We’re about halfway through spring training (meaning we’re only a few more weeks away from actual baseball games and holy shit it can’t come any sooner). The Jays have posted a pretty underwhelming 5-11-1 record through their exhibition games so far. But despite that, there have been many more good performances than bad ones. So let’s talk about some of the ones that are important:
Kevin Pillar: 10/24, 0 HR, 5 2B, 5 BB, 2 SO
Kevin Pillar said when everybody started filing down to Florida back in late-February that he was working on his plate approach and that he wanted to be a more disciplined hitter. We all laughed at it. Haha, come on, Kevin, you swing at everything! But so far through spring, he’s proved everybody wrong.
Pillar has looked incredible at the plate in Grapefruit play. I know, I’ll say this multiple times throughout this article, on both good and bad performances, it’s only spring training. But still, Pillar has massively cut down on his strikes outside the zone, which has been his issue over his young Major League career. Those five walks he has so far in 29 plate appearances? It took him until May 31 last year to get that many free passes. 53 games.
I don’t want to get my hopes too high up on Pillar suddenly going from a free swinging madman who strikes out much more often than anybody should into some kind of on base Greek God, or anything. But hell, maybe Pillar, who’s been proving everyone wrong for so damn long, deserves the benefit of the doubt this time. Regardless, he’s been incredible this spring, and let’s hope it transfers into the regular season against consistently good pitching, because if it does, we miiiiiiight have a leadoff solution? Maybe?! Here’s to hoping!
(Also, if this is something you’re interested in: Follow @GideonTurk on Twitter. He’s been doing some damn good work tracking all of Pillar’s swings this spring.)
Jose Bautista: 9/15, 2 HR, 2 2B, 2 BB, 3 SO
Jose Bautista is a Blue Jay. Say it out loud. And then say it again. Go outside and yell it at the sky. Because it’s something none of us expected we would be able to say at this time last year. But here we are! Not only is Jose Bautista a Blue Jay, which is a great thing regardless, but Massive Fucking Chip on his Shoulder Jose Bautista is a Blue Jay, and he looks like he’s ready to make a fool out of the league that tried to make a fool out of him this winter.
Joey bats has had 17 plate appearances so far this spring. Nine of them have been hits, two of which were doubles and two of which were home runs. Two of them were walks, and only three were strikeouts. Very, very good stuff from Jose so far. And that isn’t even getting into his World Baseball Classic performance, which has included a monster home run against Canada, a throwout at the plate against the United States, and a 1.045 OPS.
I don’t think Bautista needs added motivation, to be honest. His disappointing season last year was the result of unfortunate circumstances (injuries), not a lack of hard work, focus, or preparation like some who don’t follow the team may suggest, but it’s exciting going into a season with Bautista looking for redemption.
Kendrys Morales: 9/19, 2 HR, 2B, 1 BB, 3 SO
The much-maligned offseason signing Kendrys Morales has done his best to silence critics and endear himself to skeptics so far in his Blue Jays grapefruit debut. Through 20 plate appearances, Morales has nine hits, four of them for extra bases, and has limited his strikeout total to just three.
He isn’t Edwin, he never will be. And that’s fine. Morales has a history of being a very good hitter, and his numbers realistically could balloon in a positive direction playing in Toronto, which is a much more hitter-friendly ball park than Kauffman Field in Kansas City. Again, it’s spring, a lot of these hits have been against random pitchers who will never sniff Major League ball, but still, it’s been a nice start for Morales, and I would rather him be coming into a season loaded with pressure of having to fill a predecessor’s big shoes as confident as possible than not.
Rowdy Tellez: 7/25, 0 HR, 2 2B, 4 BB, 8 SO
Richard Urena: 8/25, 0 HR, 1 2B, 2 BB, 5 SO
Both Rowdy Tellez and Richard Urena are in big league camp for the first time in their young careers. Neither has a chance at cracking the roster, unless injuries or the plague hammer the roster, but it means that the team sees them as players who aren’t far away, and realistically could be called up to the big league team at some point during the season.
Rowdy Tellez has received a lot of hype so far this spring for a solid performance. Most of that probably has to do with the fact many fans are desperately clinging on to the idea he could be the everyday first baseman rather than Justin Smoak, though. Tellez has seven hits in 25 at bats, and has walked four times, but his eight strikeouts are just as many as Smoak has. Still, though, it’s been a solid showing for somebody making their first rounds in big league camp.
Richard Urena, save for some shoddy defence at times, has been excellent, and could be working his way into that ‘first guy called up’ when injury strikes. He’s got eight hits and two walks in 30 plate appearances, and has only struck out five times. Like I said, the defence hasn’t been good, and long-term he probably projects at a different position rather than short.
Francisco Liriano: 5.0 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 8 SO
I didn’t want to get into too much detail about the life and times of the Jays starting five pitchers, because they’re all being eased into action, and are inevitably going to be working on different pitches, meaning their results will be skewed.
