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Toronto Blue Jays Spring Training Preview

Alek Manoah walks off the field after being ejected against the Baltimore Orioles.

With Spring Training games currently underway, here’s how the Toronto Blue Jays stack up for the 2024 campaign.

The Toronto Blue Jays are coming off of another disappointing finish. With a fair amount of roster turnover, this team has a tough road ahead. That being said, lots of talent remains, and some bounce back performances could lead to a deep run in the playoffs.

Notable Additions

RHP Yariel Rodriguez – 5/$32 MM
UTL Isiah Kiner-Falefa – 2/$15 MM
3B Justin Turner – 1/$13 MM
IF Eduardo Escobar – Minor League Contract
1B/DH Daniel Vogelbach – Minor League Contract

Notable Subtractions

3B Matt Chapman
LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu
1B Brandon Belt
RHP Jordan Hicks
2B Whit Merrifield
RHP Adam Cimber

Offseason Grade: C-

This year’s crop of free agent signings were mostly auxiliary pieces, and as of March 5, the Jays remain in need of that big-name star to headline their offseason. Role players and relief pitchers were the only notable additions to the 2024 Blue Jays while they lost the flame-throwing Jordan Hicks and two-time platinum glove third baseman Matt Chapman in free agency. To the Jays credit, they avoided long term commitments to any of their signings and remain financially flexible for the next offseason while also addressing some areas of need in the short term. It’s also worth mentioning the failure to sign Shohei Ohtani in the highly secretive sweepstakes this past winter, despite appearing the favorite through the fog of war.

For their genuine efforts to sign Shohei Ohtani and addressing some areas of need on effective short term deals I applaud the Jays. The talent level brought in to address areas of concern is, at best, commensurate with what they lost. If everything goes right, the Blue Jays are exactly as good as they were last season; they did not get better. For that, I feel their offseason grade must suffer, especially when considering the division the Blue Jays aim to compete in, and the additions made by those teams this offseason (see: Yankees, Juan Soto, and Orioles, Corbin Burnes, among others).

King of the Hill–Five Spot Up for Grabs

Following the departure of LHP Hyun Jin-Ryu in free agency, the fifth spot in the Blue Jays starting rotation is up for grabs. In all likelihood, the job has just three true candidates: RHP Alek Manoah, LHP Rickey Tiedemann, and RHP Bowden Francis.

At the end of 2022 it would have been nothing short of insane to suggest Alek Manoah would be in competition for a job come spring 2024, but after a disastrous implosion in 2023 brought his game to staggering new lows, nothing is guaranteed for the 26-year-old right hander. Manoah managed just 87.1 big league innings in 2023, dragging a 5.87 ERA and 1.740 WHIP behind him. Manoah has one of the highest ceilings of any starter in baseball, and since he reported to big league camp in better shape there’s no reason, he can’t prove to the brass he deserves another shot at the show.

Despite his minor league pedigree as a starting pitcher, Bowden Francis did not start a single game for the Jays in 2023, instead notching 20 relief appearances to the tune of a 1.73 ERA in 36.1 IP. While the sample size is relatively small, Francis impressed in his rookie campaign. Per the right-handed hurler last October, “I also want to work on power and get that velocity tick again. My goal is to be 96 to 99 and ready to be in a starting rotation”. If Francis reports to camp with an uptick in velocity and the Jays can stretch him out to five innings or more by the end of the Spring, the 27-year-old has a legitimate chance to win himself a job and break camp with the team.

An Outside Chance

Blue Jays top prospect Ricky Tiedemann is a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. In 122.2 minor league innings since 2022, Tiedemann owns a 2.71 ERA 199 SO and 0.99 WHIP. These numbers are very encouraging, and Tiedemann has a great opportunity to impress come March but given his age (just 21 years old) and lack of significant minor league experience, Tiedemann will likely begin the year in AAA. Don’t blink, though, the young arm projects to break into the Bigs some time in 2024, likely sooner than later.

The Who Jays?

Thanks to free agency, the Blue Birds are without a handful of everyday players from 2023. Some positions remain firmly locked down, but a handful of spots are yet to be filled as Spring Training continues.

Locked Down

Backstops Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen will split time behind the plate, the former once again taking the lion’s share of innings despite an underproductive 2023. 1B Vladimir Guerrero jr. will once again lock down first base for the Jays, providing premier power in the thick of the lineup as he attempts a return to his 2021 form.

