Blue Jays spring storylines: Biagini a potential starter

Irfaan Gaffar and Shi Davidi discuss the Jays’ bullpen, who will play left field outfield, and how Kendry Morales will help the Jays lineup.

•Biagini will be stretched out this spring
•Who’s in left field?
•Options at leadoff

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The opening of spring training seemed to sneak up quickly after an off-season that lingered on and on, and for the Toronto Blue Jays that means transitioning from a fragmented winter to a purposeful camp.

Already a handful of players have checked in at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium ahead of Tuesday’s physicals for pitchers and catchers, and it’s among them where much of the intrigue will be found in the coming weeks.

Of primary importance in those machinations is Joe Biagini, the sophomore right-hander so integral to the Blue Jays bullpen a year ago, and due to be stretched out as a starter during camp.

Whether or not he ends up starting, his progress matters on multiple levels, since there’s little in the way of depth behind a very strong front five in the rotation, and there will be an organizational need after 2017 when Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano are eligible for free agency.

Given that prospects Conner Greene and Sean Reid-Foley aren’t sure bets to be ready for the majors at the beginning of next season, the Blue Jays have ample incentive to maximize Biagini’s development. That’s why there are a number of considerations in play for the 26-year-old, including the potential to open the year in the rotation at triple-A Buffalo.

“There’s definitely that possibility, but I wouldn’t say we’re leaning that way by any means because he was so important to our bullpen a year ago,” general manager Ross Atkins said Monday. “We’ve talked about it. He really would like to be considered a starting alternative and he recognizes what that means. He recognizes that means he could potentially have to spend some time in triple-A.”

Up until last season, when the Blue Jays plucked him from the San Francisco Giants in the Rule 5 draft, Biagini had been almost exclusively a starter, with only three of his 89 career minor-league games coming in relief. Then he won a job in spring training, logged 67.2 innings in 60 games and added 7.1 shutout innings in the post-season after emerging as one of manager John Gibbons’ most trusted options.

Still, if a Blue Jays starter suffered an injury, there’s no obvious No. 6 in the system like Drew Hutchison up until he was traded last July. Mike Bolsinger, who is out of options, would fit the role but Biagini is without doubt the more preferable option.

“If that’s going to be an opportunity at some point in my career, I would be glad to accept the challenge of doing it,” said Biagini. “I’d be happy to try to it. But I’d be happy to do whatever – like last year, what I did was great. Obviously, I’m not complaining. …

“If somebody’s saying, ‘Hey, who wants an opportunity to start,’ I would raise my hand,” he added later. “But I’m not campaigning for it.”

However it plays out, stretching out Biagini during the spring gives the Blue Jays a chance to watch him turnover a lineup and assess how that might play in the regular season. At the same time, they’ll be further building up his physical base, making a mid-season transition to the rotation, if needed, possible.

“In think when you’re in mid-season form, it’s probably the easiest time to do that,” said Biagini. “Just because your arm’s live, you’re pitching a lot, you’re in a routine, and then you can lengthen it out a couple times and get up to a decent amount of pitches before long.”

Here are some other key spring storylines for the Blue Jays:

The Bullpen

Depending on what happens with Biagini, the Blue Jays have either four or five spots essentially locked up (Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, Joe Smith and J.P. Howell). Beyond that group, possibilities include Danny Barnes, Bolsinger, Ryan Tepera, Aaron Loup, Matt Dermody, Chris Smith, Bo Schultz and Rule 5 pick Glenn Sparkman.

The current plan is for the team to carry a seven-man bullpen to open the year, and both Bolsinger and Schultz are out of options, which provides them with a tiebreaker.

Barnes impressed last year during a late-season stint with the Blue Jays, while Tepera and Schultz both offer some big velocity.

Chris Smith is intriguing as the big-armed righty struck out 76 batters in 57 innings at double-A New Hampshire before logging four games with Buffalo to close out the campaign. The Blue Jays thought highly enough of him to recall him in mid-September as insurance, although he didn’t see any action.

Left Field

As things stand now, Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton Jr., are slated to share duties in left but Steve Pearce’s progress from elbow surgery can quickly change things. The power-hitting utility-man has reached 75 feet in his throwing program and felt strong taking batting practice in a cage Monday.

“He’s at schedule, projected that he can play on opening day,” said Atkins. “He’s been meeting every threshold.”

Now, there are “varying opinions,” if he’ll be ready to play the outfield opening day and “we’re certainly not going to rush him or push him if there’s doubt or speculation if that’s best for him,” the GM added.

But if healthy and productive, Pearce could eat into Carrera’s playing time in left against right-handers while he takes over for Justin Smoak at first against lefties.

Catcher

The underwriters for the World Baseball Classic may have been wary of the minor surgery Russell Martin underwent on his left knee over the winter, but the Blue Jays aren’t.

“He feels good, he feels strong, he feels like he’s in a great spot,” said Atkins, who insists he would have had no issue with his starting catcher playing shortstop for Canada at the Classic. “Russ is an incredible athlete, incredible asset to Major League Baseball. He really wanted to play and I wanted that for him because he wanted that so badly. He’s someone who takes such good care of himself, is an elite athlete, I’m sure he would have been fine.”

Barring any surprises there, more eyes will be on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is in camp on a minor-league contract but is expected to be Martin’s backup. The 31-year-old is coming off a down offensive year in Detroit, in which he posted a .630 OPS in 92 games, but the switch-hitter has a career OPS of .721 and any type of bounceback would allow the Blue Jays to more effectively manage Martin’s workload.

The Blue Jays released farmhand A.J. Jimenez on Monday after designating him for assignment following the signing of Joe Smith, leaving Juan Graterol and non-roster invites Reese McGuire, Mike Ohlman and Alex Monsalve as the other backstops in camp.

Leadoff

Devon Travis, Jose Bautista and Carrera combined to lead off nearly three-quarters of all Blue Jays games last year and it’s uncertain who will be in the role this year.

One possibility is that Pearce could leadoff against lefties after mashing them for a 1.028 OPS last season.

Against righties, things are more muddled, as Bautista’s on-base skills fit the role but the Blue Jays may want him to bat lower to maximize his thump in the middle of the lineup.

Carrera offers up speed and the ability to play the small game but hasn’t gotten on base consistently enough, while Travis has an innate ability to put the bat on the ball and when hot is an ideal catalyst.

Travis was the Blue Jays’ most frequent leadoff man last year (43 games), followed by Bautista (40) and Carrera (36).

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