TAMPA, Fla. – After the 2016 season, the Blue Jays wanted to extend their competitive window a little longer by adding to a rapidly aging core. As they surveyed the trade and free agent market, a speedy switch-hitter kept climbing up their list of targets: Dexter Fowler.
The interest was real, but at the Winter Meetings that year, Fowler signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Blue Jays moved on, signing Steve Pearce instead. Five years later, Fowler’s deal had expired and once again the Blue Jays showed interest, agreeing to terms on a minor-league deal Wednesday.
This time, the stakes are much different for both Fowler and his new team. Now 36, he’s recovering from a torn ACL sustained in Dunedin against the Blue Jays last April. He hasn’t been an all-star calibre player since 2017, his first year in St. Louis, and he hasn’t had a productive full season or played an inning of centre field since 2019.
Like Fowler, the Blue Jays find themselves in a far different place now than they did when they last pursued him. They’ve emerged on the other side of a rebuild with a roster that now features plenty of the youth and athleticism it once lacked. With a week remaining in spring training, they look like one of baseball’s best teams.
Still, there’s always room for depth and there’s no harm in taking a shot on Fowler on a minor-league deal. Where that leads is harder to predict since he has played in just 38 total games since 2019. Because he’s arriving late to camp, an opening day roster spot isn’t under discussion and he’ll likely need weeks to get to game speed.
“That’s fair,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said before Wednesday’s Grapefruit League game against the Yankees. “It’ll take a little bit of time because he missed a lot of time, of course. All I know about that guy is that he killed us wherever I was, whether it was with the Rays or with the Blue Jays. Good player.”
The context surrounding Fowler’s pending deal is also relevant here. Greg Bird’s the clear frontrunner to win the open spot on the Blue Jays’ bench, but there’s not a ton of apparent competition for that role with his primary rival perhaps Nathan Lukes, a left-handed hitting outfielder who posted an .808 OPS for the Rays’ triple-A team last year. Under those circumstances, some veteran help would be useful while the Blue Jays’ top prospects continue developing in the minor-leagues.
But even if Fowler isn’t an immediate option for the major-league team, their outfield continued taking shape Wednesday when the recently-acquired Raimel Tapia started in centre field for the first time since being traded.
Defensively speaking, the Blue Jays expect to use Tapia primarily as a left fielder but they’ll also use him in centre behind George Springer, who played centre in an intra-squad game at the team’s training facility Wednesday afternoon. While the Blue Jays expect better health from Springer in 2022, he has started fewer games in centre each successive year since moving to the position in 2017. That makes Tapia’s skillset all the more important.
“We’re going to get a look at him in both,” said first base coach Mark Budzinski, who oversees the club’s outfield defence. “The thought is he can help us out when George isn’t in the lineup in centre. He can really play all three, but primarily it’ll be left and centre.”
With 81st percentile sprint speed, Tapia can clearly cover some ground, as he showed Wednesday night by beating out an infield hit (he’ll also be given a chance to steal, according to Montoyo). The Blue Jays are less sure of what to expect from his arm, but their expectations are more modest.
“From what we’ve seen so far he can throw adequately,” Budzinski said. “I don’t think he’s going to (rival) Lourdes (Gurriel Jr.) with 12-15 assists, but if he can hit the cutoff man and keep guys from taking the extra base, that’s what we want all of our guys to do, honestly.”
BERRIOS LINED UP FOR OPENER
It’s not yet official – neither Montoyo nor Jose Berrios will confirm anything just yet – but the Blue Jays have lined up their starting rotation to have Berrios to start on opening day. Kevin Gausman and Hyun-Jin Ryu would then follow Berrios in the rotation on the season’s opening weekend.
Gausman and Ryu both pitched in Wednesday’s intra-squad game with Gausman throwing 74 pitches over five innings and Ryu throwing 61 pitches over four. Gausman will now stay on turn, which lines him up for the second game of the season, while Ryu will get an extra day of rest, setting him up for Game 3.
The Blue Jays are planning to carry as many as 10 relievers to open the season partly because their starting pitchers haven’t had much time to build up stamina.
“We’re hoping for five innings and we’ll go from there,” Montoyo said. “The two extra (roster) spots we’re going to use arms. That’s big because the starters aren’t going to be stretched out.”