But hell, Francisco Liriano has been amazing in his two appearances in spring, allowing just two hits and a walk over five innings while collecting a ridiculous eight strikeouts. I figured he was worth talking about because after his last start Liriano mentioned how he feels much better this year than he did last, and that he was working on an adjustment that sees him use his fastball early in counts to get ahead of batters so that he can use his slider as a finishing pitch. That bodes well, of course, because a slider is a pitch that doesn’t always cooperate, so if you don’t have a good fell for it one day, you don’t want to be using it early in counts, and often.
Tim Mayza: 4 1/3 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 7 SO
Ryan Borucki: 4.0 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 2 BB, 3 SO
Both Tim Mayza and Ryan Borucki came into camp as underdogs seeking the role of second lefty out of the bullpen behind J.P. Howell. That second job more than likely is going to go to Aaron Loup because of his resume of big league experience, but both Mayza and Borucki are giving him a serious run for his money.
Mayza has been virtually unhittable so far. Though it’s only been four-and-one-third innings, the fireballer lefty has seven (!!!) strikeouts, and has allowed only three hits and a walk. Borucki, on the other hand, hasn’t been as prolific with the strikeout, but has limited his opponents to just four hits and two walks over four innings.
I do think Loup will crack the roster, because he himself has been solid in spring, but based on his previous two seasons, that leash is going to be short, and if Mayza and Borucki continue to pitch well, they’ll get their opportunity at some point this season.
Casey Lawrence: 9.0 IP, 1 ER, 6 H, 5 BB, 6 SO
He isn’t going to crack the team, but Casey Lawrence’s performance in spring has done enough to make people talk about him. Sort of a non-prospect, the 29-year-old Lawrence showed well in Venezuelan winter ball this year and has carried that into Blue Jays camp. If pitching depth was where it was two years ago, Lawrence would likely be looking at a spot in the bullpen based off his excellent spring, but with so many guys in front of him, and so many without options, it’s nearly impossible for Lawrence to crack the team. Still, though, I’m sure he’s actually on the organization’s radar now, which isn’t something anybody could have said a few months ago.
Not so good:
Justin Smoak: 4/26, 0 HR, 1 2B, 2 BB, 10 SO
Hoo boy. 2017 has not been kind to Justin Smoak. The apparent starting first baseman has had a nightmarish spring, raising skepticism about why the fuck the Jays were so eager to get him locked up to a two-year extension in the middle of last season. He’s only got four hits and two walks through 28 plate appearances, and has struck out 10 times, which is more than he’s actually reached base.
I don’t think there’s much Smoak could have done this spring to settle down the confusion and skepticism around him being the everyday first baseman this season, but fuck, he’s somehow found a way to worsen it. I mentioned earlier that Rowdy Tellez’s decent-but-not-great spring has people talking about whether he could play at first, and let’s be honest, that isn’t because of how he’s performed, it’s because nobody wants Justin Smoak swinging at air 500 times this season.
Melvin Upton: 3/21, 1 HR, 0 2B, 0 BB, 6 SO
Zeke Carrera: 4/18, 0 HR, 1 2B, 4 BB, 3 SO
The other glaring problem heading into the regular season is left field. The Jays seem adamant that Melvin Upton Jr. and Zeke Carrera are going to form some kind of platoon in the outfield, which makes some sense at a glance, I guess, but immediately collapses once you look at their splits. While Upton is a solid platoon option against righties, Carrera doesn’t hit righties well at all. And their spring performance so far hasn’t done anything to mitigate that skepticism.
Many hoped that Dalton Pompey would grab the spot and run with it, but that hasn’t happened yet, and it looks even less likely now after a concussion suffered playing for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. There’s still time to grab a waiver wire player, I guess, but things aren’t looking bright for the Jays left field situation. If you mix this platoon together, Zeketon has seven hits, four walks, and nine strikeouts in 43 plate appearances, which, uh, isn’t good.
Mat Latos: 8.0 IP, 7 ER, 7 H, 5 BB, 6 Ks, 3 HR
You never know unless you try, right? I think Mat Latos was (and still is!) a worthwhile gamble to take, even though he hasn’t been good for a few years, but it looks like the experiment is doomed to fail.
Beyond his results so far, Latos’ command has been poor and his velocity is well down below the level is was when he was a dominant pitcher with the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds in what seems like a fucking lifetime ago. Latos has been tagged for three home runs over just eight innings of work, on top of five walks, seven hits, and seven earned runs. His six strikeouts are promising, at least, but it’s hard to get beyond that velocity that’s so far from what it used to be.
Brett Oberholtzer: 3 2/3, 8 ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 2 Ks
I don’t think anybody actually had much hope for Brett Oberholtzer to be a difference maker this season for the Jays, as he’s more of a depth option in Buffalo, but holy shit, he’s had a bad time this spring. He leads the teams with eight runs against in just three-and-two-thirds innings of work, which doesn’t bode well for somebody looking to make a strong case in a new organization.