With the spring schedule getting set to kick off, it can be helpful to have a reference to who some of the guys we’ll be seeing over the coming weeks are, and what their chances to contribute to the major-league roster look like.
My primary focus here will be to discuss the minor leaguers, especially the non-roster invites. For context, though, let me briefly review the competition in front of them.
I’m going to postulate that the following players will, barring injury, go north for Opening Day:
Rotation: Stroman, Sanchez, Happ, Estrada, and Garcia
Bullpen: Osuna, Tepera, Loup, and Barnes
Catchers: Martin and Maile
Infielders: Smoak, Travis, Tulowitzki, Donaldson, and Solarte
Outfielders: Grichuk, Pillar, Granderson, Pearce, Carrera and (DH) Morales
Among the 13 position players listed, as in the rotation, there’s not really an opening — and a notable player or two whose name you don’t see. The primary competition, then, will be for the three spots in the bullpen that remain.
With this context in mind, let’s move on to the 40-man roster players on the outside looking in, and those competing for the bullpen jobs.
Pitchers: Joe Biagini, Ryan Borucki, Tomas Pannone, Taylor Guerrieri, Tim Mayza, Carlos Ramirez, and Matt Dermody
Catchers: Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire
Infielders: Rowdy Tellez, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., Richard Urena, Aledmys Diaz and Gift Ngoepe
Outfielders: Dalton Pompey, Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, and Dwight Smith, Jr.
Beyond these are an assortment of veterans on minor-league contracts invited to camp:
Pitchers: Al Alburquerque, John Axford, Craig Breslow, Deck McGuire, Jake Petricka, and Rhiner Cruz
Finally, here are the minor-league non-roster players also invited to camp:
Pitchers: Sean Reid-Foley, Chris Rowley, Jordan Romano, Jon Harris, Chad Girodo, Andrew Case, Jose Fernandez, and Justin Shafer
Hitters: Max Pentecost, Tim Lopes, Jason Leblebijian, Roemon Fields, and Jon Davis
Now that we know all of these names, we can begin to figure out where they might end up this season.
Some of these guys can be dismissed right off the bat. Roemon Fields and Jon Davis are no better than 10th and 11th on the depth chart — not only are they certain not to break camp with the Blue Jays, it would take a very strange circumstance for either to get an opportunity greater than the one Ian Parmley got last year. Second baseman Tim Lopes is similarly not a factor, and Jason Leblebijian has only the slightest of edges on Lopes due to his positional versatility. Rowdy Tellez needs to spend the year re-establishing his prospect status, and Smoak is no longer vulnerable to a rookie challenge. Max Pentecost is unlikely to charge past those above him in the system this year, although he does have the talent for breakout season if his body can hold up to catching.
For the hitters on the 40-man roster who are lacking an available position, things are more uncertain. The acquisition of Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz over the offseason form the first line of defense in terms of infield depth, supporting the oft-injured Travis and Tulo. As our assumed roster is currently constructed, though, Diaz is squeezed out unless one of the projected 13 position player write-ins opens the season on the DL. But it’s certainly not impossible that Tulo could do so, making Diaz almost a provisional member of the major league team. Behind him is slick-fielding Gift Ngoepe, who apparently can’t hit at all; Gurriel, who, if the rust is off his bat, might very well get a call at some point in the summer; and Urena, who would not profit from being on any bench, and thus doesn’t look to be a factor in 2018 with so many others in front of him.
As for the outfielders, assuming Smith is the last resort in this group, it’s nearly impossible to predict who would get called if a need should arise. If Carrera or Pearce leave the team before Opening Day, the roster door would open first for Diaz. Over the course of the season, though, it’s hard to predict who would be called upon among Pompey, Alford and Hernandez if injury or circumstance demanded it.
Now, about that multitude of pitchers. The most compelling unanswered question right now, other than who else the Jays might add to the pitching staff, is this: Whither Joe Biagini?
