In less than a week, your social media feeds will be blessed with sun-soaked images and video of Toronto Blue Jays players preparing for the 2021 MLB season. Pitchers pitching, catchers catching, hitters hitting, everyone meandering through pick-off drills, bunt defence and various other forms of eyewash. Yes, spring training is nearly upon us.
Pitchers and catchers report to Toronto’s freshly renovated complex in Dunedin, Fla., on Thursday, with the first full squad workout scheduled for the Monday following. Six days later, the Blue Jays have a real, honest-to-goodness baseball game to play against the New York Yankees on the other side of the causeway in Tampa.
It will be an intriguing camp to follow as the Blue Jays integrate six major-league free-agent signees, including two-time all-star George Springer and 2019 AL MVP candidate Marcus Semien. There are roles to be decided up and down the pitching staff and on manager Charlie Montoyo’s bench. And the club may not be done adding as it continues to seek pitching depth ahead of a season in which it will need ample arms to cover a 170 per cent increase in innings from 2020.
But there may not be much in the way of battles as the Blue Jays are bringing 15 players to camp on guaranteed MLB deals. Add in pre-arbitration players who were MLB regulars last season — such as Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Ryan Borucki, Vladimir Guererro Jr., Danny Jansen, Nate Pearson, Jordan Romano and Rowdy Tellez — and you quickly fill up 24 of 26 available roster spots.
Of course, health will almost inevitably throw various wrenches into anyone’s opening day roster projection. Under-performance could, too. And it’s always unwise for any down-roster player with options remaining to assume their position. But it stands to reason that it will be an uphill climb for any player not currently on the 40-man roster to win a spot on this team. Such is the depth the Blue Jays have built over the last several seasons.
Still, there will be plenty of interesting non-roster players to watch over the next several weeks, including top prospects testing themselves against high-level competition, well-travelled veterans trying to prove they can still hang and under-the-radar organizational pieces who have earned their way to big-league camp through sheer hard work and development.
Late Friday, the Blue Jays released a list of the 28 non-roster players they’re inviting to camp. Here’s a line (sometimes even two or three) about each:
LHP Nick Allgeyer: A favourite within Toronto’s player development department, the 25-year-old has taken considerable strides over his three years in the organization thanks to an earnest buy-in to the bevy of analytical performance tools modern-day pitchers have at their disposal.
RHP Bryan Baker: Acquired from the Colorado Rockies as part of 2018’s Seung-hwan Oh trade, the 26-year-old reliever posted a 3.68 ERA and 12.7 K/9 over 22 triple-A innings in 2019 before spending last summer at Toronto’s alternate site.
RHP Anthony Castro: Claimed off waivers from the Detroit Tigers in December and subsequently snuck through waivers to triple-A last month, Castro made his MLB debut last season pitching in relief after spending the entirety of his minor-league career as a starter.
C Philip Clarke: Selected out of Vanderbilt University (a professional-like college program Toronto’s front office reveres) in the ninth round of the 2019 draft, the left-handed hitter was given an eye-catching signing bonus of $500,000, well above the $155,000 slot value of his draft position. Clarke’s looking up an extremely deep catching depth chart, but the bonus and his spring training invite both indicate how high the Blue Jays are on him.
RHP A.J. Cole: An unheralded contributor to Toronto’s remarkably effective 2020 bullpen, Cole pitched to a 3.09 ERA over 23.1 innings last season, often cleaning up the messes of others, which led to a well above-average 79.8 per cent strand rate. That’s a statistic that typically regresses to the mean, which, coupled with a conspicuously low BABIP of .254, doesn’t portend well for his effectiveness going forward. But Cole has as good of a chance as any non-roster pitcher of earning a job in the club’s bullpen, particularly if an injury or two creates additional need.
INF Jordan Groshans: That Groshans last played a real game more than 20 months ago (thanks to an injury shortened 2019 and pandemic-altered 2020) hasn’t stopped him from appearing in the upper-half of top-100 MLB prospect lists heading into this season. A dynamic athlete with no shortage of confidence, the 21-year-old enters his first big-league camp with an opportunity to demonstrate the star potential that made him the No. 12 overall pick in 2018. And if he proves himself at the upper levels of the minors throughout 2021, he won’t have to wait anywhere near as long as 20 months for his major-league debut.
INF Miguel Hiraldo: The Blue Jays love up-the-middle defenders with quick bats, and this 20-year-old signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017 certainly qualifies. Hiraldo demonstrated plenty of ability with a .299/.346/.485 slash line against rookie-ball pitching in 2019, but facing more advanced arms in big-league camp will be an exceptional jump in competition. Hiraldo’s nowhere near an MLB debut, but the spring training invite alone at this stage in his career tells you how the Blue Jays feel about his long-term potential.
INF Leonardo Jimenez: Climbing the system on a near-identical track to Hiraldo, the 19-year-old has shown a capable middle-infield glove and contact-oriented bat over his brief time as a professional. Like Hiraldo, his presence in big-league camp is telling.
RHP Adam Kloffenstein: A third-round pick signed to a first-round bonus ($2.45-milliion) in 2018, the 20-year-old just missed the cut for Toronto’s 60-player pool last season and instead spent his summer pitching against advanced competition in Texas’s independent Constellation Energy League. https://www.sportsnet.ca/mlb/article/blue-jays-kloffenstein-salvaged-2020-development-covid-league/ Now, Kloffenstein will bring the lessons he learned there from his veteran pitching coach — some guy named Roger Clemens — plus a fastball that’s been up to the high 90s to his first big-league camp.
