Spring Training 2023: A look at Blue Jays’ upcoming roster battles
Photo credit:Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
By Thomas Hall3 months ago
Following a productive off-season, much of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 26-man roster has been already set as team workouts begin at the franchise’s Player Development Complex this week, leaving few roster battles to be decided. But there are still a few spots up for grabs ahead of Saturday’s spring training opener versus the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Blue Jays have the next four-plus weeks to polish the edges around their big-league roster, determining which players will fly north with them ahead of Opening Day and which will be assigned to the minor leagues. It will almost certainly be challenging to decipher between the good and the bad, though.
As with every spring training, player performances have to be taken with a grain of salt during this time of the year as they can often be misleading – think last season’s Greg Bird, who slashed .261/.393/.565 with two home runs in 23 at-bats before being cut by the team. Evaluating small sample sizes for hitters can often be difficult, especially when they’re facing pitchers just looking to get their reps in and vice-versa.
Luckily for Toronto, manager John Schneider likely won’t be forced to make many tough roster decisions out of the gate. That is, of course, assuming a rash of injuries doesn’t arise. After adding veterans like Brandon Belt and Kevin Kiermaier over the winter, both of whom are coming off season-ending injuries, the injury bug could play a factor this spring – and that also applies to George Springer.
But let’s not begin the new season worrying about potential negatives. Instead, let’s explore the few roster battles expected to occur this spring, starting with the club’s fifth starter’s role.
Toronto’s front office addressed several areas of need over the off-season, filling holes in the bullpen and outfield while improving the team’s offensive balance. And those were all major accomplishments. One position, however, that wasn’t solidified was the final rotation spot, creating an internal competition between Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White.
Neither pitcher performed overly well last season, with the fan base imploring management to acquire another legitimate major-league starter. But so far, their demands have been left unanswered. The Blue Jays want to learn what they have in both hurlers and have positioned them against each other this spring, hoping one will prove worthy of that fifth starting gig by improving off their 2022 woes.
There is still a long way before this bout can be decided, though with White’s build-up delayed by a shoulder impingement over the off-season, the 28-year-old has yet to throw off a mound in Dunedin and will have to build up his stamina over these next four weeks. That puts him at a disadvantage to break camp as a starter versus returning to the bullpen.
Kikuchi, on the other hand, is likely staring at a clear path to eventually being named the Blue Jays’ fifth starter. All he has to do to fortify that outcome is stay healthy and perform at least moderately better than the pitcher who posted a 5.25 ERA and 5.94 FIP across 20 starts last season. Seems easy enough, right?
What the left-hander does have going for him is that his expectations won’t be set incredibly high. He will, however, be expected to build off his late-season success as a reliever, where he shined to a 28.9 per cent strikeout-to-walk rate difference despite allowing four home runs and nine walks over 18.1 innings.
The 31-year-old has adjusted his delivery this spring, shortening his arm slot and raising his pre-pitch hand placement from his belt buckle to sit parallel with his shoulders. He is also tinkering with a curveball again, doing so for a second consecutive spring, but it remains to be seen if it’ll rejoin his repertoire for the first time since 2019 – his inaugural MLB campaign.
Everything will undoubtedly come down to Kikuchi’s four-seamer, though, particularly his command – or lack thereof. And it appears he’s doing somewhat respectable – aside from a wild pitch in Tuesday’s batting practice session – thus far.
If things go off the rails, taking Kikuchi and White out of the equation, the Blue Jays would have to rely on depth starters like Zach Thompson, Drew Hutchison and Thomas Hatch as their temporary fifth starter – a less-than-ideal outcome. The waiver wire would also likely become a necessity, as well.
But, even if Kikuchi and White stay healthy, there could be a pair of talented prospects ready for a new challenge by the mid-season mark, Yosver Zulueta and Ricky Tiedemann. Jimmy Robbins and Sem Robberse could also be knocking on the door of the major-league level, adding to the organization’s internal starting pitching depth. And don’t forget about Hyun Jin Ryu, either.
So while the competition involving the fifth starter’s role appears bleak this spring, that situation should improve drastically as the 2023 season progresses.
We already know which players (Daulton Varsho, Kiermaier, Springer) will make up the Blue Jays’ starting outfield trio this season, although there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the club’s fourth outfielder position, especially after Robbie Grossman – a reported free-agent target of Toronto’s – signed with the Texas Rangers last week.
Now that Grossman is off the market, leaving few viable outfielders available in free agency, it seems the team will enter the 2023 campaign without acquiring a righty specialist to face left-handed pitching. That is unless general manager Ross Atkins executes a trade between now and Opening Day, which he certainly has a history of doing previously, with last year’s Zack Collins-Reese McGuire trade being his most recent example. He could also revisit this topic around this summer’s trade deadline.
As currently constructed, Toronto is set to feature an open competition for the final bench spot on its roster, which is likely to include outfielders Nathan Lukes and Wynton Bernard (non-roster invite) and utility player Otto Lopez, who logged 322.2 innings in the outfield in addition to splitting time at second base and shortstop last season.
Though, whoever ultimately claims that role will also have to compete for playing time with Whit Merrifield (left field) and Cavan Biggio (right field) in a corner outfield position. Like with any season, however, injuries to key veterans – like Kiermaier and Springer – could play a huge factor.
As a left-hander, Lukes – who slashed .285/.364/.425 with a 111 wRC+ across 111 games at triple-A Buffalo in 2022 – would likely share fourth outfield duties with Biggio versus right-handed pitching. Thanks to his quality reverse splits from last season, hitting .333/.417/.465 in 114 at-bats against lefties, he’d be an option regardless of a pitcher’s handedness, making him an early favourite.
Bernard and Lopez probably aren’t too far behind Lukes. But since they’re both right-handed, they’d have to compete against Merrifield for playing time and showcase themselves in limited opportunities when he requires a day off. That won’t be an easy task and would be much easier to excel at if they were lefties battling against Biggio, similar to Lukes’ situation.
Addison Barger, slashed .308/.378/.555 with 26 home runs and a 151 wRC+ in 124 games across three levels (high-A, double-A, triple-A) in 2022, is another name worth watching this spring, especially since he hits from the left side and intends to add corner outfielder to his versatility in ’23.
You’re probably saying to yourself, “Ninth reliever? With five starters, the most the Blue Jays can carry at any point this season is eight.” And you would be right in that case. But part of spring training is determining an organization’s depth beyond the big-league roster, which is what Toronto will do with its reliever corps over the next four weeks.
Barring an injury, the club’s Opening Day roster is poised to include Jordan Romano, Erik Swanson, Anthony Bass, Yimi Garcia, Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards and White in the bullpen. It is unlikely this current group will remain healthy throughout an entire season, though, meaning it’ll be crucial for the front office to establish a pecking order at triple-A.
This roster battle doesn’t usually receive much attention, but this isn’t any ordinary season. Unlike 2022, the upper tier of Toronto’s pipeline is loaded with high-upside arms, including Zulueta – if he isn’t stretched out as a starter – Nate Pearson, Zach Pop, Hagen Danner and Hayden Juenger. It also features intriguing arms like Junior Fernández, Julian Fernández, Adrian Hernandez, Jay Jackson, Paul Fry, Brandon Eisert, Luke Bard and Jackson Rees. And an optionable one like Trent Thornton, who has one minor-league option remaining.
The work these hurlers put in this spring might not immediately translate into a big-league promotion, although their efforts will not be lost amongst the Blue Jays’ coaching staff. Those who stand out could ultimately be rewarded by pitching in meaningful situations at the major-league level during the heart of the schedule.
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