As spring begins, Blue Jays aim to build flexibility wherever possible

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins talks about the challenge of quantifying a player's character within the clubhouse, and why it's so important for them to ask the right questions based on a set of values.

TORONTO – If there’s a theme tying together the early days of the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training camp, it’s the way the team is prioritizing flexibility.

From high-level decisions regarding 2021 home games and future payroll, to medium-term considerations like roles and playing time all the way to the truly granular, the Blue Jays are attempting to keep their options open. And really, in late February, there’s no need to make any of these decisions just yet. But even as the team’s executives and coaching staff attempt to stay nimble, the way they frame upcoming choices offers some insight into what’s ahead.

"It's fun for executives, it's fun for everyone to build that opening day roster," GM Ross Atkins said on a Zoom call with media Friday. "We have to caution ourselves not to get caught up in the emotion of a spring training decision and (instead) think about season decisions: what gives us the best chance to be in the best position over 162?"

Big picture, this is a team that doesn’t know where its 2021 home games will take place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But instead of rushing to a decision, they’re still considering a wide range of options split between three locations.

That flexibility even extends to triple-A, as the recently announced schedules of the Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings are essentially inverted. Since the two teams never have overlapping home dates, the Blue Jays seemingly have the option of sharing Rochester’s ballpark (their alternate training site in 2020) should they need to bump their own triple-A affiliate from Buffalo and use Sahlen Field themselves.

Between the lines, the Blue Jays opened camp with a wide-open competition at the back of their rotation, according to manager Charlie Montoyo. The likes of Ross Stripling, Steven Matz, Tyler Chatwood, Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch and T.J. Zeuch are all in the mix for a rotation spot, and Julian Merryweather will be stretched out, too.

Viewed through the lens of the traditional five-man rotation, that’s a lot of candidates for one open spot, but more realistically, there’s room for all of those pitchers and then some. Consider that the 2019 Blue Jays set a modern-day record with 21 starting pitchers used and the notion of a five-man rotation starts to seem like a fantasy.

Hopefully for Montoyo, the 2021 edition of the Blue Jays won’t be turning to the current equivalent of Buddy Boshers and Ryan Feierabend to start games. This team rightfully aspires to be much better. But there’s still a constant need for innings, especially after the shortened 2020 season.

And while managers and GMs would love to see 200-inning seasons from their aces, the distribution of innings continues changing rapidly. Back in 2016, for example, a 23-year-old Aaron Sanchez pitched 192 regular-season innings on his way to an ERA title.

Five years later, teams aren’t expecting that from their young starters. Even 160 innings might be considered an ambitious target for pitchers coming up now, with the caveat that some innings are far more taxing than others.

"I think that's a good benchmark, and putting goal posts around that would be fair," Atkins said. "Anywhere from the 135-200 inning mark. Building towards that carefully with not just innings and workload parameters but thinking about how they're doing it (from a fatigue and recovery standpoint)."

The current Blue Jays staff includes one pitcher who has ever reached 200 innings (Tanner Roark) and just three pitchers who have ever qualified for the ERA title over a full season (Roark has done so five times, while Robbie Ray has three such seasons and Hyun-Jin Ryu has done so twice).

In theory, there’s a need for another stabilizing presence in their rotation, but after Taijuan Walker agreed to terms with the Mets on a two-year, $20 million deal, Jake Odorizzi is the lone prominent free-agent starter remaining. Walker was genuinely open to returning to the Blue Jays, and while they showed some reciprocal interest, they didn’t appear to engage meaningfully in recent weeks.

Until he signs, Odorizzi remains an option but he’s likely to have serious interest on multi-year deals elsewhere, so the fit in Toronto seems unlikely barring a change. Passing on those starters may prove to be a missed opportunity, but again it connects to the theme of flexibility. Instead of making multi-year commitments now, the Blue Jays are choosing the freedom to enter next off-season with only Ryu, George Springer, Randal Grichuk and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on the books.

Speaking of which, Gurriel Jr. will be one of the many position players the Blue Jays move around the diamond this spring. Considering his throwing issues prompted his move to the outfield in the first place, no one’s expecting him to play the infield for an extended period. At the same time, there’s little harm in seeing if he can regain some comfort and provide Montoyo with more options.

"We have to envision all of those things and think about all of those potential scenarios that could occur," Atkins said. "In an ideal world we don't need to see that for an extended period of time, since that means everyone's healthy and playing the positions they're accustomed to. But what we don't want to do is not think about that early in spring training, not use this time to get guys exposure to different positions."

Along those lines, Springer, Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien and Cavan Biggio will also be working out at multiple positions this spring. Even if this early work simply affords Montoyo more flexibility to make late-game moves, that’s something.

On an even more granular level, Atkins was asked Friday about the Blue Jays’ likely roster composition. Could they carry nine relievers? Or do they prefer a four-man bench? Clearly, it’s too early to make calls that specific right now, but it sounds as though the Blue Jays are open to either structure.

"We don't have a lean yet," Atkins said. "The make-up of our 26-man roster is going to fluctuate a great deal and having some pretty established position players with the additions of Marcus Semien and George Springer really will increase those opportunities to be flexible and creative with our alignment."

In other words, the Blue Jays can run a short bench if they want to. But, as with other aspects of the roster, that’s not a call they need to make any time soon.

Across the board, that’s been the approach for the Blue Jays as camp gets started. There will eventually be tough decisions to make, but the priority now is simply creating as many options as possible.

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