We still don't know where the Toronto Blue Jays will report to the training camp later this week, what the three-week preparation for a regular season with 60 games will look like, or if this is special. Good idea amid a global pandemic – but at least we know who will participate.
On Sunday, the Blue Jays presented the MLB with a list of 58 players who could qualify for the club this season. This includes, of course, all of the expected regulars in Toronto, as well as a selection of veterans fighting for jobs before the end of spring training, young depths on the threshold of majors, and even some of the best prospects for the franchise from minors.
OFFICIAL: Your 2020 #BlueJays Club Player Pool pic.twitter.com/16Sx2xgIvg
– Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) June 28, 2020
The last 20 players in Toronto's pool are particularly interesting when you consider the unique challenges MLB teams will face this season. Expanded rosters, possible COVID-19 infections, and the increased likelihood of soft tissue injuries when players return to full speed in a compressed time frame will test organizational depth like never before. And for the Blue Jays, this could mean that the door to an MLB debut is opening for some young players that the club has developed in recent years.
On the pitching side, Thomas Hatch is an interesting arm that should be observed when the 25-year-old tries to establish himself in a crowded field of Blue Jays deep starters. Hatch, which the Chicago Cubs acquired for David Phelps in July last year, drove increased fuel efficiency and improved health to a spectacular late summer run at Double-A, ending 2019 with 2.72 ERA over his last 11 starts.
Of course, Hatch has to compete for chances with a number of young starters who have already made their MLB debut: Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay, Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch and Jacob Waguespack. Remember that the much-discussed fifth starter competition this spring was a misnomer. It was actually a competition for places six to twelve.
But as always, some jugs are injured, some will go into bullpen roles (keep an eye on Waguespack and Reid-Foley), and others will underperform. All we know is that the Blue Jays should have many options as the teams try to cope creatively with the workload, possibly piggyback starters, or use openers more often this odd season.
On the side of the position players, Santiago Espinal turned his head this spring – he was 10:24 with seven additional goals – and could play a role if the Blue Jays got into trouble in the infield.
Joe Panik will spell Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette in the middle, while Brandon Drury will get his reps on a number of positions. But Espinal, the return to the 2018 Steve Pearce trade, is spot on and has the versatility to play out-of-the-box, which may make him an ideal candidate for the three-player taxi commands he'll carry around protect against the last minute injuries or COVID-19 infections.
In the meantime, during the spring training before the pandemic, it was a big question how Charlie Montoyo, manager of Blue Jays, would use his bullpen to protect narrow leads and bring the ball closer to Ken Giles. It's now even bigger in a 60-game sprint, where any breakdown in the late inning has a greater impact on a team's season.
As things stood in March, Rafael Dolis, who had spent the last four seasons in Japan, and Anthony Bass, an off-season waiver, were admitted as Giles & Setup men. Positioned to have high leverage in mid to late innings, Wilmer Font and Sam Gaviglio joined Giles as the sole weapon in Toronto's bullpen to effectively play with the majors throughout 2019.
Shun Yamaguchi – one of NPB's best pitchers in 2019 – was in the mix when he didn't deserve a place in Toronto's rotation. And Jordan Romano, who, after spending several seasons trying to change as a starter, now took on an auxiliary role, impressed with the speed of the 90s throughout the camp and did everything he needed to get a job win.
It is believed that this will still be Toronto's bullpen core when the camps start again, but one may wonder if the high-stakes nature of every game this season is linked to the ability in the Carrying additional weapons on an expanded roster in the first few weeks will open up opportunities for some young, hard-throwing weapons that would otherwise have started the season at Triple-A.
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet's baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together they bring you the most extensive Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering the latest news with opinions and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
Julian Merryweather is finally healthy this spring after an exhausting rehabilitation from Tommy John and a three-digit speed. Patrick Murphy presented his revised delivery and premium products in camp trips in major leagues. And the 24-year-old Hector Perez supported his heating in the mid-90s with a hard slider, a mixture with which he hit 10 Batters per Nine over more than 450 innings in the Minor League.
The Blue Jays may first want to see what they see in veterans like A.J. Cole, Jake Petricka, Justin Miller and Brian Moran, all signed Free Agents in the Minor League, who were major players in 2019. Given the lack of preparation and acceleration this season, clubs are likely to assert bullpen weapons at an accelerated rate.
And then there are the prospects. It's pretty surprising that baseball hasn't made a clear public statement about the minor league seasons in 2020 yet. The clubs have made numerous decisions indicating that they are not being played, from holiday coaches and player development staff to releasing large swaths of minor leagues, hesitating to commit to paying the lean weekly grants to the remaining, in order to include top prospects in their player pools and thus exclude them from participating in a season if this should happen. It is obvious that there will be no minor league ball in 2020. Why doesn't anyone say that directly? But we digress.
By adding Jordan Groshans, Simeon Woods Richardson, Alek Manoah and Alejandro Kirk to their pool, the Blue Jays have found a way to expand the opportunities to continue their development in a year without playing games. It's one thing to talk about pitch design on zoom calls and drag around in a blow cage. It is another way to live and learn in a professional environment, taught daily by coaches and developers, and to compete directly with other young, hungry athletes.
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And yes, the Blue Jays left two spaces open in their 60-person pool, one of which could be filled with Austin Martin in the first round by 2020 – provided he signs. Incidentally, this should be the assumption since the incentives on both sides to conclude a deal are so great that credibility is strengthened to believe that they will not agree to the terms before August 15th. It's certainly worth noting that Martin's agent Scott Boras is known for getting to the point of negotiations, as he has done in the past with Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, and other blue-chip conscripts.
But don't dream of seeing Martin or one of these Blue Jays prospects playing MLB games in front of swaths of empty seats this season. Martin has never made a professional record appearance. Groshans and Manoah have not yet played a year-round ball. and Woods Richardson is a teenager. The long-term development of these players will take precedence over any win-now concerns in a 60-game season that may or may not reach the finish line.
And so they will all report to the Blue Jays "alternative training site" – almost certainly Sahlen Field in Buffalo, NY – to receive high-level lessons, simulated games, and live replay for a few months The organization is trying to develop its next wave of young talent amid a pandemic.
There remains the possibility of an expanded Arizona Fall League in which those interested in Blue Jays can compete against minors of other organizations for the first time in a year. But for more advanced prospects who are closer to the majors, this opportunity could come a little earlier – in a big league field.