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13 things that mattered from Blue Jays camp this spring


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Six-plus weeks and 30 pretend games are in the books, leaving opening day on the horizon.

Uneventful spring trainings are what every front office prays for. That means no season-altering injuries, no surprises, and nothing seismic to overcome as the long, 162-game grind is just beginning.

Those potholes will appear, but the fewer there are to navigate early on, the better.

The Toronto Blue Jays have tiptoed through spring training and look to be in good position as they make the short trek up the road from Dunedin to Tropicana Field for Thursday’s opener.

After over a month of Grapefruit League games, here are 13 things that mattered during spring training.

1. Gausman hurt, then not

It was ominous that Kevin Gausman had yet to take the mound in a game all the way up until the end of spring training, despite the Jays downplaying their ace’s shoulder fatigue.

An IL stint, and the uncertainty that comes with any sort of shoulder problem, would’ve been the worst-possible scenario for the club’s rotation heading into the season.

But Gausman then went out and eased concerns in a big way on the final day of spring training.

Not only did the 33-year-old throw 52 mostly quality pitches on Monday, Gausman also had his velocity near midseason form, which was a bit of a surprise, as the veteran righty was sitting 95 mph and touched 96.9 mph with his four-seamer.

If his shoulder responds well in the coming days, Gausman might be able to give the Jays about 70 pitches either in the finale of the Rays series or to start the next one in Houston.

Not perfect, but the alternatives for Gausman throughout the month of March looked much less positive.

2. Vladdy, Springer hot and healthy

When you sort the Blue Jays’ statistical leaders this spring, two names stand alone on the OPS board and it’s exactly what the front office needed to see after an inactive winter — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer crushing baseballs.

There’s a long list of bats coming off mediocre seasons, but no one is more important than these two, both in terms of staying healthy, and also actually producing above-average numbers when they are playing their (hopefully) 150-plus games.

Springer’s wRC+ was a just-slightly-above-league-average 104 last year.

Vladdy’s was 118, a number that’s now dropped in three straight seasons.

But across 82 at-bats this spring — a matching 41 apiece for both guys — they combined to hit six homers and post an 11:12 BB:K ratio.

Both stars are in a great place heading into opening day.

3. Jansen injured, again

It unfortunately happens multiple times every single year, but Danny Jansen couldn’t even get through spring this time before he was hit by a meaningless pitch, resulting in a small wrist fracture.

His latest malady is going to start the catcher on the IL, which would mark Jansen’s seventh injured list stint since the start of the 2021 season.

He’s had two IL pauses in each of the past three seasons, so maybe he can at least avoid his second of 2024 once the pending free agent does return sometime in April.

4. On flip side, Kirk raking

You win some, you lose some.

Jansen may be hurt, but like Springer and Guerrero Jr., Alejandro Kirk seems to be out to prove that 2023 was the outlier and not his all-star campaign from 2022.

Kirk was one of nine Jays to hit multiple home runs this spring, finishing with a trio across 38 at-bats, just five less than the total of eight he hit in 123 games last year.

Kirk will be worked hard early on, with the underrated Brian Serven, who also crushed three bombs this spring, serving as the backup.

5. Varsho’s adjustments taking?

Trying to hit the ball a country mile and sell out for power in his first season with the Blue Jays led to an ugly overall line for Daulton Varsho last year, but the 27-year-old has looked more comfortable at the plate over the past month than he did at just about any point last season.

As he focuses on more of a line-drive approach this season, the Jays could really use 25-plus homers from Varsho, but perhaps the most encouraging sign this spring was his 10 walks in 19 games.

Last year, as his on-base percentage plummeted to just .285, a career-low walk rate came right along with it.

6. IKF, Biggio get big opportunity

Cavan Biggio had his turn as the social media whipping boy early on last year, before turning things around in the second half.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa didn’t even need to pull on a Jays jersey to get his turn, as the veteran third baseman’s $15-million haul is one of the more player-friendly contracts given out over the winter, putting pressure on the 29-year-old’s bat heading into 2024.

Everyone knows IKF can play quality defence at a number of spots, but until he proves he can out-hit his career 81 career wRC+ he’s going to be under a microscope.

Over at second base, the Jays want to give Biggio an opportunity to build on his final four months of 2023, where he slashed a very quiet .265/.378/.407 for a Vladdy-like 124 wRC+.

How the club would fill their two most pressing holes was a question way back in November that needed to be answered, and that has happened.

Now the question is: Will these two guys hit enough?

The club has put a lot of faith in that happening.

7. Romano, Swanson injuries leave bullpen thin

In mid-March, the Jays were looking like they’d tap dance through spring training with the health of their key guys mostly intact.

That changed in a hurry when the back-end of the bullpen went down with arm injuries that will likely land Jordan Romano and Erik Swanson on the IL to start the year.

