depth. Often that means keeping out-of-options players as long as possible and shuttling those with options down to the minors as needed. Now, the impulse to preserve depth may be even stronger.

First of all, the Marlins are desperate for big-league talent after seeing 18 of their own players contract COVID-19. Good luck passing someone like Anthony Alford or A.J. Cole past Miami this week. And second, the outbreaks on the Marlins and Cardinals show how perilous every club’s depth is.

Maybe teams will make minor trades in an attempt to recoup some value, but placing a player on waivers now amounts to handing him over. Teams that expose big-league calibre players to waivers may soon be watching them play in Miami or St. Louis. The Blue Jays were reminded of that reality over the weekend when they placed reliever Brian Moran on waivers only to see the Marlins claim him soon afterwards.

“We knew when we put Moran on waivers the other day, there was a good chance that the Marlins were going to pick him up,” Montoyo said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

With that in mind, there’s no need to rush Alford off the roster. The same logic would have applied to Derek Fisher, but the Blue Jays placed him on the injured list with a quad strain Wednesday. And along those lines, this isn’t the time to try to pass a reliever like Cole or Wilmer Font through waivers either.

As one executive said, “I’d expect that teams will prioritize sending down optionable guys unless the out of options dude is just terrible.”

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Of course if those out-of-options players are staying put, the Blue Jays must find three others to demote. As a starting point, we can safely presume the following 19 players aren’t candidates to be demoted. Each one occupies a key role in the lineup, rotation or bullpen.

Bo Bichette
Cavan Biggio
Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Teoscar Hernandez
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Travis Shaw
Randal Grichuk
Danny Jansen
Joe Panik
Rowdy Tellez
Reese McGuire
Hyun-Jin Ryu
Tanner Roark
Matt Shoemaker
Trent Thornton
Nate Pearson
Anthony Bass
Rafael Dolis
Jordan Romano

Between those 19 players and the out-of-options group (Alford, Cole and Font) the Blue Jays have 22 current players who are likely going nowhere. That would leave eight players potentially on the bubble:

Brandon Drury
Santiago Espinal
Billy McKinney
Thomas Hatch
Anthony Kay
Ryan Borucki
Jacob Waguespack
Shun Yamaguchi

Everyone in this group technically has options remaining, but Yamaguchi would have to agree to an optional assignment, which complicates matters. Plus, the Blue Jays liked him enough to spend $6.35 million on him over the winter so he may be safe for now, even if that money’s a sunk cost and his first three appearances have been so rough that he’s already been relegated to the lowest of low-leverage appearances.

Of the remaining players, left-handers Kay and Borucki have pitched well and are the only left-handers available to the Blue Jays out of the bullpen. Montoyo wouldn’t want to keep them around unless there’s opportunity, but he has been impressed by both lefties early on.

“If you’re pitching them, that’s fine, but if they don’t get to pitch you kind of have to make a move so they can pitch,” he said. “If they keep pitching like that, we’ll be good. That’s going to help a lot.”

In other words, Kay and Borucki are impressing Blue Jays decision makers even if they don’t have any guarantees. But presumably some pitcher has to go, so maybe it’s Waguespack. He has mostly been effective in three appearances – just not as effective as Hatch, who has been “outstanding,” to borrow Montoyo’s description.

Of the position players on the roster, it’s McKinney and Espinal whose roster spots appear to be at greatest risk. Montoyo has played Drury more than Espinal to this point, so if one infielder has to go, it could be Espinal. Among outfielders, it’s McKinney whose roster spot appears least secure. The Blue Jays have already optioned him once this year and could easily do so again.

If that interpretation is accurate, Waguespack, Espinal and McKinney could be the casualties of the Blue Jays’ upcoming roster crunch. Either way, the Blue Jays face a delicate balancing act with every move they make. In a shortened season, teams face pressure to win every night. Yet alongside that immediate urgency, it’s more important than ever to preserve whatever depth they have.

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