“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” A popular baseball trope to explain the slog of early-season baseball. Normally, the same can be said for the spring training exhibition schedule. Not this year.
Because of the lockout and the late start to camps, the Blue Jays will play 18 tune-up games this year (in 2019 they played 29, for reference). That means less time for players to ease into things and be ready for Opening Day. As of now, the only roster battles for the Blue Jays appear to be a couple of spots at the front-end of the bullpen (not the high-leverage late-inning roles), and the depth of the bench. While the expectation remains the club will add an outfield/DH bat, all of the starting spots are accounted for. So Spring Training is for fine-tuning. Here are my five players to keep an eye on as their spring performances are crucial to both themselves and the team early in the season.
A pair of stints on the Injured List interrupted Biggio’s campaign, which never seemed to take off. He injured his hand at the tail end of spring training and was shuffled across the diamond to become a third baseman. His early-season defensive woes likely followed him to the plate, where he slashed .197/.308/.333 in 20 games across March and April. His miscues in the field forced the team to banish him to the outfield for a few games to help him clear his head and focus on hitting. His best stretch of the season was in June, thanks to a .304/.412/.554 slash line across 68 plate appearances, but was followed by a brutal July and another injury through August and September. His playing time for 2022 hangs in the balance. Wednesday’s acquisition of Matt Champan from Oakland cements him as the front runner for the starting job at second base, with Santiago Espinal expected to spell him against tough lefties. It’s possible this could be a straight platoon. Anecdotally, you can see the case for a rebound year given significant time at a more familiar position, no injury setbacks, and reduced expectations that come with hitting at the bottom of the order. If he can get back to his strengths of being a strong on-base machine (.375 on-base percentage in 2020, .354 for his Major League career), he could be a useful member of the lineup that helps turn things over to George Springer and the rest of the offensive weapons. However, with reports indicating the Jays have looked into acquiring Jose Ramirez to play second base, perhaps their faith isn’t as strong in Biggio as others.
The signing of Yusei Kikuchi earlier this week likely takes some of the pressure off Pearson to have a lights-out spring. He was likely to be in competition with Ross Stripling for the fifth starter’s job, and you could already hear the quotes from manager Charlie Montoyo and GM Ross Atkins saying they’d chosen Stripling for his experience and to give Pearson more time to develop in the minors. Unless the club opts for a six-man rotation to start the season (and Montoyo has hinted it’s a possibility), there’s almost no chance Pearson finds his way on the big club without an injury. So his spring training results are not directly tied to where he’ll begin the season. But for someone who has seen his stock fall from a can’t-miss debut in 2020 to murmurs of him being a trade chip for 2022, a strong spring seems essential for him to regain the confidence that helped him pitch to a level that landed him on many top prospect boards just two years ago. In 11 relief appearances late last season, he flashed promise by holding opponents to a .208 batting average while posting a 14.2 K/9 rate. The walks still need to come down a bit, but the stuff is still there. At 25 years old, both he and the team have grander plans for him than a late-inning relief role. Injuries are inevitable and planned doubleheaders and fewer days off will place an increased emphasis on starting pitching depth. Pearson needs to demonstrate that he’s fixed his control issues, and can be relied upon to be first in line for a promotion when the need arises.
He’s locked in as the closer this season after two dominant years at the back of the bullpen. But relief pitchers are volatile by nature, and Jays fans are no stranger to a lights-out closer suddenly flashing the lights on. Spring training statistics for relief pitchers are very difficult to digest, so this will be more of a “feel” than other players on the roster. Often, the warning signs do flash in spring training and can be pretty obvious when they appear. All parties involved hope it’s something that will remain back of mind and allow the team to enter the season without a question mark for the ninth inning of close games.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr
Which half of the season is the real version of the charismatic left fielder? He was absolutely dominant down the stretch, slowed briefly by a hand injury after he was stepped on by Randal Grichuk in the outfield. But he was certainly integral in the Jays staying in the wild card race late in the season. If he can return that form, the Jays will once again be one of the top offensive teams in the league. If he slips back to habits from early in the year, it will grow for calls for a platoon and reduced playing time.
His defensive/game-calling abilities keep him at the top of the depth chart, but the higher offensive upside of Alejandro Kirk and the rapid ascension of Gabriel Moreno mean his time as the number one catcher is dwindling. He did put up some impressive numbers after returning from the Injured List at the end of August, hitting .322 with six home runs and 18 RBI in 21 games. If he can carry that into 2022, he’ll be able to hold off Kirk and Moreno even longer. However, the better he plays, the more he increases his trade value, and with those two young players behind him, he might make himself more appealing to other clubs if the Jays wish to shore up other areas of the roster by dealing from a position of depth.
So sit back and enjoy the delayed start to Spring Training!