4 storylines to watch ahead of Blue Jays spring training

Feb 7 2020, 12:54 pm

Expectations may have been at a franchise-low for the Toronto Blue Jays heading into the 2019 season. After stripping the team of most of its veterans, the Jays rode a rookie-heavy roster to a 67-95 record; their lowest win total in 15 years.

But 2020 will be a different story.

The club bottomed out last year, but the front office made several moves to fortify a weak starting rotation by acquiring Chase Anderson and signing Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Shun Yamaguchi.

In addition, the Blue Jays picked up a left-handed bat in Travis Shaw, who figures to see the bulk of starts at first base for the club in 2020.

The Jays did a decent job of plugging the most glaring holes on their roster. Soon, the time will come to find out if they did enough.

Next week, Blue Jays players report for spring training in Dunedin, Florida, with the team’s first Grapefruit League game on February 22 against the defending AL East champs, the New York Yankees.

These are four compelling storylines to watch as players report to Blue Jays spring training next week.

1. How will Vladdy respond in his sophomore season?

The predominant storyline heading into last year’s Blue Jays spring training was: “How awesome will Vladimir Guerrero Jr. be?” After his first full year in the majors, Vladdy learned that it wasn’t quite the cakewalk that most were expecting.

Guerrero arrives to Blue Jays spring training camp with a lot to prove in his sophomore season. His teammates Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette both eclipsed Guerrero in the Wins Above Replacement category.

Vladdy took his lumps at third base in 2019 and was among the worst defensive players at his position last year. He has some work to do to improve his defence, but that just means there’s great room for growth on the field and at the plate.

The ultimate “been there, done that” comparable to Guerrero is Rafael Devers. The Red Sox third baseman also struggled in his first full season as a starter, but bounced back in a big way in 2019, improving his wRC+ from 90 to 132 in one year.

2. Ryu becomes the Blue Jays’ $80 million man

The Blue Jays’ big-ticket item this winter cost the club $80 million dollars. Hyun-Jin Ryu landed the richest contract in club history for a pitcher and vaulted himself to the front of the Blue Jays’ starting rotation.

The 32-year-old comes to the American League East for the first time in his career, having spent the previous six seasons within the confines of the National League West; one of the most pitcher-friendly divisions in baseball.

Ryu will face a new set of hitters, and there is a noticeable learning curve for pitchers jumping from the National League to the American League. With a $20 million per season price tag on Ryu, there’s pressure for the 2019 Cy Young runner-up to produce in year one of his new contract.

3. Who has the inside track on the centre field job?

Kevin Pillar was a mainstay in centre field for the Blue Jays for four consecutive seasons. Once the club traded him away in the early part of 2019, the team used six different players in centre field the rest of the campaign.

Teoscar Hernandez eventually settled in as the Blue Jays’ everyday centre fielder, but not before turning a few heads at this surprise announcement by Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. Hernandez’ bat played at the position, but by no means is he a glove-first centre fielder.

After Hernandez, Randal Grichuk received the second-most playing time at centre in 2019, logging 56 games in centre field and 83 in right field. The Blue Jays don’t sound opposed to having Grichuk log more time up the middle, but it would be beneficial to give Grichuk some runway at the position.

As spring training progresses, the centre field picture will become much clearer; an injury or two could make the decision for the Blue Jays, but as of this moment, give the slight edge to Grichuk as the team’s everyday centre fielder in 2020.

There’s an outside shot that someone further down the depth chart like Derek Fisher or Anthony Alford receive some playing time at centre field, but looking at the Jays current options, one thing is apparent; their centre fielder of the future is not on the roster right now.

4. The three-way battle for the fifth starter spot

The Toronto Blue Jays used 21 different starting pitchers to survive the slog of the 2019 regular season. The front office then went out and acquired at least four pitchers capable of starting games for the Jays in 2020, which may push a few incumbents out of the picture.

As it stands, there will be three players battling for the fifth spot in the Blue Jays starting rotation: Shun Yamaguchi, Ryan Borucki and Trent Thornton. In any other case, Thornton would be the favourite, considering he made 32 stars for the Jays last year.

However, the Blue Jays may place their bets on one of the two Asian players the team signed this winter: Yamaguchi. The 14-year veteran of the Japan Central league has 90 career starts under his belt, but he also closed games in the JPCL, finishing 198 career games and picking up 112 career saves.

It seems like the Blue Jays will give Yamaguchi every opportunity to prove he can start before re-assigning him to the bullpen. Shifting from the rotation to the bullpen could be in the cards for the other two starters on this list: Borucki and Thornton.

Borucki is coming off an injury-shortened 2019 campaign, where he made only two starts. Elbow surgery in early August derailed the rest of his season, and now the lefty has an uphill battle to dethrone both Thornton and Yamaguchi from the fifth starter’s spot.

Thornton’s workload over the past two seasons has been arduous (294.1 innings logged from 2018 to 2019), but he’s confident his body can handle the increased workload. Back in January, Thornton said: “I feel the strongest I’ve ever felt.”

While Borucki could begin the season at triple-A Buffalo, Thornton could shift to the bullpen. With two plus pitches in his fastball and curveball, transitioning to a reliever would be a natural fit for the 26-year-old.