How Blue Jays players benefit from MLB’s return

Hazel Mae is joined by Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith to discuss the news that MLB will be returning with a 60-game season in July. Plus, where will the Blue Jays be playing?

Hopes for MLB to proceed in 2020 have fluctuated wildly for weeks, and as recently as the weekend they looked awfully bleak. But MLB’s decision on Monday to impose a season means that baseball will indeed return in 2020.

Although playing under these conditions is far from a balm for the acrimonious relationship between the MLBPA and the league, they do avoid the doomsday scenario of no baseball this year.

With that in mind, it seems worth examining what the Toronto Blue Jays gain from collectively dodging that bullet – specifically on an individual level. As a team, a 2020 campaign could provide a surprise playoff run – but that’s still a dubious bet, and missing October baseball wouldn’t be make-or-break for the franchise. In some ways, the stakes are higher for the players, who would have felt the void of a baseball-less year more acutely.

The benefits of playing in 2020 take a number of different forms, some obvious and others less so. What follows is a summary of the different ways players on the Blue Jays roster benefit from baseball seemingly avoiding a full self-destruct this year:

Opportunity Gain

Definition: For a team still building towards its competitive window, there are a number of players who are counting on 2020 as the year they solidify their place on the team’s roster going forward, or lock themselves into their preferred role.

Players: Teoscar Hernandez, Derek Fisher, Anthony Alford, Jonathan Davis, Travis Shaw, Shun Yamaguchi, Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, Chase Anderson, Rafael Dolis

The 2020 season was supposed to be the year the Blue Jays sorted out their outfield and that’s going to be a tall task over a shortened season. With no baseball played at all it would have been impossible, though. Hernandez and Davis turn 29 in 2021, Fisher reaches 28, and Alford ticks over to 27. These outfielders need to put more on their resumes this summer if the Blue Jays are going to pencil in any of them for spots in 2021.

On the pitching side, guys like Yamaguchi, Thornton, and Borucki are fighting for position at the back of the Blue Jays’ rotation. This is an ideal year for guys in this group to show they can be reliable starters before Nate Pearson and some of the team’s high-ceiling pitching prospects start claiming more innings for themselves. Borucki will be hard-pressed to put concerns about his durability to rest in a truncated campaign, but he could show his performance in 2018 was no fluke. For Thornton and Yamaguchi, this is a chance to fully convince the organization they’re starters long-term.

Shaw, Anderson, and Dolis are in a mini category of their own here because 2020 is a season that allows the Blue Jays to make a contract decision on each of them for 2021. This year will give Shaw an opportunity to bounce back from a dismal 2019 and earn either a trip to arbitration in 2021, or an extension. A good season in the rotation from Anderson would make his $9.5 million option for 2021 a steal. Similarly, a good performance from Dolis makes his option, worth $1.5 million, a no-brainer. Without an opportunity to prove themselves, their futures may have looked murkier, especially if the financial landscape of the sport shifts radically post-COVID-19.

Developmental Gain

Definition: The Blue Jays have a few young players that figure to have locked in their spots over the medium or long term. What those players need, more than anything, is the chance to grow and develop by earning more experience against MLB competition.

Players: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen, Nate Pearson

Vladdy and Bo in particular would’ve suffered developmentally from a dearth of MLB game action in 2020, considering they are both at an age where improvement comes rapidly. Even the current outlook is far from ideal for the franchise-defining duo who need to be soaking up at-bats. They are not alone, though. Jansen seems like the team’s catcher of the future, but his focus in his first full season was defence. This summer the Blue Jays would like to see him to put everything together.

Biggio, based on his demeanour and mature approach, feels like a finished product, but he only has 430 MLB plate appearances to his name and continues to work on his defence across the diamond. Pearson was long assumed to be a member of the 2020 Blue Jays at some point, and even with a heavily-limited workload he would benefit from facing MLB hitters this year.

Platform Year Revival

Definition: Players heading into free agency are always hoping to hit the market with their best foot forward. These guys may enter a hostile, cash-strapped environment, but getting to showcase themselves in a short season is better than nothing.

Players: Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, Joe Panik, Matt Shoemaker

Giles stands out here as a player who will do well for himself in free agency regardless of what happens in 2020, but putting together a healthy stretch after elbow issues dogged him a bit in 2019 couldn’t hurt. The others have more to prove.

Bass had a solid-but-unspectacular 2019 and 60 games could be enough to build on it, especially considering how confident teams are about small-sample pitching statistics these days. After all, Drew Pomeranz landed a four-year deal based on his 28.2 strong relief innings in 2019.

If the season had been cancelled, Panik would’ve been hitting free agency three seasons removed from offensive competence at the age of 30. Now he’ll get the chance to show there’s some life left in his bat – albeit in limited playing time.

Shoemaker probably has the most to gain if he can provide strong production out of the rotation. Without the chance to prove himself, he would’ve been seen as an extreme injury risk/dart throw. While he won’t get to allay those fears completely this summer, getting through 2020 unscathed would do him a world of good on the free agent market.

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Literal Financial Gain

Definition: The players who make the most money have the most to gain in raw dollars.

Players: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Randal Grichuk

Some players have contracts that afford them security in terms of their place with the Blue Jays. That means even if 2020 was lost they’d just show up in 2021 for work. That’s certainly the case for Ryu, Roark, and Grichuk.

Roark is approaching free agency after 2021, so a good 2020 could be helpful, but it’d be more of a luxury than a necessity. If he performs in 2021 that – along with his extensive track record – would keep his free agent market robust regardless of what happens this year. The other two don’t have to worry about earning their next contract until 2024 – and Ryu may be done with MLB baseball by then.

For these guys, the damage of missing 2020 would’ve been primarily financial, which means the benefit of playing is the same.

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.

Miscellaneous

Definition: A few of the Blue Jays don’t fit neatly into any of the groups above.

Players: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Reese McGuire, Brandon Drury, Wilmer Font, Sam Gaviglio

Gurriel Jr. is probably the most unusual player on the roster when it comes to the effect of a 2020 being played or not. He’s established himself as a probable future starter – although it’s worth noting he isn’t loved by projections – and he’s under contract through 2023. That contract is modest, though, so he doesn’t stand to lose or gain vast sums. He’s also 26, which makes him a little bit old to assume he’d be making major developmental strides in 2020. He’ll get opportunities to work on his defence in left field and solidify that as his future home, but it’s probable that the Blue Jays would’ve handed him the position in 2021 if 2020 wasn’t played. So, getting the season back is about recouping a little salary, getting a few more reps in left, and helping nurture his team’s already-significant belief in him.

The other players here are primarily backups who remain under team control for multiple years. Mileage varies on belief in McGuire’s offence, and some might say he has a chance to unseat Jansen, but during spring training he seemed to be falling behind. Based on a lengthy and unimpressive offensive history in the minors, he was never a good bet to win that job despite a surprisingly strong showing at the plate in minimal MLB action. With a shortened schedule the idea of doing enough to claim the top job seems even less likely.

Drury, Font, and Gaviglio are assured positions for 2020, and they aren’t challenging for different roles than the ones they inhabited in 2019. Each of them could easily come back in 2021 without having played this year and nothing would’ve materially changed for them. Font and Gaviglio will be playing for first-year arbitration paydays that look to be relatively modest almost regardless of their 2020 seasons. Drury’s 2020 fight will be to get a healthy raise in his third year of arbitration, yet achieving that goal that will require an unexpected surge in playing time.

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