Regardless of the fine-tuning done on the roster in the coming weeks, this will be a markedly different Toronto Blue Jays team this season.
While the Blue Jays didn’t play at the deep end of the free agent pool – and who did, really? – the additions to the team are meaningful. This is a deeper roster, with a multitude of possibilities.
Throughout my week at spring training, there a number of lineups that you could certainly imagine playing in a regular-season contest. One of those that didn’t was the already legendary game in Sarasota against the Baltimore Orioles, which had its own other level of intrigue.
Here are a few observations from my week with the Blue Jays in Florida.
The Sarasota game
It’s hard to tell from Florida to what extent the excitement has travelled north from the game on March 8 where Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette had the first of many coming-out parties.
I had passed on checking the lineup in the Dunedin clubhouse in favour of getting on the road earlier for Sarasota. As I sat at the light just before the ramp entering Highway 19 South, an exclamatory text message popped up on my watch: “Vlad and Bo today!”
By the time the Blue Jays bus arrived at Ed Smith Stadium, the buzz was contagious around the stadium. Around the dugout, the media stopped to take in the view of the newcomers. Time stood still for their batting practice sessions. And each at-bat was received with rapt attention.
By the game’s end, the strong performances of these two along, with fellow prospect Anthony Alford was enough to make it feel as though this one exhibition game on a sunny Thursday afternoon in March was so much more noteworthy than that.
While Alford’s raw tools have been raved about since he switched his focus towards baseball, it’s the refinements he has made since that stand out this spring.
Alford has noticeably cultivated his skills at the plate. Seeing Alford at spring training in 2016, there was much to admire in his game, though it felt as though his hit tool would need significant work before he could legitimately be considered ready for the big leagues. While he had impressive bat speed, the bat crossed through the hitting zone at a 45-degree angle in a violent upper cut swing. Such a swing would seem to be too easy for big-league pitchers to exploit.
This year, however, Alford’s bat looks flatter through the zone, without giving up much oomph. The flatter bat path allows him to get to pitches on the outside of the plate, so even when making poor contact, he has enough strength to muscle pitchers’ pitches in play with this better approach.
Gurriel’s bat is maturing quickly, as he makes up for time lost after his defection and losing half of last year to injuries.
What seems to be the greater challenge is getting the 24-year-old settled in the field. The Blue Jays have given Gurriel every opportunity to get his reps in at both shortstop and second base this spring. But at both positions, he remains a work in progress.
The biggest issue for Gurriel appears to be his footwork, which is no small thing. His feet rarely seem to set a base that is wider than his shoulders. As a result, he doesn’t get into a good position to field the ball and transition. As a result, he relies exclusively on arm strength, and has made several erratic throws over the past week. Moreover, being a tall player, his poor footwork makes it even more difficult to get down on ground balls.
That’s not to say that his defence is a write-off at this point, or that he’s headed to the outfield. Gurriel made a very nice play in the hole against Atlanta, and the team certainly has enough invested in him to give him a chance to see this through. But the timing of his ascension to MLB will certainly be dependent on his ability to play reliable infield defence.
The infield picture
If Gurriel is able to better master a middle-infield position, he could be a handy piece for the Jays this season.
There’s little indication that Troy Tulowitzki will be available any time soon for the Blue Jays. He’s scarcely seen around camp, beyond some perfunctory batting practice sessions around camp, and even those look as though he is compensating noticeably by lifting his back foot to get his bat fully through the hitting zone.
Though the Jays acquired Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz and Gift Ngoepe this off-season, none are without their limitations. None have hit well through this point in spring training, and while Solarte may have the bat to step in and reasonably match what Tulowitzki has produced as a Blue Jay, he has limited experience at shortstop.
Diaz seems most likely to benefit in terms of playing time, at least in the short term. While he hasn’t shone at the plate, he did hit a homer against the Boston Red Sox on Monday, and has played adequate defence.
Ngoepe has played in 13 games so far, looking sharp in the field filling in at shortstop and third. He’s quick with a strong arm, and profiles very well as a defensive specialist off the bench. At the plate, he has a homer and five walks gleaned in the early part of the schedule, but has mostly looked overmatched at the plate over the past week.
On Monday’s game versus the Red Sox, non-roster invitee Jason Leblebijian got the start at third base, in a spot that would have seemed ideal for Ngoepe. In fact, Leblebijian entered the game leading the Blue Jays in spring plate appearances.
Leblebijian has played all around the diamond, with 151 minor-league games at second base, and 112 more at shortstop over six seasons. This spring, he has been used at first and third, though it seems as though the Jays are giving him an extended look for the role as a supersub at some point.
A prospect who is likely several years removed from having a legitimate role with the Jays made an impression this week.
Jose Rivas is a Venezuelan shortstop signed as part of last year’s international free agent class. In a pre-camp workout, he competed shared a batting cage with Guerrero Jr. and Logan Warmoth, and held his own. Though small and slight at the moment, he generates some power with a leg kick and an athletic swing.