These five Toronto Blue Jays have the most to gain with a strong showing in Spring Training, beginning Thursday in Dunedin, Florida
The Toronto Blue Jays report to Dunedin for the start of Spring Training on Thursday with more questions than answers about how their lineup will look in 2019.
The Blue Jays are committed to getting younger this season, leaving new manager Charlie Montoyo to figure out how to put together a lineup that’s both competitive and gives their top prospects the best opportunity to develop. The uncertainty facing the team leaves several players needing a strong Spring Training to prove they deserve a spot in that lineup.
The team has plenty of options in the infield and outfield, with both veterans and young players. Making the situation more complicated is the looming callup of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arguably the best prospect the Blue Jays have ever had.
With jobs up for grabs in Dunedin, these players are most in need of a strong Spring Training to show they deserve to earn a spot in the Blue Jays lineup this upcoming season.
Devon Travis may be just 27 years old, but he feels like a veteran among the young players crowding the Blue Jays infield. Travis is coming off a disappointing 2018 season, his worst since coming to Toronto in 2015. He hit just .232, the lowest of his career, while his slugging percentage declined by more than 50 points. His -0.5 WAR was the fourth lowest among second baseman with at least 200 plate appearances.
Chronic knee problems held Travis to just 50 games in 2017 and 103 in 2018, which was still a career high. With the Blue Jays making a commitment to getting younger and developing their prospects, Travis may be the odd man out in the infield rotation.
Rising star Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can play both shortstop and second, Brandon Drury arrived in the J.A. Happ deal last July and looks set for the third base job (at least until Guerrero arrives), while 22-year-old Richard Urena is due for more playing time in 2019. The team even added Freddy Galvis in free agency. In contrast to Travis, Galvis is a dependable bat in the lineup. He’s the only player in the majors to appear in all 162 games the past two seasons.
With Travis lost in the infield logjam, the Blue Jays have even suggested they may play him in the outfield, a position he hasn’t played since he was a minor leaguer in the Detroit Tigers organization. A strong Spring Training, however, will help Travis solidify his spot at second base which has been his for four years.
Rowdy Tellez made an immediate impact on the Blue Jays following his September call-up last season. In his first three games, he joined Joe DiMaggio as the only AL rookies since 1936 with six doubles in a three-game span. He ended up hitting .314 with four home runs in 23 games with the big league club.
The problem for Tellez as the 2019 campaign approaches, however, is there isn’t anywhere for him to play. First baseman Justin Smoak still has a year left on his deal, as does designated hitter Kendrys Morales. The Blue Jays are investing a combined $20 million in those two players this season, and they’re not paying that money for them to sit on the bench.
If the team can’t guarantee Tellez regular at-bats, he’s unlikely to stick with the club at the start of the year. Unless, of course, he shows that the hot start to his big league career was no fluke in Spring Training.
Teoscar Hernandez arrived from Houston in the Francisco Liriano deal in July 2017 with plenty of potential. In his first full season in Toronto, however, he disappointed. The 26-year-old hit just .239 while striking out 163 times. His play in the outfield was no better. He was fourth worst in defensive runs saved among left fielders in 2018.
Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk have two of the three outfield spots locked down. That leaves Hernandez in a competition with Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford and Dwight Smith Jr. for the final spot in the Blue Jays lineup. A strong showing in Dunedin will go a long way towards Hernandez fulfilling the potential the Blue Jays thought he had when they traded for him.
The play of starting pitcher Sean Reid-Foley was a study in contrast after he was called up in August. On one hand, his 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings were higher than all but four Major League starters (Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Trevor Bauer). On the other, however, he walked 5.7 batters per nine innings, which would have been the worst in the majors among qualified starters.
The 23-year-old Reid-Foley finished his first season in the big leagues with a 2-4 record and 5.13 ERA in seven starts. Going into 2019, though, his spot in the rotation isn’t guaranteed. Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman anchor the Blue Jays rotation, while fellow rookie Ryan Borucki impressed in 17 starts. The team also added Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard this offseason to solidify the pitching staff.
Reid-Foley has the stuff to compete with any of the Blue Jays starters for a spot in the rotation in 2019. What he has to do in Spring Training is show he’s learned how to command his pitches.
While fellow prospect Guerrero gets all the attention, Bo Bichette is also out to show he deserves a callup to the big leagues in 2019. The Blue Jays are inviting Bichette to the Major League Spring Training camp, giving him the opportunity to show what he can do in front of team management.
The 20-year-old Bichette, son of former All-Star Dante Bichette, hit .286 with 11 home runs and 95 RBI in 131 games at Double-A New Hampshire last season. The Blue Jays second round pick in 2016, he enters 2019 as the eighth-ranked prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America.
Like Guerrero, who will have to wait until mid-April at least to get his callup due to baseball’s service time rules, Bichette won’t start the year in the big leagues. If he impresses Montoyo and General Manager Ross Atkins in Spring Training, however, he could join Guerrero in the Blue Jays lineup at some point in 2019.