Far too early takeaways from Blue Jays spring training

Gleaning information from spring training games is mostly a fool’s errand, even if you have a full month’s worth of games to pour over. Split squads, travel teams, and non-roster invitees make any kind of sample size incredibly pointless to try to sift through in hopes of grasping on to some sort of meaning or trend to forecast for when the season actually starts.

All of that being said... here are a few far too early takeaways from the first two weeks of Toronto Blue Jays spring training.

The Pearson Express

Any story about the 2020 Blue Jays spring training has to start with the team’s top prospect, man-mountain starting pitcher Nate Pearson.

Through two appearances he’s been everything a fan could dream of from a stud pitcher and more. He struck out every batter he faced in his debut inning against the New York Yankees, and followed it up with two dominant innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The at-bat against Pirates slugger Josh Bell was likely his most impressive so far. He started with a nasty 89-mph changeup to open the at-bat, flashed a ridiculous slider, and finished him off with pure gasoline up in the zone. Pearson touched 100 mph with his heat in the outing, and the All-Star Bell had plenty of good things to say about the 23-year-old’s stuff after the game.

“Without a doubt that’s high-end stuff,” Bell told the Toronto Sun. “We’ll see how long (Jays management) hold him back. Hopefully, it won’t be too long. That kind of arm needs to be in the show… that’s the closest thing I’ve seen to (unhittable) stuff this spring.”

Pearson’s debut in MLB will be a matter of when, not if, this season. Where last year’s delayed arrivals of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette were famously focused around service time, the Blue Jays likely want to see their top pitching prospect fully stretched out at Triple-A and keeping up his dominant work multiple times through the lineup before pulling the trigger on a promotion.

If he continues looking unhittable the rest of the month, fans will be clamouring for him to break camp with the team, and barring injury or a major setback at Triple-A it’s a safe bet they won’t have to wait long to see him in Toronto.

The Kids Are Alright

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — have you seen this, have you heard about this? — spent a big chunk of the last half of 2019 hearing concerns about launch angle, and admitted himself that he was hitting too many grounders for his own liking.

The story of the season will ride on how Guerrero develops in his second year in the league, and concerns about launch angle will be quelled quickly when he, well, launches the ball like he has so far in spring.

Again, this is where the usual spring caveats apply — we know Vladdy can hit minor league pitching — but what is spring about if not watching your best hitting prospect absolutely crush some dingers in warm weather?

Similarly, Bo Bichette’s numbers haven’t jumped off the screen quite the same way they did last spring when he showed up hell bent on making the team, service time be damned, but he has shown plenty of bat skills that make announcers fall back into saying things like “professional hitter” about his at-bats. A bases-clearing opposite field triple on Wednesday is evidence of maturity beyond his years, and defensively he looks as motivated as ever to prove he has no intention on moving off of shortstop any time soon.

Danny Jansen has also looked ready to pick up where he left off on a stronger second half of the season after scuffling out of the gate, and the next bad pitch Cavan Biggio swings at will be the first.

The Presumptive Travis Shaw Bounce Back Year

The Blue Jays have made a pretty low-stakes bet that corner infielder Travis Shaw is due to bounce back to the 30-plus home run form that he flashed in 2017 and 2018 with the Milwaukee Brewers after an abysmal 2019 campaign.

It is still far, far too early to tell — spring caveats, remember — but the early returns on Shaw have not quite been the rosy projections most would’ve hoped for. He’s got a team-high 11 strikeouts in his first 17 spring at-bats, which is an extension of the problem that kneecapped his year last season.

Shaw obviously still has plenty of time to turn it around, and slumps will come and go throughout the season as well, but the very first swings he’s taken in a Blue Jays uniform have not been strong ones.

The Last Straw For Anthony Alford

Toronto Blue Jays' Forest Wall, left, catches a ball hit by New York Yankees' Erik Kratz for an out while avoiding teammate Anthony Alford, right, during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

One of the battles to keep an eye on this spring is for the 26th man slot, which will likely come down to a decision from the team whether they want to carry an extra infielder or an extra outfielder.

Anthony Alford is all out of options and would have to stick with the team or be subject to optional waivers if the team attempted to send him to Triple-A, and his final audition to come north has not been a strong one.

Much like Shaw, strikeouts continue to sink most of the positive attributes that Alford should theoretically bring to the fold. The 25-year-old has flashed exceptional speed when on base — he stole three straight bases in one inning, singlehandedly creating a run — but hasn’t managed to get on base enough to let those skills be a difference maker.

Additionally, if his best bid is to make camp as defensive help, his defensive work has been sub-par. The team is in desperate need of a center fielder that can capably cover the position and his routes to fly balls continue to leave plenty to be desired.

The team would definitely love it if Alford showed out and forced his way into a bench role on the team, but the clock continues to tick for him to prove he’s capable of doing it.

Depth Start Auditions Continue

Behind the off-season acquisitions of veteran pitchers Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, and Chase Anderson, the Jays came in to spring with somewhat of an internal competition to work out who will fill in both the bottom of the major league rotation and earn the first call from Buffalo when needed.

Aside from Pearson’s super-charged performances, the rest of the candidates have been up and down.

Shun Yamaguchi has yet to really find his footing, surrendering four home runs in his first six innings of work. Anthony Kay’s first appearance made him look like a sleeper breakout candidate, but his four-walk, four-run, one-third of an inning performance on Wednesday gave most of the good feeling right back. T.J. Zeuch also struggled to keep the ball in the yard

On the bright side, last year’s lone returning full-season starter Trent Thornton has pitched well, starting things off with five scoreless innings out of the gate. There’s a good chance he’s earned some trust from Charlie Montoyo after lasting the whole season with the major league club as a rookie last year despite a few rocky patches.

All of these arms have three more weeks to get themselves into form and starting a game at the major league level is a lot different than coming in to a relief appearance in front of a mix of major leaguers looking to hit the golf course and players with jersey numbers in the 60’s just trying to get a little camera time.

Again, everything above can change in one direction or the other with so few appearances to choose from, and even when spring concludes there’s not much to definitively take from any of this data. But for now this is all we have to go on, and thus all there is to talk about.

Opening day is March 26th, if you’re curious.

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