My prediction is that he’s going to open the season at the top of the Buffalo rotation in Triple A. The team has simply talked too much about starter depth this past year to think otherwise. Now, if it gets to be July, there’s a need in the ‘pen, and other starter prospects are impressing, they might well shift gears and call on him in a relief role. Such choices are difficult to predict in February. But if we’re assuming, as I am, that one of the three available bullpen jobs doesn’t go to Biagini, then who will claim them?
The first consideration is this: One of the three needs to be a lefty. I have a fairly strong hunch that the acquisition Atkins has in mind is another reliable veteran lefthander (Robbie Ross, please and thank you!). If not, the competition here is between veteran Craig Breslow and youngsters Tim Mayza and Matt Dermody. For my money, Breslow would have to show something special to make the cut — he hasn’t been even kind of good in any significant sample since 2013. That said, as Richard Griffin reported Thursday, he has been working to perfect a sidearm delivery. If Russell Martin and Pete Walker can help him refine that, perhaps he will surprise. Dermody, while not without skills and likely a better option than Breslow, is not who you’d want to see in the Jays bullpen on Opening Day — though odds are he’ll see some time on the shuttle this year. Tim Mayza, meanwhile, wowed everyone last spring, and though possessed of an ugly ERA in his small sample of regular-season major-league work, he had a 2.98 FIP and a K/9 of 14.3 to complement a low walk rate of 2.1 in his 17 innings pitched. Should there be no newcomer, and should Breslow fail to impress, he’d have the inside track on the second lefty job.
That leaves two jobs for right-handed pitchers. We can rule out Deck McGuire as ticketed to join Biagini in that Buffalo rotation. Ryan Borucki and Tomas Pannone, too, can be ruled out, as management would rather not throw rookies into the opening-day fire. Nothing suggests Rhiner Cruz is an option, and Jake Petricka is recovering from an injury.
Among the non-roster guys, it’s not impossible Chris Rowley forces the issue. But he’s a long shot, and the odds are worse for the rest. Sean Reid-Foley, Jon Harris and Jordan Romano are all starters who need to work on various concerns in the minors; Andrew Case didn’t go in the Rule 5 draft, which would seem to argue no one yet sees him as ready to hold a major-league job (though he has a fringe shot at a late-season callup). Romano has a chance if they have a desperate need, since his two best pitches might play well in the majors. All current reporting suggests, though, is that they are going to let him keep working on a third pitch rather than concede him to a relief role. Chad Girodo is a lefty, and being non-roster, he’s behind Mayza and Dermody in line. But he has had a short call-up before, and if he’s impressive in Buffalo it might happen again.
So it boils down to two veterans and two rookies to hash out those last two bullpen jobs: veterans Al Alburquerque and John Axford, and rookies Taylor Guerrieri and Carlos Ramirez.
By now you are aware of the incredible run Ramirez had last year, with only one bad appearance all year and only two occasions on which he was scored upon. Similarly, the early buzz on the Jays beat is that former top-100 prospect Guerrieri has a legitimate shot to step in and provide valuable multi-inning relief. Objectively, the two are almost certainly the best season-long options for the open jobs. However, my strong sense is that if the veterans show anything reasonable in the spring, they will be the ones to break camp with Toronto. Guerrieri will be the last piece in the Bison’s rotation for now, and Ramirez the potential closer. Still, if the team reaches June without one or both establishing himself on the major league staff I’ll be surprised.
And, in closing, a word about Luke Maile. Danny Jansen is almost certainly a better all-around player than Maile now. But he climbed the ladder very quickly last year, and there’s that whole thing about breaking camp with rookies. Unless Maile pulls a Smoak-like turnaround, it’s pretty transparent that if Jansen plays well in Triple A, then in six to eight weeks he’ll push Maile off the roster.
Not to be overlooked in all this is Reese McGuire, who’s as good a defender as Maile, if not better, but who has somewhat to prove in terms of being a better hitter. One could envision a post-Martin future in which Jansen is the primary starter, McGuire is the defensive whiz with the too-light bat in reserve, and Pentecost serves as an Evan Gattis/Blake Swihart-like utility guy. For this season, the only question is how long Maile will hold off the oncoming replacement.
But of course, this is baseball. You can end every attempt to predict the future on this subject with the evergreen wisdom: Nobody knows nothin’.
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