With the heartbreak of last year’s playoffs still fresh in the minds of many, combined with the loss of some key members from last season’s team, the Blue Jays will look to prove that the team can still be competitive in a talent-rich AL East.
In the midst of spring training action, here is a look at positional projections and an intriguing young prospect in the Jays minor league system.
Beyond the core of catcher Russell Martin, third-baseman Josh Donaldson, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, there are a lot of uncertainties within the Jays infield. With the departure of first baseman and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto will look to rely on a platoon of Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, and Justin Smoak to reproduce the production of the Dominican slugger.
None of these players are near the calibre of Encarnacion, but with Smoak receiving consistent playing time, the positional flexibility of Pearce, and Morales taking most of his cuts at the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, it is realistic that the trio could hold its own — which may potentially provide a greater net benefit than Encarnacion alone.
At second base, Devon Travis is the clear-cut starter. However, his recent knee injury has been an issue for the young player, and last year the club relied on Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins to fill the void. Health is the major key for Travis. If the club believes he can’t stay healthy, look for the club to possibly make a move.
The return of right fielder Jose Bautista and defensively sound centre fielder Kevin Pillar fill two out of the three outfield positions. Left field is up for grabs, with the versatile Ezequiel Carrera, Melvin Upton Jr., and Pearce all competing to earn the spot out of spring training.
A possible dark horse is Mississauga native Dalton Pompey, who will need to have a strong spring training to make the team. Look for him to be a possible September call-up for injury depth.
With R.A Dickey and Drew Hutchison moving on to Atlanta and Pittsburgh respectively, the five-man rotation will look a lot like the second half of 2016, excluding Dickey.
Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, and Francisco Liriano should break camp as the starting five; however, the Jays are thin after that. Through a gruelling 162-game season, a starting pitcher or two is bound to see the disabled list; so, look out for some under the radar pickups like Mat Latos, T.J. House, and Gavin Floyd to make steady contributions to the rotation throughout the year.
There are few confirmed positions in the bullpen. However, barring injury, Roberto Osuna will remain the closer, with Jason Grilli, Joe Smith, and Joe Biagini sharing set-up duties until a clear-cut option emerges.
With the departure of left-handed pitcher Brett Cecil, the Jays brought in J.P. Howell for left-on-left matchups. Look for Aaron Loup to break camp with the team as a second left-handed option. Rule 5 pick-up Glenn Sparkman was expected by many to break camp with the team, but a thumb injury will probably land him on the disabled list to start the season.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. signed a seven-year $22 million contract with the Jays organization as an international free agent this past winter. The 23-year-old shows as a top prospect in the Jays organization, providing positional versatility and a serviceable bat.
He is a career .277/.362/.426 hitter but elevated his game to the tone of .344/.407/.560 in the 2015–2016 season, his last in Cuba. Gurriel should open the season at AA, unless he has an outstanding spring.
It is uncertain where he fits in the Jays’ long-term plans, as both Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis are under contract until 2020. He could be a super-utility player, provide injury insurance, or become a potential corner outfielder for the club.