Toronto Blue Jays: Breaking Down Each Key Position Battle in Spring Training
After a disappointing 2013 season, the Toronto Blue Jays will try their luck again with nearly the same roster that they fielded last year.
Whether that strategy pays off remains to be seen. But the major impact of this strategy is that it doesn’t leave a lot of roster spots up for grabs this spring training.
The only key positions realistically open for competition are backup catcher, fourth outfielder and the fifth spot on the rotation.
It’s important to note that spring training performance won’t be the only factor that goes into judging who makes the Opening Day roster.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos will no doubt consider who has minor league options remaining and won’t be lost on waivers if they don’t make the team. Players without options will be presented with every chance to make the roster in order for the team to avoid losing them for nothing.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the each of the three key position battles in spring training.
Top Candidates: Josh Thole and Eric Kratz.
Considering that new starting catcher Dioner Navarro hasn’t caught more than 90 games in a single season since 2009, the team will likely be counting on its backup catcher to be behind the plate in a lot of games this season.
With top catching prospect A.J. Jimenez still requiring more seasoning in the minors after coming back from Tommy John surgery last season, Thole and Kratz will be battling for the backup catcher role in spring training.
Thole might have an edge considering that he was the team’s backup catcher last year and, more importantly, already has experience catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball.
Catching Dickey will be one of the main roles for whoever wins the backup job. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has already confirmed that Navarro won’t be catching Dickey and that the 39-year-old knuckleballer will have his own personal catcher like he did last year.
Thole had a down year with the bat last season, hitting just .175/.256/.242 with one home run and eight runs batted in during 135 plate appearances. But the 27-year-old is a career .251/.322/.322 hitter in the major leagues. Last season’s struggles could’ve been a result of him having difficulty fitting in as a backup catcher after being a starter the previous two seasons.
Toronto is also taking a serious look at the 33-year-old Kratz who was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies last offseason in exchange for pitcher Brad Lincoln.
Kratz spent six seasons in the Blue Jays’ minor league system from 2002-2008 so the team does have some familiarity with him as well.
In 197 plate appearances with the Phillies last season, Kratz hit just .213/.280/.386, but he did have nine home runs and 26 runs batted in. Over a four year major-league career, Kratz has hit .220/.281/.407.
He has also developed a reputation as a good defensive catcher who can block pitches in the dirt.
The Blue Jays have paired Kratz up with Dickey early on in spring training to see if he can catch the knuckleball. Early reports have been positive and Dickey has said that he enjoys working with the veteran.
Projected Winner: Eric Kratz
While Thole has more upside with the bat, his struggles last season could lead to the Blue Jays turning to Kratz. At 6’4 and 255 pounds, Kratz is bigger than Thole and is defensively sound. That’s an important trait for a backup catcher, especially one who’ll be catching a knuckleball.
Considering that Thole is just 27-years-old, the Blue Jays may opt to have him start the season in Triple-A while initially going with the more veteran Kratz. This also would be consistent with what the team did last year, breaking camp with Henry Blanco as the backup catcher and calling Thole up to the majors later on in the season.
Top Candidates: Moises Sierra and Anthony Gose.
With the departure of speedster Rajai Davis to the Detroit Tigers, the Blue Jays will be looking for an outfielder to back up starters Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus.
While there are several players competing for the spot in spring training, Sierra and Gose are the only realistic candidates.
Let’s start with Gose.
After acquiring him in a trade from the Houston Astros in 2010, Toronto has been patient in developing the 23-year-old centre fielder.
While Gose’s speed and defensive capabilities are already considered above average, his offense has lagged behind.
In 448 plate appearances with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons last season, Gose hit just .239/.316/.336 while striking out 121 times. The left-handed hitter was a bit more successful after his call-up to the major leagues, hitting .259/.283/.408 with six doubles and five triples in 153 plate appearances.
While those aren’t terrible stats, the team wants Gose to get on base at a higher clip to better utilize his speed. But those numbers should be enough for Gose to be in the conversation for the fourth outfielder’s spot.
