As the 2021 season unfolds, Blue Jays Confidential will ask a panel of Sportsnet Blue Jays insiders to weigh in on issues big and small with the team, and around Major League Baseball.
1. Who’s one Blue Jays player or prospect you consider a breakout candidate this spring?
Julian Merryweather flashed it over eight appearances last year, but coming out of the bullpen with that repertoire he should be nearly untouchable. With some experience under his belt, I can see him emerging as a lights-out relief option the way Jordan Romano did last spring.
Nate Pearson kind of gave us all some food for thought in his playoff cameo against the Tampa Bay Rays after a rather "meh" regular season. I’ve said for a couple of years that his arrival for good in the majors will determine when it really is "go" time for the Toronto Blue Jays. He sets in motion all manner of things and settles all manner of pitching personnel decisions. Leading with my heart more than my head here. Maybe the question should be: Whose breakout do you most want to see. Beyond Pearson, how about Elvis Luciano?
Simeon Woods Richardson is going to turn heads. He’s exceptionally polished for a 20-year-old, throwing four good pitches he locates consistently for strikes. Those who haven’t seen him pitch are going to fall in love with how quickly he works and how doggedly he competes. Those who have, won’t be surprised. There’s a real possibility he makes his MLB debut this season.
I’ll go with Jordan Groshans, the top infield prospect who hasn’t been seen in games since May 2019. Since then, he has recovered from the foot injury that cost him the end of the 2019 season and impressed at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site. Now 21, he’ll get his first shot at the upper minors, but before the season begins he has a chance to make a lasting impression in spring training.
2. What’s one further addition you could see the Blue Jays making? Either a specific player or a broader area of need?
The obvious answer would be starting pitching, but I’m a little confused by what we saw from the team at the tail end of the off-season. I think we all understand that the organization doesn’t want to get tied into multi-year deals with the pitchers remaining on the market; that it wants to see what it has exactly in Thomas Hatch and get a clearer read on Pearson and Robbie Ray and maintain flexibility. I’m all good with it. Yet, look at the pitching deals that have been signed: the vast majority have been one-year contracts and so far the Jays have come up largely empty. Don’t know what that says. Oh, and maybe we’re sleeping a bit on the fact that the team was so aggressive in pursuit of Michael Brantley, so I can see the outfield still being a source of an upgrade, especially if it’s a hitter who profiles like him.
Starting pitching. There’s no guarantee that the Blue Jays make a move, as they appear to be nearing the limits of their 2021 payroll after outspending every team in baseball this winter. But Taijuan Walker and Jake Odorizzi are still out there, and they’d certainly address a need. At this point, a deal would likely have to be on the Blue Jays’ terms, but I’m not ruling one last addition out. A versatile lefty bench bat who plays first or third could help, too.
I could see the club bringing in a veteran catcher on a minor-league deal; a proven big-leaguer to protect against possible injury to Danny Jansen while competing in camp with Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk for the backup job. (And as much as he’d be competing with those two, he’d also be a resource for them to learn from.) If the veteran doesn’t earn a roster spot out of spring training, he could stick around on the taxi squad, allowing whichever young catcher doesn’t make the roster to get regular playing time at triple-A. It’s essentially the role Caleb Joseph filled in 2020 — and considering what a strong impact he had on the team’s culture, the Blue Jays could look to bring him back. Tyler Flowers and Matt Wieters are also still free agents.
One of Odorizzi or Walker just makes too much sense, and while things seem cold on that front right now, maybe it’s just a staredown between the sides? As things stand, the Blue Jays are plan on building a five-man rotation out of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ray, Pearson, Tanner Roark, Stephen Matz and Ross Stripling. There’s a lot of volatility there that one of Odorizzi or Walker would definitely stabilize. A question for the Blue Jays to decide is whether they’re better off extending financially for one of them now, or holding on and using prospects to acquire a starter before the deadline.
3. Thinking back to past springs you’ve covered, what’s one breakout that stands out? Or an apparent breakout that ended up being fool’s gold?
The unexpected emergences of Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro are among the most memorable spring breakouts I’ve covered. The Blue Jays were desperate for relief arms that spring, didn’t have a ton of answers and the two right-handers who hadn’t pitched above A-ball forced their way onto an opening day roster that included four other rookies: Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey.
On the flip side, Canadian Simon Pond crushed it in the spring of 2004, with a team-best 23 hits including four homers, and made the team. The success was short-lived as he went 8-for-49 in 56 plate appearances over 16 games in his only stint in the majors.
This goes way back, but I remember a right-handed pitcher for the Montreal Expos named Howard Farmer who – I swear to God – sometimes looked like Dwight Gooden when he flipped his curveball up to the plate. Solid dude, originally drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round of 1985 – didn’t sign – and was taken by the Expos in the seventh round in 1997. Baseball America had him listed 69th in their Top 100 rankings in 1989. Anyhow, he was lights-out in spring training one year, looking very much like he’d arrived, until he stepped into a rut on the mound in a Grapefruit League game against the New York Yankees in Fort Lauderdale and went over on his ankle. Final major-league tally? Six innings over 23 games. Never the same.
This time four years ago, I expected big things from Francisco Liriano. He was dominant during the spring of 2017, posting a 2.00 ERA with 29 strikeouts compared to just six walks in 18 Grapefruit League innings. But once the season began, it was another story for Liriano, who posted a 5.88 ERA with 43 walks in 82.2 innings for a disappointing Toronto team. The Blue Jays did turn Liriano into Teoscar Hernandez, though, and both are in Dunedin, Fla., this year.
On the other side, I’ll go with Bo Bichette, who impressed in 2019, made his MLB debut later that summer and hasn’t looked back.
It became apparent very quickly last spring that Romano had made dramatic improvements over the winter and was positioned to be a real weapon in high-leverage spots. Another is Darrell Ceciliani, who went gangbusters during 2016 spring training (.417/.500/.833 over 41 plate appearances) and was one of John Gibbons’s personal favourites. Alas, Ceciliani couldn’t beat out front office favourite Ezequiel Carrera for the club’s fourth outfielder job.
4. Lastly, what would a successful spring look like for the Blue Jays?
All MLB regulars finish camp healthy; Kirby Yates is throwing his 2019 splitter again; one or more of Hatch, Anthony Kay, Merryweather, Trent Thornton and TJ Zeuch takes a considerable step and challenges for a rotation spot; Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is executing a disciplined plate approach and driving good pitches to hit; Bichette has made more developmental strides at shortstop; Groshans, Austin Martin and Woods Richardson hold their own against big-league competition; and again — because it’s the only thing that truly matters — all regulars remain heathy.
No major injuries, pitchers properly built up, Ray and Tyler Chatwood finding the strike zone and Guerrero Jr. looking comfortable at first base while being ready for about 30-50 starts at third.
Keeping it simple here, just avoid injuries. Bonus points if one of their rotation candidates claims a starting job with a big spring, if prospects like Groshans, Martin, Alek Manoah and Richardson can hold their own against MLB-level players or if Guerrero Jr. looks more comfortable on defence (at third and at first). But really, just stay healthy.
Getting the back end of the bullpen through in good health — thinking of Yates and Romano — and finding some answers in the rotation while having Guerrero, Jr. look comfortable at either corner. Beyond that: health. There’s a lot of soft tissue out there coming off a year unlike any other. And with the pandemic still about and mutating, I have a bigger concern about getting through spring training without cases than I do concluding the regular season.