RHP Francisco Liriano: Fans will remember the effectively wild left-hander as a starter on the 2016 and ’17 Blue Jays before he was traded for Teoscar Hernandez. Now a reliever, the 37-year-old will try to win a job in Toronto’s bullpen or, in the process, show another MLB team in need of pitching depth that he can still get big-league hitters out.
RHP Alek Manoah: Built to play offensive line (six-foot-seven, 260-plus pounds), this 23-year-old could quite likely be an effective high leverage MLB reliever today with his power fastball and wipeout slider. But the Blue Jays are determined to develop him as a starter, which will require much more minor-league refinement as Manoah works to develop a changeup and learn how to effectively turn a lineup over multiple times.
INF Austin Martin: Widely considered an absolute steal at No. 5 in last June’s draft, Martin was thrown right in to the developmental deep end at Toronto’s alternate training site and now gets the opportunity to test himself against an even higher level of competition. Possessing elite talent potential along with the character and makeup traits Toronto covets in young players, Martin could put himself on a rocket emoji to the big-leagues if he lives up to the hype in his upper-minors professional debut.
INF Orelvis Martinez: A high-upside prospect who doesn’t get talked about enough, Martinez is straight out of Blue Jays central casting as an athletic, up-the-middle defender who can barrel velocity. Still only 19, the Dominican right-handed hitter won’t go so overlooked if he can replicate his 2019 rookieball performance (.275/.352/.549 with 20 extra-base hits in 40 games) this season in his first taste of full-season ball.
LHP Tim Mayza: Returning from Tommy John surgery performed in September 2019, Mayza enters camp looking to re-establish himself as a hard-throwing left-handed relief weapon.
RHP Joey Murrray: The unassuming, analytically minded soft-tosser behind one of the most impressive statistical seasons (137.1 IP, 2.75 ERA, 11.1 K/9) any pitcher in the organization threw in 2019, Murray is on the verge of bringing his deceptive, high-spin fastball to the majors at some point in 2021.
OF Ryan Noda: The 24-year-old left-handed hitter has demonstrated impressive on-base ability throughout his minor-league career, batting .272/.422/.478 with a 19 per cent walk rate.
INF Joe Panik: At Blue Jays camp on a minor-league deal for the second consecutive season, Panik has a path to an opening day roster spot considering fellow utility infielder Santiago Espinal has minor-league options remaining.
RHP Jackson Rees: The right-handed reliever put up a sparkling 0.73 ERA with 12.8 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 over 39 appearances at mid- and high-A in 2019. Considering he’s 26 and Rule-5 eligible after the season, Rees could be a bullpen option for the Blue Jays toward the back-half of 2021 if he continues to get results.
INF Kevin Smith: Now two years removed from what looked like a breakout 2018 season, the ever-adjusting Smith will spend 2021 working to prove he can recreate that .302/.358/.528 magic against higher levels of minor-league competition.
LHP Kirby Snead: A 26-year-old reliever who’s allowed only 10 home runs over 196.1 minor-league innings, Snead will likely start his season at triple-A but could be an option if the Blue Jays bullpen runs into serious trouble.
INF Richard Urena: Back in the fold after a season in the Baltimore Orioles organization, the soon-to-be 25-year-old reclaims the middle-infield depth role he filled for the Blue Jays earlier in his career.
RHP CJ Van Eyk: Toronto’s second-round pick out of Florida State in last June’s draft, Van Eyk will try to make an early impression on the organization with his mid-90s fastball and multiple secondary offerings.
OF Forrest Wall: Another part of the return for Oh along with Baker, the speedy 25-year-old was briefly a free agent this off-season before signing a minor-league deal to return to the organization. A childhood friend of Bichette, Wall is ticketed to serve as outfield depth at triple-A.
INF Logan Warmoth: Toronto’s first-round pick in 2017 has struggled to live up to that pedigree over three minor-league seasons and was left unprotected in December’s Rule-5 Draft. Now 25, he’ll spend the season trying to assert himself in a crowded field of Blue Jays middle infield prospects.
INF Tyler White: Once a hot prospect in the Houston Astros organization, White posted a 95 OPS+ over parts of four MLB campaigns before diverting to Korea for the 2020 season. Now 30, the first baseman will provide depth behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rowdy Tellez.
RHP Simeon Woods Richardson: One of Toronto’s youngest pitching prospects also happens to be one of its most advanced, as Woods Richardson proved against high-level competition last summer at the Blue Jays’ alternate site. Still only 20 and coming off a busy off-season of development at Toronto’s Dunedin complex, the fiery competitor could force his way into the major-league conversation this season if he carries forward the success he’s had in the lower minors to double- and triple-A.
OF Chavez Young: The fun, gregarious Bahamian had an impressive full-season debut in 2018, batting .285/.363/.445 in A-ball while demonstrating a cannon of an outfield arm. He struggled at high-A in 2019 and his attempt to play in Australia this winter was sabotaged by injury, but the 23-year-old still possess plenty of tools and is plenty of fun to watch play the game.
RHP Yosver Zulueta: Signed out of Cuba in 2019 thanks to additional international bonus pool money acquired in trades of Kendrys Morales and Dwight Smith Jr., Zulueta immediately underwent Tommy John surgery and is just now returning to competition. The 23-year-old featured a mid-to-high 90s fastball prior to surgery and enters camp as an intriguing, under-the-radar arm to watch.