Thursday was originally scheduled as Opening Day on the Major League Baseball calendar.
As the whole world knows well by now, a lot of things in 2020 are not being completed as originally scheduled. Concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and an attempt to flatten the curve of infection rate have led to the cancellation and postponement of every event in North America that involves a gathering of any significant number of people, and that includes an indefinite pushing back of the first pitch of the 2020 baseball season.
The shutdown also caused spring training to wrap up two weeks early, giving teams an abbreviated look at their assembled talent, and about half as much time as usual to determine who would be coming north with the team to the major leagues.
While we wait for the go-ahead for things to start getting back to normal and catch a passing glimpse in the distance about when the season might have a chance of starting, here’s an educated guess at how the Toronto Blue Jays could have assembled their 26-man roster if Opening Day had arrived on schedule.
Ryu was brought in during the off-season as the team’s biggest addition, and rightfully serves as the presumptive ace and Opening Day starter. He has had plenty of injury trouble in the past five years, but he had his health in his two spring starts, allowing a single run off a solo homer in six innings of work.
Roark also worked six innings over two starts, allowing a pair of runs and three hits. He’s profiled as a right-handed poor man’s version of Ryu, capable and willing to throw any pitch in any count in place of any one overpowering pitch.
Shoemaker gave up just one hit over his six innings and two starts in spring, and returns to the rotation after missing the majority of last season with a major knee injury. Similar to Ryu, his lengthy injury concerns make him something akin to a ticking time bomb before another injury, but he came into and out of spring looking healthy enough to hold a place in the rotation for at least the beginning of the year.
Thornton led all Blue Jays pitchers in innings this spring, with 10.2 innings over four appearances. He surrendered five runs combined in those outings, but the team is bullish on what he brings to the table. As a rookie he survived all of 2019 as part of the team’s rotation, and coming into 2020, is armed with some new pitch grips thanks to some guidance from veteran Clay Buchholz last year.
Anderson struggled mightily in spring in his first few appearances in a Blue Jays uniform, allowing 12 runs in just over nine innings of work. Spring is the epitome of small sample size theatre, and the team traded for Anderson with the intention of making him a part of the rotation, at least to start off the year. Assumed to be in a competition for the final two spots with the aforementioned Thornton and Shun Yamaguchi, Anderson gets the veteran’s benefit of the doubt on our roster here. He started in the bullpen with the Milwaukee Brewers last season, pitching six innings only three times as a starter in 2019. Expect a reasonably short leash on his starts and spot in the rotation.
Yamaguchi came into spring with the intention to make the starting rotation, but things certainly didn’t look that way in his time in Dunedin. Nine runs in nine innings, including five home runs made for a rude introduction to the team and likely pushes him out of the rotation and into a swingman spot out of the pen. While some spring ERA inflation can be attributed to the level of players around a pitcher, home runs count all the same no matter who is fielding and Yamaguchi gave up a handful.
Cole gets the nod after getting a non-roster invite to spring, and he made the most of the opportunity he was handed. The 28-year-old threw six scoreless innings in six appearances, striking out five and allowing only four base runners. The Blue Jays would have to juggle the 40-man roster around to make room for him, but the low-risk bet of his spring invite went as well as they could’ve hoped. The bullpen isn’t exactly rich with reliable depth, making Cole someone worth finding space for.
Font famously became the team’s de facto opener down the stretch last season, a role he performed reasonably well in. His three spring innings didn’t go swimmingly and the team has very little invested in him if they chose to sever ties in favour of someone like Cole, but he seemed to be someone Charlie Montoyo relied upon last year and that alone likely buys him a little time out of the gate. If Font doesn’t work out, Justin Miller taking this spot makes a lot of sense as well.
Bass was another veteran bullpen addition that the team made for basically free, continuing a theme you see throughout the relief pitching options. He put up a 4.15 ERA in four innings in spring, which closely matches his career ERA as well as the expected ERA he has in most projection systems. Bass is a fine option, one just as likely to slide into big spots as be designated for assignment and never heard from again. Such is the life of a veteran reliever.
Bergen is left-handed, which is something nobody else on this bullpen roster can say. He struck out five batters in 3.2 innings this spring, while not allowing a run in five appearances. The team sent down lefty Thomas Pannone in a curious move on Thursday afternoon, leaving Bergen as the best lefty option standing. Brian Moran was roughed up a bit and Marc Rzepczynski hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2018, so Bergen gets the nod here.
Romano is the reliever who turned the most heads in spring, striking out six in five scoreless innings while flashing new levels of velocity with his fastball, hitting 98 mph. He had a very rocky ride last season after being taken in the Rule 5 Draft and then returned to the team, but he has a little ‘closer of the future’ buzz which is helped by some extra juice on his fastball.
Gaviglio returns in mop-up or long man duty, though the presence of Yamaguchi could bump him down the depth chart. You could slide Miller or Ryan Dull in here if you decided you’ve seen enough of Gaviglio, who has an ERA of 5.01 in 78 appearances over two seasons with the Blue Jays.
Finally, Giles returns as the team’s closer, following an impressive 2019 campaign where he posted an ERA below two. He is basically the only person on this list with his bullpen spot totally locked in before spring even started, and did nothing to lose that footing. Just a lone solo homer was a mark on his spring numbers, where he struck out four in four innings.
Nobody on the roster was as ready for the season to start as Jansen, who led the team in total bases (25), home runs (4), and RBI (13) in nine spring appearances. His first taste of being a full-time major league catcher started with scuffles at the plate but ended as a Gold Glove finalist, and he looked primed to start 2020 with his batting skills catching back up to his defensive accolades.
