Tao of Stieb: Which spring storylines will hold our attention in 2024?

Toronto Blue Jays Justin Turner throws a ball in a drill during spring training action in Dunedin, Fla. on Feb. 19, 2024. (CP)

Spring has sprung in delightfully different Dunedin, Florida, and with the start of this year’s schedule of spring training games, the Toronto Blue Jays are now engaged in a heated battle for Grapefruit League supremacy.

Well, OK. Not so much.

This is something of a rite of spring that, after months in the extended winter darkness, with only scant transactions and not nearly enough baseball to warm our souls, we greet the first bits of game action with glee. And then, almost as quickly, with bemusement. Like a round of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the games are somewhat absurd, and the points don’t matter.

But this is not to insinuate that the next month of action in the Florida sun is inconsequential. To borrow Grantland Rice’s much-quoted aphorism, the pertinent question at the end of each day is not if the pre-season Blue Jays win or lose, but how they play the game.

For a team that is entering a critical season, and with much to prove, the Jays enter the 2024 campaign with some lingering intrigue in terms of the roster and roles. While there is a set core of the team approaching the coming weeks as a period to shake off the rust, avoid the damage that rogue sprinkler heads can cause to critical ligaments, and get prepared for the long grind ahead, there remain a number of open questions as to what the team may resemble in the months ahead.

If the outcomes of the games themselves are not meaningful, there are compelling reasons to watch the Blue Jays action in the coming weeks. The answers to some of these open questions are sure to reveal themselves in the lineups and outcomes in the weeks ahead.

The Infield Picture: Between the guys who were already here and the dudes that were brought in over the off-season, there are a lot of bodies to fill similar roles around second base and third base this season. In the absence of — and assuming no late off-season reunion with third baseman — Matt Chapman, the roster was filled this winter with imperfect replacements.

Is Isiah Kiner-Falefa truly the most likely at this point to get the most starts at the hot corner? Or might Justin Turner get more time in the field than one supposes? The current assumption seems to be that Turner will see most of his time at DH, and that is where he is listed on the Jays’ current 40-man roster. But he did play 62 games at third in 2022, and 143 games there in 2021, when he wasn’t blocked off the position by an all-star and franchise cornerstone, as he was with Rafael Devers in Boston last year.

Even more compelling might be the battle to be Bo Bichette’s double-play partner in the middle of the diamond. One-time all-star Santiago Espinal will compete for time with franchise fixture Cavan Biggio, as well as with last year’s shooting star, Davis Schneider. Not to mention top positional prospect Orelvis Martinez, or non-roster invite and good vibes guy Eduardo Escobar.

The Blue Jays appreciate positional flexibility in their roster, and all seven of those players will likely see time at other spots around the field as the regular season approaches. Without putting too much stock in spring training results, how they perform in the coming weeks and how they are used may be telling.

The Rotation Depth: Despite the big hair and broad grins that he brought into spring training, Alek Manoah’s initial outing may not necessarily assuage some of the concerns that Jays fans may have carried into this season.

Moreover, one simply cannot comfortably assume that the Jays will maintain the excellent record of health and effectiveness from the rest of their rotation as they saw last season. (Although, at this point, pitcher health seems like an organizational strength under the current management regime, and not simply a matter of good fortune.)

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Depending on Manoah’s work this spring, he could see competition at the back of the rotation from a number of other hurlers on the roster bubble. Chad Dallas looked effective in his first spring outing and Mitch White has shown flashes of something resembling a major-league depth arm at the end of last year and in the spring.

Yariel Rodriguez, perhaps this off-season’s most intriguing signing, could potentially enter the picture as a rotation option, despite not having thrown a competitive pitch since last year’s World Baseball Classic. And Ricky Tiedemann’s health and performance this spring may provide some insight as to where he sits on the depth chart, and when he may see his first big-league action.

The 26th Man: The new roster rules require the Blue Jays to carry 13 position players on their active roster, which they have seemingly done under protest in recent years. Players like Bradley Zimmer or Jonathan Davis were generally limited to duties as pinch runners and defensive replacements, roles which matched their capabilities.

The role this year is likely to be filled by one of the long list of infielders mentioned above, especially if they happen to have an outfielder’s glove in their locker. With only four outfielders listed on the 40-man roster, having some capable depth in that area may be helpful.

Minor-league veterans Nathan Lukes and Ernie Clement could potentially slide into that role, although the former seems like a superfluous left-handed bat on the bench, and the latter’s best role is as a backup shortstop to Bichette, who is averse to taking days off.

If the role returns to being less about the bat and more about speed and fielding, Cam Eden could find his way onto the roster as an outfield caddie, and his presence on the roster in the post-season speaks to the management’s appreciation of his skills.

Daniel Vogelbach’s lefty bat might not seem quite so superfluous, especially if his role is narrowed to mashing right-handed pitchers as a DH. His presence on the roster would require more flexibility from the rest of the bench, so it will bear watching how much of a look he gets this pre-season.

And as a long shot (and personal favourite), Rafael Lantigua posted a .425 OBP and an .893 OPS in Buffalo last year while taking the field in six different positions. Lantigua is a mostly unheralded prospect, if he’s even considered that given his age (turning 26 in April) and size (listed at five-foot-seven). But last year, when watching the Bisons to see other more notable prospects, Lantigua always seemed to stand out as poised, professional and productive. You could do far worse than that for the deepest depth of the bench.

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