What we know – and don’t know – about the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster

Arden Zwelling and Ben-Nicholson Smith discuss the Blue Jays starting to finalize their roster with Zach Pop getting the last bullpen spot in and the team''s decision to not have Kevin Gausman face the Yankees in his final tune up game of the spring.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Months from now, when the Toronto Blue Jays’ season is on the line and the shape of their roster looks different than anyone predicted, this might all seem pretty trivial. It’ll definitely seem distant.

So, before we get too invested in the specifics of the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster, it’s worth remembering players such as Gosuke Katoh, Zack Collins and Tayler Saucedo, all of whom began the season on Toronto’s big-league team a year ago. Or the one making the announcements, current White Sox bench coach Charlie Montoyo. In baseball, rosters are built to be tinkered with. The only given is change.

But the early games count, too, and in an American League East division that features five competitive teams, every advantage matters. With that in mind, the Blue Jays take the challenge of building their opening-day roster seriously. So, what if this group is destined to shift as the season unfolds? This group is still the best the Blue Jays have to offer right now.

In the days ahead, the Blue Jays must finalize their 26-man roster, a group that’ll be evenly split between pitchers and position players. Until then, let’s take stock of what we know – and don’t know – about the group of players that’ll fly north to St. Louis after the team’s final Grapefruit League game Tuesday evening:

Locks (12): Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Brandon Belt, Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, Santiago Espinal, Cavan Biggio, Whit Merrifield, Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier, George Springer
Leading contenders (3): Otto Lopez, Nathan Lukes, Vinny Capra

Now that Addison Barger and Wynton Bernard are no longer in big-league camp, the competition here seems relatively straightforward.

Tactically speaking, this last player won’t get many starts to begin the year, but should be able to provide a quality at-bat against left-handed pitching and pinch-run. Typically, the last player on a team’s bench should be versatile, and that’s obviously ideal at all times, but the flexibility of Biggio and Merrifield would also let the Blue Jays use this spot for more of a specialist if they wanted – someone who offers elite speed, or power or defence.

Capra bats right-handed, a positive on a team that might want to find ways to complement its new collection of left-handed starters: Belt, Varsho and Kiermaier. Yet Capra is in camp as a non-roster invitee, meaning the Blue Jays would have to select his contract. Conversely, Lukes is already on the 40-man roster, but as a left-handed hitter he doesn’t complement the team’s starters quite as neatly.

At the intersection of those two sweet spots is Lopez, a right-handed hitter who already has a 40-man spot. Plus, Lopez has arguably had the best spring of the three with an impressive showing for Canada at the WBC to go along with stellar Grapefruit League play. That makes him the favourite to head north.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the Blue Jays make a late-spring acquisition and fill this spot from outside the organization. Barring a waiver claim or trade, though, it’s down to these three, with Lopez seemingly in the lead.

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Locks (12): Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, Yusei Kikuchi, Jordan Romano, Erik Swanson, Yimi Garcia, Tim Mayza, Anthony Bass, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards
Leading contenders (1): Zach Pop

Initially, the last spot in the bullpen appeared to be Mitch White’s to lose, but a shoulder impingement delayed the start of his spring and the team announced Saturday that elbow inflammation will limit him to the injured list to start the season.

“Our plan right now is just to let it rest for a couple of days and see where we’re at after that,” manager John Schneider said. “The next 48 hours, we’ll have to see how he responds and make a decision on what we need to do from there.”

In theory, Trent Thornton and Zach Thompson would have been depth options, but both were optioned to Buffalo Saturday, so they’ll join the likes of Casey Lawrence and Drew Hutchison in the Blue Jays’ triple-A rotation. That leaves the big-league team without a traditional long reliever, but many teams are content to do without one and the Blue Jays are among them.

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Meanwhile, Nate Pearson pitched well this spring with 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings thanks to triple-digit velocity, but he was also sent to triple-A Saturday. Ideally, he’d force his way back by dominating at the highest level of the minor leagues.

“He had an outstanding camp and that was a tough decision,” Schneider said. “Anyone would want his stuff in the bullpen and it’s an extremely valuable piece to have as depth in triple-A.”

That leaves Pop, who’s now all but officially on the team. As pitching coach Pete Walker recently pointed out, there’s Clay Holmes-type upside for Pop, whose two-seam fastball averaged 96.5 mph last year. So far this spring, he has six strikeouts in 4.1 innings of work with just one earned run allowed. If that’s the last arm in your bullpen, you’re in a good spot.

“Elite sinker,” Schneider said. “Also improvements with the running game and fielding his position was a big part of what we were looking at this year and he’s checked every box. So, I’m excited for the adjustments he’s made.”

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