Gift Ngoepe impressing as Blue Jays roster options begin to emerge

Hazel Mae and Arden Zwelling discuss the injuries to Marcus Stroman and Troy Tulowitzki plus the success of Anthony Alford.

BRADENTON, Fla. — With four weeks left in camp, the Toronto Blue Jays have plenty of time to make final decisions on a 25-man opening day roster. And all kinds of things could happen between now and March 29 that would influence the club’s thinking. But after the first half-dozen games of the Grapefruit League season, some possibilities are beginning to present themselves.

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said Tuesday his club is likely to carry two backup infielders on opening day, which would presumably be Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz if Troy Tulowitzki is healthy and ready to play at the beginning of the season.

However, Tulowitzki has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game and isn’t scheduled to do so anytime soon. He’s been fielding groundballs and hitting batting practice regularly. But, with each passing day that he isn’t in an actual game, it’s increasingly likely he begins the season on the disabled list. That would open the door for Gift Ngoepe or Richard Urena to sneak onto the roster in one of those two backup infielder roles.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says Ngoepe has been particularly impressive this spring, especially in his opportunities at shortstop.

"I love him — he’s done a great job," Gibbons said. "He’s got great hands. He can play anywhere out there. You just watch him move around as an infielder, and something jumps out at you. He’s better than most."

The 28-year-old South African is primarily known for his defence, and hit just .222/.323/.296 in his 28-game MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. His .231/.320/.351 line over more than 700 minor-league games isn’t much better, but Gibbons believes Ngoepe has some untapped offensive potential.

"You know what, I’ll tell you, I see something in his bat. He’s stronger than I thought he was going to be," Gibbons said. "I’ve got to be honest, I like everything that I’ve seen. How everything shakes out, I’m not sure. But I think he’s a good pick-up for us."

Urena, meanwhile, made his MLB debut last September, batting .206/.270/.309 over 21 games. But he’s still only 22 and much more likely to factor into future Blue Jays rosters than Ngoepe, who was acquired in a minor trade with the Pirates in November.

If Tulowitzki does hit the disabled list, the Blue Jays could carry Ngoepe for the beginning of the season and allow Urena to go to triple-A to get regular playing time and continue his development.

"That’s why he’s here, he’s got experience," Gibbons said of Ngoepe. "I know he doesn’t have a lot of time in the big leagues, but everybody thinks he can handle himself. That’s one of the main reasons we picked him up early in the off-season."

Utility infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is on the 40-man roster and playing on a major-league contract, which makes him a consideration as well. But after he appeared in only 64 minor-league games in 2017 — making just 236 plate appearances in his first season since defecting from Cuba — it’s likely the Blue Jays would prefer he receive more minor-league conditioning before making his major-league debut.

Gurriel is still working on several adjustments the Blue Jays have asked him to make, such as altering his throwing mechanics at shortstop so that his arm angle is more over-the-top rather than at his side. But the Blue Jays see a bright future for the 24-year-old, who signed a seven-year, $22-million contract with the club in November 2016.

"Nobody’s seen enough of him yet. They paid him some good money to bring him over because he’s so talented, you can see that. He can really swing the bat," Gibbons said. "He’s got a chance to be good because he swings it"

With Luke Maile pencilled in as the club’s backup catcher, and the tandem of Curtis Granderson and Steve Pearce forming a platoon in left field, that means the Blue Jays will likely carry a seven-man bullpen to begin the season.

Five of those spots are spoken for by Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Seung-hwan Oh, Danny Barnes and Aaron Loup. Only two spots remain, with several candidates competing for them.

Big-league veterans John Axford, Craig Breslow, Al Alburquerque and Rhiner Cruz are all in camp on minor-league deals vying for jobs. Meanwhile, homegrown Blue Jays Matt Dermody, Tim Mayza, Carlos Ramirez and Chad Girodo all have major-league experience and are making their cases, as well.

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

There’s also a strong crop of young talent at big-league camp trying to impress Blue Jays staff, including Taylor Guerrieri, Andrew Case, Jordan Romano and others. Although it’s most likely the club will return the entirety of that group to the minor leagues at some point in order to preserve depth.

There could also be additions made going forward, particularly if a player who interests Toronto’s front office ends up on waivers at the end of spring training. There’s also a plethora of free agents left on the market, and Toronto sent a pair of scouts to the MLBPA training camp in Bradenton on Tuesday to take a look at the 30-plus jobless players working out there.

With around $160 million on the books for 2018 — and several players working towards incentives in their deals — the Blue Jays don’t have much payroll flexibility to work with at the moment. But Atkins will never rule out the possibility of making upgrades to his team’s roster if opportunities present themselves.

"There’s still the chance for us to add. We’ll stay open-minded," Atkins said. "For it to be significant, it’d have to be via trade. But, at the same time, I think we could complement our bullpen. If there’s an upgrade at some position, it’s getting harder and harder to do. I do feel good about [the current roster] being a good starting point."

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