Blue Jays baseball is almost here! The team kicks off its Grapefruit League campaign tomorrow afternoon, as they travel to Walt Disney World to visit the Braves. With the regular season now only 37 days away, the Jays still have a few questions that need to be answered. The next five weeks of Spring Training action should lead to some important decisions ahead of Opening Day.
Who Will Stick in the Bullpen?
The biggest area of uncertainty is in the bullpen. The Jays have a ton of fringe MLB relievers available, and only a few spots to fight over. What we know right now is that, barring any injuries, Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith will all be in the bullpen. That leaves three spots for as many as 10 relievers to compete for.
The most notable omission from the list of guarantees is Joe Biagini. While the former Rule 5 pick had a terrific rookie season, I am beginning to think that he will start the season in Buffalo. The Jays still need starting pitching depth, which Biagini can provide. Furthermore, Biagini has options on his contract. The other candidates to provide starting depth will not go to Buffalo as easily. Mike Bolsinger was the presumptive sixth starter going into the year, but he is out of options. If the Jays don’t want to risk exposing him to waivers, then he will have to head north in April. Mat Latos could also provide starting depth, but he has an opt out at the end of Spring Training, and another during the season. Should Latos not make the team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him try to find work elsewhere. Rather than risk losing all of their starting depth, the Jays may prefer to send Biagini to Buffalo to start the season as an insurance policy.
If Bolsinger and Latos both earn spots in the bullpen – and there’s a chance that that will happen – then there will only be one spot left. The front office could turn to a familiar but unreliable face in Gavin Floyd, they could add another lefty in Aaron Loup or Matt Dermody, they could try to protect Bo Schultz from waivers, they could take a gamble on Rule 5 pick Glenn Sparkman, or they could give Ryan Tepera another shot. The dark horse candidate is Chris Smith, who comes equipped a mid-90s fastball with a dependable slider. However, Smith has options, which means he likely won’t be called to the bullpen until later in the season.
Given the contractual situations of the players involved, it is not unreasonable to predict an Opening Day bullpen of Osuna/Grilli/Howell/Smith/Latos/Schultz/Bolsinger. It also wouldn’t be unreasonable to substitute Biagini or Floyd or Loup or any of the other names mentioned. The Jays will hope for a few standout performances this spring, so that this is an easier decision than it looks to be on paper.
Mitchell Layton – Getty Images
Who Will Start in Left Field?
The questions continue in the outfield. The Jays addressed almost all of their needs in some capacity this winter. However, they did not add a second outfielder, which leaves a few unsavoury options to play next to Kevin Pillar.
The natural frontrunners to compete in left field are Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera. Unfortunately, neither are particularly standout candidates. Upton is coming off of a disappointing 2016 season, in which he started strong with the Padres, before hitting a paltry .196/.261/.318 with the Blue Jays. Upton also made a number of defensive gaffes over the final three months. His performance did not inspire much confidence for this season. Meanwhile, Carrera is perfectly fine as a fourth outfielder. The trouble is that he tends to get exposed when he plays for a significant length of time (such as when he filled in for Jose Bautista last season). Compounding the problem is that Upton and Carrera have similar splits, which would make for an ineffective platoon.
The Jays do have alternative options. If they want to stick with pure outfielders, then they could finally give Dalton Pompey another shot. Pompey may never develop any real power, but he appears to have decent on-base tools, which pair well with his speed. He is also an above-average defender, which is more than the Jays have had in left field for a number of years. I maintain that the decision to keep Pompey in the minors last August said much about the front office’s view of him. It is possible that he can find success at the plate in the Majors, but I still don’t see it happening in Toronto.
The other alternative is Steve Pearce. The front office seems to believe that Pearce should patrol left field. In recent interviews, both Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro have stated that they would prefer to see Smoak at first base, with Pearce in the outfield. That said, Pearce’s durability raises concerns. Pearce has only played more than 100 games once in his career, and is also coming off of elbow surgery from last September. He has also started all of 99 games in left field during his career. If the front office thinks that he can play there consistently for a full season, then Pearce might be the most attractive option, even if he is a weaker defender than Upton or Pompey.
Can Rowdy Tellez Crack the Roster?
If Pearce is in the outfield, then the majority of reps at first base will go to Smoak. There may be the occasional day where Bautista takes over, or an interleague game that forces Kendrys Morales into the field, but for the most part, Smoak will get regular at bats. That should give management something to worry about.
Over the past two seasons, Smoak has been slightly better than a replacement level player for the Jays. After getting off to a hot start in 2016, in which he posted a wRC+ of 121 over the first two months, he cratered out for the rest of the season. That was highlighted by a miserable September, during which Edwin Encarnacion took on a greater role at first base. All of this to say that Smoak lost management’s confidence down the stretch, yet finds himself positioned to play even more this season.
Smoak’s job might not be completely safe, as this could be the year that Rowdy Tellez makes the jump the the Majors. Tellez is coming off of two dominant season in the minors. That culminated in a fantastic showing in New Hampshire last year. Over 124 games, he hit .297/.387/.530, good for a wRC+ of 152. Those numbers put Tellez among the elite for 21-year olds at that level. With Encarnacion in Cleveland, the question now is not “will Tellez be the Jays’ first baseman?”, but rather “when?”
It is still unlikely that Tellez is on the Opening Day roster. Although he was excellent in the minors last year, he still has not had any Major League experience. He is also competing with someone who management must see some value in. That seems to be the only way to explain Smoak’s $8.25M extension. That is another factor in management’s decision. Based on the roster construction this year, with Morales as the every day DH, it will be difficult to keep Smoak around as a bench player. As such, I don’t expect Tellez to be able to win the job for Opening Day. That said, a strong Spring Training and a solid start to the AAA season could lead to a quick promotion.
What Will Happen to Ryan Goins?
There has not been much discussion surrounding second base this winter. Devon Travis is still recovering from knee surgery, but he should be ready for Opening Day. If he isn’t, then Darwin Barney will be able to cover in the interim. If that’s the case, then Ryan Goins will be the backup middle infielder, which will resemble much of 2016.
However, if Travis is healthy for Opening Day, then the Jays will only need one defensive specialist on the bench. Barney’s performance makes him the frontrunner for the job. The trouble for the Jays is that Goins is out of options.
We need to be honest about Goins. He is a terrific defensive second baseman, who, like Barney, may someday win a Gold Glove. However, he simply cannot contribute offensively. In limited plate appearances last season, he hit a mere .186/.228/.306, with a wRC+ of 38. Those are Josh Thole numbers. The Jays have added Jonathan Diaz and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. this winter, both of whom could cover at second base in a pinch. They also both provide more offensive upside than Goins.
The good news for Goins is that his defence still makes him a valuable player. If there is a team that needs defensive depth, then there won’t be many better options than Goins. There likely will be such a team in the market. Unless the Jays find a way to keep Goins on the roster to start the season, expect to see him picked up by someone else this spring.
John Lott – The Athletic
Will John Gibbons Get an Extension?
Off the field, the Jays have a lame duck manager. John Gibbons reworked his contract last spring to remove his rollover clause and earn a pay raise.
The new front office seems to have taken to Gibbons in a way that many did not expect. Gibbons’ “old school” style seems to conflict with the analytics-based approach of the new group. Notwithstanding the clash in perspectives, it does seem like the two sides genuinely get along with one another. We know that the Jays have discussed a contract extension with Gibbons since last fall. Whether they are able to get a deal done before the season begins remains to be seen.