Mercifully, the Major League Baseball lockout is over.
Instead of CBT and CBA, we can get back to talking about ERA and RBI. Business was shut down for just shy of 100 days, so it would be understandable if you can’t quite remember the state of the Toronto Blue Jays before things went dark. I can help with that.
Remember back in late September when the Blue Jays swept the Baltimore Orioles on the final weekend of the regular season, only to see the rival Yankees and Red Sox win their games to leave the Jays one game short of making the playoffs? Much has changed since the 91-71 Jays wrapped up that campaign.
A very exciting, mostly young core returns for this season, with eyes on winning the American League East, and more. Among them, MVP runner-up Vladimir Guerrero Jr; shortstop Bo Bichette; centre fielder George Springer; and outfielder Teoscar Hernandez. On the pitching side, veteran Hyun-Jin Ryu is bumped down the rotation by Jose Berrios and sophomore Alek Manoah. Despite being a sore spot throughout last season, some holdovers in the bullpen including closer Jordan Romano, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards, and lefty Tim Mayza provide a foundation for a unit that is expected to be better than it was a year ago.
Absent from the list above are outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr and Randal Grichuk, infielders Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal, as well as catchers Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, and Alejandro Kirk. All remain in the fold, but can be viewed as trade chips as the team looks to improve some areas of the roster.
The Jays made a huge splash in free agency before the lockout, adding one of the top starting pitchers on the market in Kevin Gausman, who has previously plied his trade with the San Francisco Giants. Some fans may recognize the name — Gausman previously pitched for the Baltimore Orioles after being a high draft choice of that club. Gausman, signed to a massive 5-year $110 million deal, is expected to form a formidable 1-2 (or 1A-1B) punch with Berrios, who signed a 7-year extension over the winter after being acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline in July.
The most notable addition to the bullpen is Yimi Garcia, who split time last season between Houston and Miami.
To this point, the Jays have not made any significant additions to their position player group, though that is expected to change before the start of the season. More on that in a bit.
Well, this is where things get a little dicey for the Blue Jays, as they’ve lost some significant pieces from the roster that came so close to the playoffs six months ago. Perhaps most importantly is second baseman Marcus Semien, who finished third in MVP voting and set a new record for home runs in a season by someone at that position (45). As of now, the hole at second base looks to be filled by Biggio, who held that position before Semien was acquired last season. Third base, a position of contention last year, will currently fall to Espinal. Having both as everyday players is not an ideal situation for a team with championship aspirations. In an ideal world, Biggio and Espinal would platoon at one position. Adding a second or third baseman should be the top priority for the front office between now and Opening Day.
Also gone are starting pitchers Robbie Ray (who, by the way, won the American League Cy Young award last season), and fellow left-handed starter Steven Matz. The fronto office is banking on Ray’s production being directly replaced by Gausman. Matz’s role as the fifth starter will likely fall to veteran Ross Stripling, at least to start the season. Another option is former top prospect Nate Pearson, whose Major League career has gotten off to a rocky start over the last two seasons, mostly because of injuries that have ultimately led to poor performance.
The other departures from last season are mostly depth players like outfielder Corey Dickerson and infielder Breyvic Valera.
As stated above, the top priority should be to add a highly-productive infield bat, at either second or third base. The top free agent option is All-Star Kris Bryant, who can play third base and the outfield, but will command a hefty contract and is being pursued by several teams. Cheaper options include the likes of Brad Miller, Jonathan Villar, and Josh Harrison. All offer some defensive versatility, but are not nearly the upgrade offensively that the Blue Jays seek. The trade route is more tantalizing to many fans, who have been clamouring since the winter for Cleveland Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez. He’s a switch-hitter, which will add balance to a lineup that is heavy on right-handed hitters. He’s a former MVP candidate and is under contract for two more seasons at a very reasonable price ($11 million). Is Cleveland willing to let him go? How much would it cost to acquire him? Some other fan fantasies include Oakland third baseman Matt Chapman, Arizona multi-position star Ketel Marte, or (maybe most unrealistically) former Atlanta first baseman, pending free agent, and part-Canadian superstar Freddie Freeman.
Once an infielder is acquired, the next target should be an outfield/DH/bench bat, preferably one who hits left-handed (Kyle Schwarber? Michael Conforto? Dickerson again?) The team will also likely add several bullpen arms, some do major league deals and some on minor-league contracts to compete for spots in Spring Training. They began this process by signing former fan favourite Joe Biagini on Tuesday.
Another starting pitcher would probably be prudent as well. At worst, a fifth starter who is a slight upgrade over Stripling would push him to a bullpen innings-eater role, while allowing Pearson to begin the year at Triple-A to ensure he’s as sharp as possible before being the first call-up as an injury replacement. However, given the other areas of need, this will likely fall further down the priority list. Every team, the Jays included, is always looking for ways to improve their pitching depth, so a move of this nature can never be ruled out.
When Is Everything Happening?
The new CBA was ratified late on Thursday night and the league is considered open for business. While no transactions had occurred as of Friday afternoon, the expectation is that signings and trades will start flying furiously over the weekend as teams and players kick Spring Training into full gear. Remember, camps have already been open for weeks to minor leaguers, so MLB players will start filtering in over the next few days.
As far as games go, as of this writing, it appears the Blue Jays will kick off their exhibition schedule on Thursday March 17 against Boston, but that appears subject to change.
Currently, Opening Day is set for Thursday April 7, which is a scheduled off-day for the Jays, so they would begin with a three-game series against Semien and the Rangers the following day. It remains to be seen if the league will alter the schedule to have all 30 teams start on the same day. The latest intel indicated that the league hopes to have a fully revised schedule released early next week. The six games per team that had been cancelled from March 31-April 6 will be sprinkled throughout the calendar, some in the form of scheduled doubleheaders.
Even though it won’t feel like it this weekend (check the forecast in Ontario), baseball is back and spring is officially here!