Mitchell talks fallout from reaction to penalties for breaking Jays’ quarantine
TORONTO — Bo Bichette has been locked in through the first week of Blue Jays summer camp, but that’s something you’d expect.
The 22-year-old shortstop seems primed to build off a rookie season that saw him collect 29 extra-base hits in just 46 games, and he’s one of the players you could envision carrying the offence all by himself at points during the upcoming 60-game sprint.
For key roster components like Bichette, this time is just about fine-tuning and making sure they’re ready for July 24.
But with Major League Baseball teams carrying 30 players for the first two weeks of the season, there’s a lot of bottom-of-the-roster battles worth paying attention to, even if the Jays don’t have a lot of truly tough decisions to make.
Those four extra roster spots will provide opportunity that wasn’t there back in March, and that’s all some players need — a chance.
With just 10 days to go until opening day against the Tampa Bay Rays, here are seven under-the-radar Blue Jays standing out.
RHP Julian Merryweather
The lone name coming over from the Cleveland Indians in the much-maligned Josh Donaldson trade, Merryweather, who is currently nursing a left oblique strain, has lost almost all of the past two seasons to elbow issues.
While the expectations need to be realistic for the 6-foot-4 right-hander, especially considering he’s already turning 29 in October, the stuff he’s shown since arriving healthy to the Arizona Fall League last October has been impressive.
I’ve seen and heard enough good things to go out on a limb and make him the closer when I did this 2022 Blue Jays roster projection but Ken Huckaby, who was calling balls and strikes during intrasquad games to start camp, says Merryweather is generating some good feedback from hitters.
“The one guy that really stuck out to me was Julian Merryweather,” Huckaby said. “He really, really had electric stuff and even the hitters that were coming in, Bo and those guys were saying they were really impressed with what he was featuring.”
Merryweather, who’s been up to 97-98 mph, has a really good chance to impact the Jays’ pitching staff this summer.
RHP Jordan Romano
The Markham, Ont., product has a lot of supporters within the Blue Jays organization, and the bullpen role he shifted into full time last year suits him well.
Like Merryweather, you can dream on a future high-leverage role down the road and he has the stuff to close out games in the big leagues.
“Romano right now is showing plus power with a devastating slider,” Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said. “I know we saw him last year good for a little bit, then he physically had some issues which kept him from seeing those elite numbers velocity wise, but he looks outstanding right now. He could end up being a big part of this bullpen.”
RHP Rafael Dolis
Signed in January at the bargain basement rate of $1 million (plus incentives) for 2020 — the Jays also hold a 2021 club option for $1.5 million — Dolis is already slated for an important high-leverage role from the outset.
Owner of a 2.49 ERA and 96 saves over the last four seasons in Japan, Dolis has been maybe even better than advertised and could open the season pitching in the eighth inning in front of closer Ken Giles.
Anytime a Roy Halladay comparison is used, you listen.
“He threw a couple sinkers that I haven’t seen since I caught Doc,” Huckaby said. “They were just unbelievable.”
Walker has been impressed with the 32-year-old righty’s stuff, too, but it’s the veteran presence he brings that the pitching coach believes is most valuable.
“The fact we were able to get a closer in Japan for a few years with 30-plus saves a year, he knows how to finish a game,” Walker said. “His demeanour is impressive. His power to his sink, and he pitches up in the zone as well, a nasty split. He’s got some weapons to pitch in this league and pitch effectively late.”
LHP Anthony Kay
With Chase Anderson sidelined for an unknown period with an oblique injury, the door is open for one of Kay or Ryan Borucki to break summer camp in manager Charlie Montoyo’s five-man rotation.
Borucki may be the favourite because he’s healthy and has been around longer, but the organization has been happy with the command improvements Kay has shown this year.
Simeon Woods Richardson was the prize in the Marcus Stroman trade, but don’t forget Kay was a first-round pick of the Mets in 2016, and he pitched much better than the 5.79 ERA suggests in his 14-inning debut last September.
“I like the way he pitches,” Walker said. “I like the way he attacks right-handed hitters inside. He’s a University of Connecticut talent, so obviously he has that in his arsenal. He’s been great and he knows how to pitch, so I feel really good about our left-handed pitchers right now.”
RHP Thomas Hatch
Another under-the-radar trade acquisition, the Jays turned reliever David Phelps into Hatch, a third-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2016.
Hatch pitched to an impressive 2.80 ERA in six Double-A starts in the Jays organization last summer after the trade, but Walker’s first up-close looks this year have given Hatch’s stock even more upwards momentum.
“I watch his sides and he’s probably one of the more poised young pitchers I’ve seen,” Walker gushed. “He’s very professional in the way he goes about his business. His stuff is electric. It’s quietly electric. I think people are going to get to see him and understand why we think so highly of him.
“I think he is kind of a sleeper of the group, and he’s someone who is going to definitely help this team at the Major League level soon.”
1B/DH Rowdy Tellez
Three home runs across his first two intrasquad games was attention grabbing, but Tellez’s path to at-bats became tougher when the club moved Vladimir Guerrero Jr. across the diamond.
The easiest route to playing time for Tellez is via the DH spot, but he will have to continue to hit for power, as well as improve the approach at the plate in order to stay in the lineup.
So far, so good.
“His approach at the plate looks really good,” Montoyo said. “I don’t think anything’s changed when it comes to him, because I can rotate that DH spot, and he can also play first. If he keeps swinging the bat like he is, he’s going to get a lot of playing time.”
C Alejandro Kirk
Kirk has been buzzing for months now, and I pointed him out as the prospect to watch this season way back in February.
Since then, all he’s done is continue to hit, showing the incredible bat-to-ball ability that’s led to a .315/.418/.500 slash line across three minor league seasons.
Even big-league arms can’t get the portly catcher to swing and miss.
Huckaby, who’s spent the past three seasons as the club’s catching coordinator before being hired as the Triple-A manager over the winter, has seen it up close.
“It’s elite contact ability,” Huckaby said. “He doesn’t miss too much when he swings. It’s pretty impressive. I don’t know if it’s short arms or what it is with him but he has exceptional hand-eye coordination and timing and he could probably impact the major leagues quicker than Riley right now just because of that ability. It’s good stuff.”
With only five catchers in the 60-man player pool — Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Caleb Joseph, Riley Adams and Kirk — and depth being paramount this season thanks to the unpredictability of COVID-19, Huckaby believes both Kirk and Adams could hold their own in the big leagues if called upon.
“I think they could be very, very serviceable in the big leagues right now — both of them,” Huckaby said. “They both do a tremendous job blocking, receiving and throwing, which are the staples of what we do. They’re probably both needing some work in the mental part of the game, reading swings, maybe taking in all the information that’s given to them in scouting reports and applying it to the field, getting to know the pitching staff. They’re pretty far behind when it comes to all that stuff.
“If it came down to it and you needed them in the big leagues, they could both function behind the plate at a high level for this team.”