Based on the schedule and the likelihood of some competitive games against quality teams, that’s not a great situation for manager John Schneider’s ball club.

The only hope at this point is that Romano’s elbow inflammation is just a blip and Swanson’s forearm issue isn’t anything more serious.

That will leave Yimi Garcia, Chad Green and Tim Mayza shouldering the high-leverage innings load early on.

Stay tuned. 

8. Berrios looking sharp, gets opening day nod

Four starts and a sparkling 1.38 ERA would say Jose Berrios and his new cutter are ready for the regular season.

And with Gausman behind the rest of the rotation and the bullpen banged up, Berrios’ early-season innings are even more important.

Especially for the first couple of weeks, Berrios’ goal is to give his undermanned pitching staff a break by getting as deep into games as possible, which is what a pitcher who was handed a $131-million extension should do, at the very least.

An interesting pattern has emerged for Berrios over the past five seasons, one that he’ll be looking to stop in 2024.

It’s been a good year, bad year thing, as the right-hander has undulated from a 3.68 ERA in 2019, to 4.00 in 2020, back down to 3.52 in 2021, up to a career-worst 5.23 in 2022, before settling back down at 3.65 last season.

The Jays are desperately hoping he breaks that trend.

9. Tiedemann already pushing for debut

There’s no need to beat around the bush — when Ricky Tiedemann takes the mound, the stuff is absolutely electric. That is not in question.

In his final spring outing, Tiedemann completed three innings and punched out five.

Tiedemann sat at 96 mph with his heater, touched 98, and will now head back to Triple-A Buffalo to hopefully put the finishing touches on his development by crossing the 90-pitch threshold for the first time as a minor leaguer and holding his elite stuff deeper into games.

Unlike last year at this point, Tiedemann is healthy and if the way he looked in March is any indication, the Jays will have a decision on their hands with their top prospect at some point before July.

10. Francis stars stretched out

After being shuttled back and forth between the bullpen and a bulk role the past couple of years, the Jays — out of necessity, mostly — have transitioned Francis into more of a traditional starter this month and the results have been pretty good.

With Alek Manoah still battling a shoulder issue and Cuban import Yariel Rodriguez behind and likely to stretch out at Triple-A, Francis has taken advantage of the opportunity by holding opponents to a .186 batting average across 16.2 innings this spring.

There are opportunities in every player’s career you can look at as turning point moments and this seems to be one of them for Francis.

Pitch well in the rotation in April and your future as a starter might be secure.

If things don’t go so well, you may be locking yourself into being viewed as a bullpen arm.

That’s just how things go in this sport.

11. Clement wins job with impressive spring

An all-star in 2022, Santiago Espinal was unceremoniously shipped to the Cincinnati Reds on March 20 in exchange for a lower-level arm, and the reason is Ernie Clement.

With a viable shortstop glove and his low-K ways at the plate, the 28-year-old utility man has a chance to be one of those out-of-nowhere guys that is suddenly key to a team’s hopes.

Or he could be back in Triple-A by May.

Either way, Clement slashed .362/.388/.638 this spring, striking out just one single solitary time in 49 trips to the plate, leaving him in line to start the year as an important utility piece, with a chance to expand his role at either second base or third base with continued production at the plate.

12. Vogelbach wins job, but for how long?

Speaking of winning jobs, Dan Vogelbach also did that this month, hitting three homers and posting a .349 on-base percentage to convince Jays decision-makers that he’s worth a look and the 40-man roster spot they’ll have to find for him.

Muddying this situation is the presence of a fellow one-dimensional left-handed bat named Joey Votto, who’s expected to continue trying to find his timing at Triple-A when the season starts.

It’s hard to predict when Votto will be ready, but it’s not hard to predict that carrying both Vogelbach and Votto on the roster at the same time would be completely redundant and not happening without injuries changing the situation.

Vogelbach better come of the gates hot and stay hot because the hometown kid — and the feel-good story that comes along with it — is looming.

13. Tough early schedule awaits

This talking point has been bubbling beneath the surface for a month and it’s something a handful of vets tried to keep top of mind in the clubhouse, too.

Every team will have tough points in the schedule that are balanced out by some soft spots, but the Jays definitely get a gauntlet to start their 2024 sked.

From the always-competitive Tampa Bay Rays for four games, followed by the Houston Astros and New York Yankees on the road for six, finished up by a three-game home series against a playoff-calibre team in the Seattle Mariners, the first 13 games would qualify as tough.

It’s not a make-or-break scenario by any means, even if they go 4-9, but after a rough winter in terms of public perception and some expensive renovations that came along with some hefty ticket hikes, this is a club that needs a jolt of baseball positivity in the worst way.

The first 13 games provide an opportunity to completely flip the script on the narrative surrounding this team, and we’ll see how ready they are to do that right from the jump.