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Photo Credit: © Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Ross Atkins says Vlad Jr. could still play third base and Tanner Roark will be a part of the 2021 starting rotation

Ross Atkins appeared on Bob McCown’s podcast on Wednesday and offered some interesting information about the team heading into the off-season and into 2021.

The first little bit is kind of a slog as McCown, John Shannon, and Atkins talk about the World Series and Kevin Cash’s controversial decision to pull Blake Snell early and, naturally, the debate between old- and new-school baseball.

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Anyways, at the half-way point, they shift from talking generally about baseball strategy and start getting into how Atkins views his roster and where the Blue Jays might upgrade. There are three interesting points I’ve broken down…

On the starting pitching rotation…

Shannon: How close are you to knowing what your five-man rotation is?

Atkins: We need to add to our pitching. We feel like we have a great starting point with Hyun Jin Ryu and the other pieces we think could be making significant impacts. We talk about the names all the time.

There’s several that are more prevalent, like Hatch and Kay and Merryweather, the strides they made this year. Nate Pearson is one everyone is very familiar with. We acquired Ross Stripling. We’re very confident in saying Tanner Roark will be a better version of himself next year. The shutout during COVID really impacted him in a significant way and he got off to a tough start. So that’s a really good starting point to have before we’re even talking about Alek Manoah and Simeon Woods Richardson and T.J. Zeuch.

We’ll look to add to that. Hopefully, it’s part of the middle rotation and higher. We’re hoping for it to be someone of significant impact and not just stabilizing but that’s not easy to do so we’ll have to be creative and open-minded. We’ll be in on every pitcher that could be contributing at the top of a rotation.

The key takeaway here is that Atkins is confident saying that Tanner Roark will be back next season.

The Blue Jays, of course, inked Roark to a two-year deal last winter worth $24 million. The hope was that he could be a nice, veteran, back-of-the-rotation innings sponge, but that was far from the case in 2020. Roark made 11 starts, posted a 6.80 ERA, and didn’t once make it further than five innings.

Roark’s season will most likely be remembered for the comments he made after getting smacked around by the New York Yankees. Roark was pissed off that he was pulled too early and didn’t like the idea of decisions being made by a computer and said “I’m what you would call a Diesel engine.”

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I had wondered if calling out the team like that would result in the Blue Jays deciding to move on from Roark this off-season but it looks like that isn’t the case. All the Jays could do to get rid of Roark is find a trade partner, which isn’t likely, or release him and eat the $12 million owed to him. As bad as Roark was in 2020, the Jays are obviously better off giving him a chance to rebound than they are paying him not to pitch.

There’s also the part about how the Jays will be in on every pitcher with top-end upside. I wonder if that means Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer or not.

On Alejandro Kirk and the Alternate Training Site…

McCown: As a catcher, with the limited experience that he has, do you see him going back to the minor leagues, assuming the minor leagues play next year? Or did he show you enough to make you believe he’s ready?

Atkins: Alejandro has been very impressive. This was such a different year. He had only played statistically in A-ball and had never been above that but our Alternate Site, we viewed it as comprable to a hybrid of Double-A and Triple-A. They were playing games on a very regular basis and he was competing against that we thought was comprable to major league pitching and he was also catching Triple-A and major league catching while he was there.

Because of the control we had over the environment and what could happen in a game we could do creative things to help him with his development and help him be more prepared for what it might be like to catch Matt Shoemaker in the big leagues and how he would be thinking about setting up the Rays’ lineup and setting up playing against the Yankees and working through all of those things before he got here.

There are a couple of interesting things mentioned here.

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First, we got an inside look at what was going on at the Blue Jays’ Alternate Training Site this summer, which is something we haven’t heard a hell of a lot about. While prospects lost the opportunity to play games this summer, it seems as though the Blue Jays had them doing worthwhile stuff in Rochester.

Kirk, for example, got to hit against and catch better pitching in Rochester than he would have playing for Double-A New Hampshire and the team got to control the situations he was working in. You can see why teams are interested in slashing levels of minor league ball in favour of comprehensive prospect training sites.

And then there’s the actual stuff about Kirk playing on the team next year. Atkins raves about Kirk as a person and a player, mentioning how he’s mature well beyond his years as a 21-year-old. Atkins says that the key for Kirk breaking into the majors next year will be his stamina and physical ability to be an everyday player, catching a significant load and playing as the designated hitter otherwise.

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The Blue Jays have Kirk on an off-season diet and training routine and if he can get himself into better shape, it seems as though he could not only play on the team but also take over as the team’s primary catcher.

On the infield situation and Vlad Jr. playing third…

McCown: Give me your general thoughts on an infield that has the potential to be very good but might be in flux right now. Is that fair?

Atkins: I don’t feel that it’s in flux. The one question will be where Vladdy ends up playing. Obviously, it’s more likely that he’ll be at first base but we haven’t closed the door completely on third base depending on how his off-season goes. Maybe it could be just for short stints or certain periods of time that he can play there.

The confidence that we have in Bo to be an everyday shortstop is very high. Recency bias is a very powerful thing. His last several games he wasn’t at his best at shortstop and I think a lot of people are focused on that. We are not. The body of work for Bo at short, how much better he’s gotten over the years, and how he will get. He is constantly thinking about how he can get better and there’s no doubt in my mind he can be a long-term shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays.

The comments Atkins makes on Bo Bichette aren’t surprising at all. It’s well known that Bichette’s goal is to continue playing short and for Atkins to come out and say that the team was looking to possibly move him elsewhere on the field would obviously be strange. That said, if the team can find a better defensive shortstop, like, say, Francisco Lindor, I don’t think it’s very far out of the question for Bichette to move to second.

The more surprising tidbit here is that the team is still open to the idea of Vlad Jr. playing third base. Vlad, as we know, was moved over to first this year somewhat abruptly. I think we all figured the Vlad at third experiment would last a little bit longer but getting him away from the hot corner was pretty important in the team’s quest to be competitive in the 60-game sprint this summer.

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of expectation that Vladdy will play third base full-time, but having him with the versatility to fill in there certainly makes life easier for the team. Atkins mentions Kirk and the three outfielders, Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, and Lourdes Gurriel, as players they would like to use as the designated hitter on certain days, so having Vlad Jr. and Rowdy Tellez stapled to first/DH isn’t ideal.

Vladdy just being passable at third would be huge for the team moving forward because of the flexibility it would create.