DUNEDIN, Fla. -- When MLB’s lockout first lifted, it was as though spring training and the Winter Meetings were happening all at once. Alongside your typical spring storylines, there was also a constant stream of trades and free agent signings.
Baseball was back and amid the excitement anything seemed possible for the Toronto Blue Jays. Trade for Matt Chapman and Raimel Tapia? Sure. Sign Yusei Kikuchi? Done. And why stop there? Maybe Jose Ramirez or Ketel Marte could be next.
But with just over a week now remaining on the Grapefruit League schedule, the flow of transactions has gradually slowed. Marte has agreed to an extension in Arizona and Ramirez has reportedly had informal discussions with the Cleveland Guardians about a new deal of his own. With each passing day, it becomes more likely that the Blue Jays are who they are -- that it’s now time to look inward and construct the best roster available with the players already in the organization.
On paper, it’s a strong group, one that has a chance to be among baseball’s best. And because of that strength, there does not appear to be many high-stakes position battles unfolding in Dunedin, Fla. over the week ahead. The core of the roster is set, and even around the edges there’s extra room for error since teams are beginning the season with 28-man rosters.
Still, as the Blue Jays enjoy their final off day of the spring Tuesday, it’s worth taking stock of who’s definitely on the roster, who’s competing for a role on the team and where the club is likely to need improvements as the year unfolds.
Once the season begins, the Blue Jays immediately enter a stretch during which they’ll play 30 games in 31 days. In a recent conversation with the media, manager Charlie Montoyo hinted that the Blue Jays will use their extra roster spots on relievers to help cover those innings.
“We’ve got a chance to take 10 bullpen guys,” Montoyo said.
Working off of that assumption, the structure of the roster starts to take shape. With five starting pitchers and 10 relievers, the Blue Jays would have 13 spots remaining for position players.
In Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Chapman and Danny Jansen, the Blue Jays have seven players who can be expected to play just about every day. Tapia, Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal aren’t in line for quite that much playing time, but they’re all on the team barring a surprise. And there appear to be roles for both Alejandro Kirk and Reese McGuire, too.
That’s 12 position players, leaving just one open bench spot. At this point, the most likely contender for that job appears to be Greg Bird, who’d bring left-handed power to a team that tilts right-handed. Neither Biggio nor Gurriel Jr. has played first base in games this spring, which could be interpreted as a sign that the Blue Jays envision Bird as their backup at first.
“He’s having a great spring,” Montoyo said. “He’s doing what he can to make the team. And that’s all you can ask of a guy.”
Even in the bullpen, the decisions appear a little easier than they typically are this time of year. Most spots are spoken for with six relievers -- Jordan Romano, Yimi Garcia, Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards and Ross Stripling -- seemingly guaranteed spots on the team. Beyond that core group, Nate Pearson, Julian Merryweather, David Phelps and Ryan Borucki are earning serious consideration too, although Andrew Vasquez, Tayler Saucedo, Trent Thornton and Anthony Castro can’t be ruled out.
Like Bird, Phelps would require a 40-man roster spot, but the Blue Jays have two of those available, which means there’s not even an uncomfortable roster squeeze. So while there will be times this year that the Blue Jays do face extremely difficult roster decisions, this final stretch of spring training doesn’t appear to be one of them.
Of course that’s not to say this roster is perfect. It’s good -- among the league’s best -- but there are real questions here, too. For instance: while Bird’s return to the majors would be a great story, it’s been three years and one day since he hit his last big-league home run. Will his strong spring showing translate in regular season games? If not, the Blue Jays’ bench will lack power.
Or: do the Blue Jays have enough impact bullpen arms from the left side? How does Tapia’s defence look in centre field? Can Pearson throw enough strikes to make the most of his swing-and-miss stuff? If he can’t, who’s next up in the starting rotation?
All are real questions, but some of them will have to be answered in-season. Areas of weakness will reveal themselves, giving GM Ross Atkins a roadmap for the trade deadline. When it comes to refining rosters, there’s always more work to be done. But for now? A lack of roster-related drama is a sign things are going well.