SS Bo Bichette was as advertised in 2023, sporting a fantastic .306 AVG and 123 OPS+, along with 30 doubles and 20 home runs. The right-handed Bichette will slot in at short once again in 2024.

OF George Springer and OF Daulton Varsho will return to their everyday roles in 2024. Springer was around league average last year, sporting a career-low 102 OPS+, a full 30 points below his career average. A return to form could well be in order, as the right-handed outfielder is still just 33 years old, but if Springer repeats himself in 2024 his prime years may be squarely behind him.

Varsho hit poorly, surprising no one except Blue Jays management, who acquired him from Arizona for OF Lourdes Gurriel jr. and C Gabriel Moreno last winter. Varsho’s ceiling is likely just above league average, but nonetheless will see significant time in the outfield once again in 2024. In his defense, Varsho was fantastic with the glove in 2023, recording 29 defensive runs saved above average and 2.8 defensive WAR. OF Kevin Kiermaier also returns on a one-year pact for 2024, rounding out one of the better defensive outfields in the American League.

Up in the Air

To answer the departures of Matt Chapman and Whit Merrifield, the Blue Jays signed Justin Turner and Isiah Kiner-Falefa to one- and four-year pacts, respectively. While the 39-year-old Turner will likely play exclusively at third base and DH, Kiner-Falefa joins an already established duo of utility men Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio, and will likely shift as needed between the outfield, second, and third base.

Infielder Orelvis Martinez might also make sense to fill the holes in the Jays infield. The 22-year-old finished last season at AAA, where he hit .263/.340/.507 in 55 games, totaling 28 home runs and 94 RBI in 125 minor league games between AA and AAA. The acquisition of Turner more than likely means the Jays plan to let Martinez develop in the minors to begin the 2024 season, but Martinez is hardly blocked for long. With Turner’s contract being just one season long and the questions surrounding his durability at 39 circling, his shot at the big leagues could be as close as Opening Day, and September of ’24 at worst.

Though he has not received a Spring Training invitation, minor league 2B Tanner Morris could also break into the big league club at some point in 2024. In 96 games in AAA in 2023, Morris posted a .281/.390/.394 triple slash with 61 BB to 81 SO. His power numbers are lacking, just 21 doubles and 6 home runs in those 96 games, but his bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline make the 26-year-old Morris an attractive prospect up the middle.

Note: Ernie ClementSpencer Horowitz, Addison Barger, and Leo Jimenez as likely infield depth 

The Time is Now

Despite a high caliber offense and some regular season success these past few years, the Blue Jays have little to show for their efforts. Following a myriad of average seasons in the late 2010s, the Jays made their return to the postseason in 2020, winning 32 games and a Wild Card appearance, quickly losing to the Tampa Bay Rays 2-0. It seemed that the window had finally begun to open following the promotion of young stars Bichette, Guerrero, and Biggio. In the three seasons that followed, the Jays made the playoffs twice and were taken care of in short order: swept in the Wild Card series by the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins. Heading into 2024, the Blue Jays are still looking for their first playoff win since 2016.

Four years later, time may be running out for the Jays to capitalize on the youth movement, with all three players mentioned above set to become free agents following the 2025 season. RHP Chris Bassitt will also be a free agent after 2025, followed by ace RHP Kevin Gausman in 2026. While it’s still too early to hit the panic button, the window to win with this group may quickly be coming to its end.

An easy solution would be extensions with the core players like Guerrero and Bichette, but there may be no team around them to win games. Recent player development has stalled, leaving the Blue Jays ranked #25th in MLB Pipeline’s Mid-Season ranks from last August. Per the most recent Top 100 Prospect list, the Jays have just two: Tiedemann (#26) and Martinez (#89). The future looks uncertain for the Blue Jays, but the on-field talent to begin 2024 should be sufficient to keep them competitive in the powerhouse American League East.

Projected Opening Day Regulars

C: Alejandro Kirk
1B: Vladimir Guerrero jr.
2B: Cavan Biggio
3B: Justin Turner
SS: Bo Bichette
LF: Daulton Varsho
CF: Kevin Kiermaier
RF: George Springer
DH: Santiago Espinal

Bench: Ernie Clement, Danny Jansen, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Spencer Horwitz

Pitching Staff

Kevin Gausman
Jose Berrios
Chris Bassit
Yusei Kikuchi
Alek Manoah / Bowden Francis

CP: Jordan Romano

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