McGuire’s spring story will unquestionably be about his embarrassing legal troubles, but they probably aren’t enough to keep him from manning the backup catching job. A platoonable lefty bat with above-averaging receiving skills behind the plate, he probably isn’t as good at the plate as last year’s .872 OPS made him look, but to be a backup catcher, he doesn’t have to be.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
A bounce back year from Shaw after a truly awful 2019 campaign is a major part of the script anybody has in their head when writing a version of 2020 where the Blue Jays are successful. His limited time in spring showed both sides of what his year may look like. Shaw led the team with 15 strikeouts in 29 at-bats, but looked to be gaining confidence and timing as the games went on. He smashed a pair of home runs in the last week, showing easy power from the left side.
Biggio made a first impression last season that made him feel wise beyond his years as a rookie. Blessed with elite plate discipline, he made a habit of laying off anything that wasn’t in the zone even if it cost him a few called strikes thanks to a rookie-sized strike zone from umpires. Which isn’t to say he just stood there with his bat on his shoulder. He also popped 16 home runs and stole 14 bases in 100 games while providing a .364 on base percentage.
Bichette used 2019 spring training to prove he was as good as anyone else on the entire Blue Jays roster, and by the end of the regular season, had proved himself to be right. He didn’t need the same motivation in 2020, but produced like it nonetheless. He tied with Jansen for tops on the team with four home runs, and was second with 24 total bases. He’s the presumptive every day shortstop going forward and has started to pick up plenty of support for being the team’s true best prospect.
Did somebody say best prospect? Maybe you’ve forgotten that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. exists. While there was a slight failure to launch in 2019 for the game’s top prospect across every board, 2020 is destined to be all about what Guerrero does for better or worse. The team will be feeding him as many at-bats and opportunities in the field as he can handle, and the hope is that some improved conditioning can keep him from running out of gas like he did at the tail end of last year.
Panik was brought in as a non-roster invitee shortly before spring started, but the team showed their commitment to him by adding him to the 40-man roster even after spring training shut down. The veteran former All-Star and World Series champion showed himself capable of filling in at shortstop, and serves as a very usable bench infield option. The lefty bat had ten hits in 11 games this spring while walking more than he struck out, which is exactly what this infield needs.
Drury certainly hasn’t made a great impression in his time with the team, managing a .214/.261/.372 line in 128 games with the Blue Jays over parts of two seasons. He can play all over the infield or outfield — if you want him to — and that positional flexibility is likely what is keeping him holding on to a job. If there’s someone missing from this roster that you need to find a place for, dropping Drury is likely where that space gets made.
Tellez his 21 home runs last year in his first extended taste of the major leagues, but didn’t do a lot beyond that. His sub-.300 OBP needs to be improved on to carve out a more consistent roll, but his spot right now might be more or less insurance behind Shaw. He has minor league options if you’d rather roll with Anthony Alford as an extra outfielder, but both options come with significant warts in the shape of strikeouts. Shaw can’t play 1B every day and Drury isn’t much more inspiring as an option, so Tellez gets the spot in this exercise.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The outfield is a problem. Grichuk’s 30 home runs were kneecapped pretty significantly by a .280 OBP last season, making him a proverbial two true outcome hitter. Still, he is the closest thing they have to a centre fielder on the roster currently, and with four more years on his five-year, $50-million contract, he’s definitely the Opening Day centrefielder.
If only he could play a full season, the Jays could get an idea of what they really have in Gurriel. Bouncing around from shortstop to second base and now in left, Gurriel has put together some great numbers offensively in two years when taken in the wide view. In 149 career games, he has 31 home runs, 85 RBI, and a .279/.320/.499 line. Most teams would take that out of their left fielder without thinking twice and be happy about it. The problem of course, is that it is spread over two seasons, as a number of issues have kept Gurriel yo-yoing from getting consistent time in any one spot. Let him stick as a left fielder (and maybe lefty platoon 1B?) and see what he can do.
Hernandez hit 26 home runs last season and finished remarkably strong. In the second half of the season he posted a .259/.346/.592 line with 18 home runs. That strong line only underscores how inconsistent his first half was, and also how tantalizing his skillset can be. A regular victim of missing “the little things” in the field and sometimes a little wild at the plate, you can squint to look at the second half of the season and things like his higher end sprint speed and see why he continues to get chances. He’s coming up on arbitration after 2020 so perhaps this will be his last chance to put together a full season of production and earn a long term spot
Finally, Fisher snags the fourth outfield spot, thanks to his pedigree, skillset, and a rough spring for other option Anthony Alford. Fisher certainly wasn’t great by any means, but Alford struck out 14 times in 24 at-bats, while Fisher managed at least to continue regularly putting the ball in play. A lefty bat with a speed and power combination, he used that skillset to rise into the top-100 prospect rankings before arriving in the major leagues with Houston. Strikeouts have kept him from coming close to his pedigree at the highest level, but the Blue Jays believe in his abilities. He’s out of options, so this season is his chance to prove he can deliver on all that promise.
Opening Day is not happening today, but what if it was? The Blue Jays would be hosting Kevin Pillar and the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre, with a huge crowd (which makes me nervous to think about now) on hand to finally see baseball back.
Here’s the expected lineup against Eduardo Rodriguez and the Sox.
2B - Biggio
SS - Bichette
LF - Gurriel
3B - Guerrero Jr.
CF - Grichuk
1B - Shaw
DH - Hernandez
C - Jansen
RF - Fisher
Starting for the Blue Jays is number 99, Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Now, play ball! ... eventually. Please.
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