By Cole Parkinson
With spring around the corner that means the baseball season is close!
Soon the Vauxhall Jets and all of the local teams will be heading outdoors for the 2018 spring seasons and I for one cannot wait to see some live baseball.
The MLB on the other hand has already gotten their spring training started and by this time next week the regular season will begin!
Of course this means the Toronto Blue Jays will once again be looking to get into the mix after failing to qualify for a playoff spot last year and unfortunately this year will once again be a tough test for the Jays.
The Yankees have three Bronx Bombers in Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez along with a decent starting rotation which has many analysts picking the Yanks to win the AL East.
The Red Sox still have a great team that hasn’t changed significantly from last year which may not be a bad thing considering they won the East on the backs of Chris Sale and Mookie Betts.
So where does that leave the Blue Jays?
The real crux of the Blue Jays starting rotation and starting nine are quite similar minus Blue Jays legend Jose Bautista in right field.
Russ Martin will continue to form the battery with the pitchers, Justin Smoak will patrol first base, Kendrys Morales will DH and Josh Donaldson will be at third.
Second base and Shortstop still have question marks just because of the injuries that continue to hamper Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki.
Tulo may start the season on the 60 day DL (to no ones surprise) but I believe if Devo can stay healthy, he’ll be a massive contributor at the top of the lineup.
The knock on Travis is his health, but it’s hard to deny that when he’s in the lineup he’s an absolute monster at the plate.
In his three seasons with the Blue Jays he’s hit a combined average of .292 with 24 homers and 109 RBI’s but he’s only suited up for 213 games.
Tulo on the other hand has been a shell of his former self from his Colorado days and I think it’s safe to say he will never be the same, though I hope he proves me wrong.
With the Tulo injury and a precaution in case Travis goes down, the Blue Jays brought in Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz, Danny Espinosa and Gift Ngoepe to fill the gaps when needed.
The outfield sees some changes too in Curtis Granderson, who will most likely platoon with Steve Pearce in left field while Randal Grichuk will get most starts in right.
Kevin Pillar will continue his patrol of centre field as he has done for the past several seasons.
I had a chance to attend the Vauxhall Jets banquet this month and the guest of honour, Pat Tabler, had some high praises for both Grichuk and Granderson.
“Wait till you see Randal Grichuk play, he can play. He can run, he’s athletic and he’s good in the outfield and our outfield wasn’t very good last year. He can throw and he hit 22 homers last year for the Cardinals, I think he’ll hit 25 or 30 in the American League East with those little ball parks,” said Tabler. “Curtis Grandson – what a great guy. I think you’re going to like him too.”
Pitching looks to be the team’s strength but again if the starting five see significant time on the DL again this year, the Jays will be on the outside looking in.
Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, JA Happ, Marco Estrada and Jaime Garcia will be the starting staff which is really solid, no complaints.
Aaron Sanchez will have to bounce back from the blister issues he dealt with all of last season and Estrada will need to be much, much better.
The good news is it sounds like Sanchez is over the blister issues but I’ll believe it when I see it because there were multiple times last year when they said he was ready to go, only to be put back on the DL.
The bullpen will also feature a bunch of new faces that I think Jays fans should be excited about.
Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Aaron Loup are all but locked in and ready to return for the 2018 campaign and it looks all but certain that new free agent Seung-hwan Oh will also be added.
The final two spots are still open, that is unless Gibby decides on an eight man bullpen but he has said he doesn’t expect to, and the battle will probably go right down to the last couple days of spring training.
Canadian John Axford looks to be a favourite moving closer to Opening Day with Craig Breslow, Al Albuquerque, Tyler Clippard and Luis Santos all still vying for a spot in the pen.
Right now Albuquerque and Breslow may have an advantage just because the Jays only have one left hander in Loup, I’d have to believe adding another lefty would be beneficial but Clippard has been particularly effective against lefties as he has an effective changeup so he could very well end up in the pen.
I also wouldn’t be surprised with Santos just due to the fact he has the ability to give you more than one inning of work but he looks to be along shot to make the Opening Day roster but don’t be surprised if he gets the call if one of the relievers struggles or an injury happens.
While the Jays obviously have a chance to be a playoff team, I think the odds are stacked against them especially within the AL East.
Wild Card spots won’t be any easier because I think either Boston or New York will take one of those with the other taking the division.
The L.A. Angels, Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins all look to be teams that will challenge for a playoff spot and I think it’s a safe bet that Cleveland and Houston will take the Central and West divisions respectively.
The good news for the Blue Jays though is anything can happen and there’s always a chance, especially when you have, on paper, a strong starting rotation and one of the best players in the game in your lineup.
I’d be remiss to not get in a thought or two about the couple of emerging kids the Jays have in the farm.
Of course you have Vladdy Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette who have been absolute studs so far in the minor leagues but for as much as I’m excited for those two, I think Anthony Alford and Nate Pearson deserve to be looked at as budding major leaguers.
Alford, who will more than likely get a taste of MLB action at some point this season, looks like a top of the order bat with decent speed and good defensive prowess in the outfield.
So far this spring training he’s looked more than comfortable with the bat and I think he’s the first call up if there’s an injury, although Teoscar Hernandez will be looked at too as he’s impressed with his time with the Jays since being acquired last season from the Astros.
Nate Pearson on the other hand will start in either High A with Dunedin or Class A with Lansing after a fantastic first pro year with the Vancouver Canadians in 2017.
Last year in Vancouver he racked up 24 strikeouts, an ERA of 0.95 and a WHIP of 0.58 over 19 innings of work.
He also struck out 35.8 percent of batters he faced while only walking five, that’s pretty impressive.
Pearson may still be a ways away from making an impact in the big leagues, there are signs, especially with his fastball reaching triple digits, to suggest he may rocket up the charts if he continues dominating on the bump.
Another interesting player that I should mention is Andrew Case who pitched for the Prairie Baseball Academy out of Lethbridge in the past.
Tabler likens him to current Jay, Danny Barnes.
“I was in Florida last week and we did Friday and Sunday games and he pitched in one of the games. From what I saw he looks like a Major Leaguer to me. He has the build, the mechanics and it sure sounds like he has the makeup to be a reliever. His stuff looks ready for the Major Leagues and all he needs is a chance. I told Les (McTavish, Vauxhall Jets head coach) he looks like Danny Barnes, he’s Danny Barnes with a better fastball,” he said.
There’s a chance that he competes for a bullpen spot next year depending on how the pen shakes out for 2018.
In the mean time it’s time to get ready for Opening Day!
The Jays kickoff their season on March 29 at home against the New York Yankees and boy would it be nice for them to get off to a nice start!