By: Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
With pitchers and catchers reporting this week, winter has slowly started to release its icy grip on summer's favorite pastime, simultaneously exposing the light at the end of the offseason’s allegorical tunnel.
In addition to shaking off the rust generated from an extended on-field layoff, the games annual exhibition ritual also serves as a means of answering a number of questions in the weeks leading up to regular season play.
Not unlike the vast majority of their rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays will be looking to answer their own share of questions when Grapefruit League action begins later this month.
As it stands, the Blue Jays depth chart lists Ezequiel Carrera, Melvin Upton Jr., Steve Pearce and Dalton Pompey in left field, respectively.
Slashing .248/.323/.356 while playing in a career-high 110 games last year, Carrera is coming off of a strong showing however the journeyman outfielder has been a role player for the better part of his time in the big leagues and, with exception of a few lengthy stretches filling in for an injured Jose Bautista in 2016, the 29-year-old product of Sucre, Venez. has never appeared as a full-time starter. With a career line of .245/.304/.345, Carrera has also battled consistency issues against right-handed pitching over his time in the majors which, in part, has led to his diminished role.
Having posted an overall line of .242/.309/.499 in 4186 career plate appearances, Upton also struggles against righties. Although the two produce better against southpaws, they can be viewed as a redundancy when featured on the same roster. Having started in the past, Upton has an advantage on Carrera in that department but has been vocal about his desire to stay out of right field defensively. The bulk of Carrera’s playing time came in right last year and with Bautista not getting any younger, perhaps his versatility could factor into the team’s decision if it came down to picking one over the other.
Pearce will be given some consideration for a platoon spot, but has experienced durability concerns throughout the course of his MLB career and is also coming off of a late-season surgery to repair the flexor tendons in his throwing arm. He’ll likely see the majority of his playing time come at first base in 2017.
Pompey could turn out to be the wild card in this equation. Although injuries reduced his playing time in 2016, the Mississauga native still managed to hit .270 with an OPS of .702 over 383 plate appearances as a member of the triple-A Buffalo Bisons. The 24-year-old is also a left-handed batter and has covered righty pitching well over the course of his MiLB career. With options remaining on his contract, the safe play would be to have Pompey begin the season with Buffalo while other MLB organizations fill out their respective rosters. That said, perhaps he could force the issue with a strong showing in Dunedin this spring.
Look for Darrell Ceciliani and recent minor-league pickup Jose Tabata to throw their names in the mix as well.
Barring injury, it’s safe to assume that Roberto Osuna, J.P. Howell, Jason Grilli and Joe Smith are locks to make Toronto's bullpen out of spring training. This leaves either two or three spots up for grabs depending on how the Blue Jays brass wish to set up their 25-man roster when camp breaks.
Ideally, you would like to see another left-hander in the mix. This could mean that Aaron Loup, Matt Dermody, Danny Barnes, Jeff Beliveau, T.J. House and Brett Oberholtzer will be given an extended look this spring.
As for righties, Gavin Floyd may have the best shot to make this club out of spring training if healthy and producing. But what of the option-less Bo Schultz or Rule-5 rookie standout Joe Biagini?
Speaking of the Rule-5 draft, Glenn Sparkman will also receive ample opportunities to make this club but may be up against it given the Blue Jays recent bullpen pickups. If he fails to make the cut, Toronto will be forced to offer him back to Kansas City.
On average, big league clubs go through nine starters a year due to a myriad of circumstances including injuries, inconsistent play, minor league promotions, and trades. With that figure in mind, starting depth is key for teams looking to make a run at October baseball.
Currently, Toronto’s rotation depth consists of Mike Bolsinger, Lucas Harrell, Jarrett Grube and the aforementioned lefties Oberholtzer and House.
Pitching Coach Pete Walker has admitted that the plan is to stretch Biagini this spring, and it’s possible that he will begin the season as a member of the Bisons starting rotation.
Behind starters, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis sit Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins on the Blue Jays current depth chart.
Like Carrera and Upton, both are nice luxuries to have but could be viewed as redundant given their similar skill sets. Unquestionably, Barney had the stronger showing in 2016 after batting .269 with 35 runs scored over 306 at-bats. He likely comes into camp with an early edge on his slick-gloved counterpart.
Both infielders enter 2017 void of options on their contracts and would be subjected to waivers if they fail to make the club.
Although the job is almost guaranteed to land on Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s lap when the team heads north this April, there are still a couple of names that will be looking to take that backup catcher role away from the former Red Sox starter.
Acquired at the deadline along with Harold Ramirez and Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire is entering his first spring training camp with the Blue Jays and will be aiming to further establish himself as a can’t-miss prospect with a strong showing.
There’s also Mike Ohlman, Alex Monsalve, and Juan Graterol, all of which will be making their Blue Jays debuts this spring.
Toronto kicks off their 33-game Grapefruit League season with a 1:05 PM tilt against the new-look Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium on February 25th.
Live audio from all games will be available via the MLB At-Bat app.