TORONTO — From a rotation group littered with questions yesterday in the first installment of this series to an infield with just one.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are locked in for 2020, but first base is high on the shopping list with Justin Smoak now a free agent.
At this point, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins seems open to all different types of offensive profiles and the glove could play a role, as well.
“We’re trying to get better at every position defensively,” Atkins said. “I do think that (first base defence) is something that is potentially undervalued and the range of a first baseman’s ability, whether it be short throws, wide throws, high throws, and making infielders more confident to let the ball go is definitely a skill.”
Overall, the Jays’ young infield is expected to be the engine that drives this rebuild, and despite skepticism surrounding this regime’s ability to get things right, seeing this group together for their first full season is exciting for a frustrated fan base.
CURRENT 2020 OUTLOOK
C—Danny Jansen, age-25
1B—Rowdy Tellez, age-25
2B—Cavan Biggio, age-25
3B—Vladimir Guerrero Jr., age-21
SS—Bo Bichette, age-22
C—Reese McGuire, age-25
3B/2B/OF—Brandon Drury, age-27
2B/SS/3B—Breyvic Valera, age-28
On the 40-man
2B/SS—Santiago Espinal, age-25
SS/2B—Richard Urena, age-24
First base is a clear hole and a spot to upgrade for Atkins, but it could be a short-term solution.
Tellez is the in-house option, but he’ll likely be forced to earn his at-bats after posting a .293 on-base percentage this season.
A productive and versatile bench piece would also help, and there’s no shortage of buy-low options on the free-agent market that would be seen as an upgrade on Valera and/or Drury.
The left side of the infield is set — for 2020 — but Biggio’s versatility offers the Jays a chance to upgrade the roster creatively if there’s an opportunity to find another second baseman.
Bichette looks like budding star at the most important position on the diamond, and while Guerrero Jr.’s rookie year was far from perfect and mostly considered a disappointment due to the sky-high expectations, he also hit .272 as a 20-year-old and now seems more motivated to put in the work away from the field.
Defensively, this might prove to be one of the worst infields in the American League, but the duo behind the plate are both trending towards elite and steal strikes with excellent pitch framing.
MOST PRESSING NEED
Versatile first base bat
First off, there are two problems facing the Blue Jays in their search for a first baseman: One is the simple fact that there’s not much on this year’s free-agent market and circling back to Smoak on a one-year deal may end up being the best solution. The second is just about everyone believes Vladdy Jr. is destined for first base, and maybe in the near future depending on how his winter of work goes over the next 10 weeks. Even internally, the over/under is currently being set at opening day 2021.
Knowing that, it wouldn’t make any sense to go out and try to trade for Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Josh Bell, even if the DH spot is available. Use those trade resources for pitching, instead.
That leaves two options: Find someone who can play other positions or find a steady vet with some upside on a one-year deal.
1—1B/OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo
He has the most upside of any potential first baseman on the market. The problem is no one is sure if Tsutsugo can play first base at an acceptable level after spending a lot of time roaming the outfield.
With 139 home runs over the last four seasons with the Yokohama BayStars, there’s obvious power. He also holds a career on-base percentage of .382, so the track record is intriguing but the 28-year-old is by no means a sure thing.
2—1B/3B Travis Shaw
Non-tendered by the Milwaukee Brewers after a couple of solid seasons, Shaw is an interesting add to the free-agent market. The left-handed hitter cratered in his age-29 season, but Shaw piled up 7.1 fWAR over the 2017-18 seasons, hitting 30-plus homers in both campaigns.
Being able to play a solid third base and a little bit of second base is a bonus.
3—1B Justin Smoak
If the Jays can’t find a higher upside option, circling back to old friend Smoak would be a decent fallback plan. The .208 average in 2019 didn’t look pretty and the shift still kills the lumbering slugger, but he walked at a career-best rate (15.8 per cent) and a nagging quad injury quietly took a toll.
He’ll come cheap in his age-33 season.
PROSPECT TO WATCH
SS/3B Jordan Groshans, 2018 first-round pick (12th overall)
The Texas high school product was on his way to a massive breakout in his first full minor-league season before a lingering left foot injury ultimately ended his season in May.
Drawing Josh Donaldson comparisons for both his demeanour and right-handed bat, Groshans finished with a tidy .337/.427/.482 and eight extra-base hits in 23 games with Low-A Lansing.
The Jays are hopeful the 20-year-old will be ready to go at the start of spring training, but he could move fast if he’s healthy and continues to rake like he did for a month in 2019.
SS/3B Orelvis Martinez, signed July 2, 2018, Dominican Republic
Prospect junkies and close followers of the system will obviously know who the now-18-year-old $3.5-million bonus baby is, but 2020 could be the year Martinez blows up and turns into the Next Big Thing, aka one of the better prospects in baseball.
He could also look like a teenager and take a while to adjust.
But as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, Martinez produced a whole lot of hard contact and showed off the bat speed that earned him the biggest bonus in the 2018 international class, so there’s at least a chance he starts the year in full season ball at Low-A.