Sierra is another candidate under serious consideration.
After hitting .261/.309/.422 with 11 home runs and 51 runs driven in during 412 plate appearances for the Bisons, Sierra earned a call-up to the Blue Jays and didn’t look out of place. The 25-year-old hit .290/.369/.458 in 122 plate appearances.
While his defensive instincts aren’t as good as Gose's, Sierra does possess a very strong arm and decent speed.
The fact that he bats right-handed could also help his case as the team could use him as a platoon option with designated hitter/first baseman Adam Lind. The team has started having Sierra field ground balls at first base during spring training to prepare for this possibility.
Projected Winner: Moises Sierra
While Gose has the best overall upside, Sierra has one very important thing working in his favor: He’s out of options. If the team opts to leave Sierra off its Opening Day roster, it could lose him for nothing as other teams would likely be interested in adding him to their bench after his performance in the major leagues last season.
Being a full-time player in the minor leagues, rather than on the bench for the Blue Jays, also may be the best thing for Gose’s career and allow him to further develop his offensive game. With Rasmus and Cabrera both set to be free agents at the end of the season, Gose can enter himself into the conversation for a starting role next year with a strong performance this season.
Top Candidates: Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Dustin McGowan, Ricky Romero, Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman.
This will be the most hotly contested spot on the roster this spring training as there are plenty of candidates.
Rogers was solid but unspectacular as an emergency starter out of the bullpen last season as he posted a 4.77 ERA in 20 starts. The team is simply keeping its options open by giving him consideration for the fifth spot in the rotation. But unless he really impresses in spring training and the other favorite candidates disappoint, the right-hander will likely resume his role as a long reliever out of the bullpen.
Redmond was decent in 14 starts for the Blue Jays last season, posting a 4.32 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. But his overall lack of upside and inability to get deep into games (he pitched six or more innings in just four starts) makes it unlikely that he can win a job in the rotation out of spring training. His case may be helped by the fact that he’s out of options. But considering his below average stats and repertoire, he likely won’t be claimed off waivers and the team could try sneaking him through to Buffalo to increase its pitching depth.
McGowan expressed interest in returning to a starting role after pitching out of the bullpen last season. The Blue Jays allowed him to stretch out and audition for the role in spring training. But his health concerns make it unlikely for the team to consider having him pitch multiple innings at once. Considering that McGowan has thrown just 46.2 innings in the major leagues since the 2008 season, the team will likely play it safe and have the right-hander come out of the bullpen.
Romero is highly unlikely to be considered for a spot in the rotation at this point because of his struggles with control and confidence. He spent the majority of last season in Buffalo, where he posted a 5.78 ERA in 113.2 innings. The left-hander is also off the 40-man roster and Anthopoulos is highly unlikely to remove another player from the roster to make room for a pitcher who might struggle at the major league level again. Until Romero proves himself in Buffalo, he’s unlikely to garner much consideration to return to the big leagues.
Hutchison was an up-and-coming pitcher in the Blue Jays’ rotation until Tommy John surgery ended his season in 2012 and kept him out of action in 2013. After pitching in the Arizona Fall League last offseason and rebuilding his arm strength, Hutchison will be looking for a chance to pick up where he left off.
Stroman is one of the team’s top prospects and will no doubt be given a long look in spring training. But the right-hander’s youth and inexperience will work against him considering that he’s thrown just 131 innings after turning pro. The team will likely want him to pitch more innings in the minors before promoting him to the major leagues. But considering that Stroman has strong pitching mechanics and a repeatable delivery, it shouldn’t be long before he’s in Toronto.
Projected Winner: Drew Hutchison
While his stuff may not be as overpowering as some of the other candidates, Hutchison’s command of his pitches and discipline on the mound makes up for that.
The right-hander was having a solid rookie season before it was disrupted by the injury. His ERA over his final seven starts was 3.41 and opposing batters were hitting just .217 against him.
Considering that the 23-year-old pitched has pitched on the rotation before and didn’t do anything to lose his spot, Anthopoulos is likely to give him a chance to resume his role.
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