TORONTO -- The Blue Jays enter the offseason with two straightforward priorities: They want to throw more strikes and improve their defense. But that’s easier said than done.
Toronto’s major advantage this offseason could be its spending power, with very few multiyear contracts on the books and its talented young core still mostly in their pre-arbitration years. Payroll uncertainties remain, as they do for nearly every team in baseball, but the Blue Jays are widely expected to be aggressive on both the free-agent and trade markets.
• Offseason checklist: Blue Jays’ needs, moves
Roster rules could change between now and Opening Day, but assuming Major League Baseball returns to the traditional 26-man rosters, here’s how the Blue Jays could look on Apr. 1, 2021, when they open their season on the road against the Yankees.
Catcher (2): Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk
Kirk was the story of September for the Blue Jays, and he’ll be the story of Spring Training, too. The club’s No. 6 prospect appeared in just nine regular-season games, but he immediately showed that his bat is MLB-ready, with his advanced contact tool and encouraging ability to handle high velocities. Toronto is confident in his defense, too, so Kirk should be given every opportunity to crack the Opening Day roster.
Playing time behind the plate could go in a dozen directions, but Kirk isn’t a prospect who would just sit on the bench. While Jansen hit just .183 in 2020, the Blue Jays believe in him, so he’s not about to become a strict backup at 25 years old. Keep in mind that Toronto has Reese McGuire and No. 8 prospect Gabriel Moreno in this picture, too. If there’s a position of depth that can be dealt from, this might be it.
First base (2): Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rowdy Tellez
Guerrero Jr.’s potential return to third base will be a narrative through the winter, but it’s important to live in reality. In 2019 as a rookie, Guerrero was worth -16 Outs Above Average, ranking him last out of 218 qualified infielders. Changes to his body and the natural development of his skills will help, but it would be very surprising to see him become a league-average defender at third.
For now, Guerrero’s defense at first base should be a priority, and 2020 offered plenty of lessons on that front. Tellez is the in-house favorite to see time at designated hitter and play a good deal of first after an encouraging ‘20, but the Blue Jays could always add a bat to complicate this picture.
Second base (1): Cavan Biggio
You’ll see several Blue Jays at second base in 2020, but Biggio remains the likeliest to play the most games there. Biggio will see some time at first and third base and the outfield, which is what makes him so valuable to manager Charlie Montoyo, but in a perfect world, Toronto will have everyday players locked into those positions. There should be one or two reserve infielders with the ability to play second behind Biggio.
Third base (1): Free agent or trade acquisition
This is the club’s only true positional need, with Travis Shaw a non-tender candidate after hitting .239 with a .717 OPS on his $4 million salary. It’s entirely possible that Shaw could return in 2021, but the Blue Jays could have a serious opportunity to upgrade their roster at this position via free agency or trade.
With No. 2 prospect Austin Martin and No. 3 prospect Jordan Groshans on the way, Toronto could find a veteran to plug this hole for a year or two to bridge the gap. At a position that’s typically relied upon for some offensive punch, the club needs to find some.
Shortstop (2): Bo Bichette, free agent
Bichette is the man at short, barring a major move, but when the Blue Jays target infield depth, it should be someone who can play a natural shortstop first and foremost. When Bichette missed time in the shortened 2020 season, Santiago Espinal, Joe Panik, Jonathan Villar and Brandon Drury all spent time at the position.
If Toronto can find a strong fielder at this position who can also slide over to second and third when needed, that would be a luxury for Montoyo from a lineup standpoint, and it would help to shore up some of the defensive issues.
Outfield (4): Teoscar Hernández, Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Jonathan Davis
Finding a star center fielder was on the club’s list of “wants” last offseason and that hasn’t necessarily changed, but it’s a very difficult type of player to acquire on the open market. The likelier path here is that the Blue Jays will look to add some depth behind this group of three starters, which would allow them to cycle Hernandez’s big bat through the DH spot. Davis might be the club’s best defensive outfielder, which should give him an edge in camp with Derek Fisher involved. This is a spot where Toronto could surprise with a free-agent signing, though, especially if prices drop in the market's middle tier to offer value on a talented defender or a veteran bat.
Utility (1): Santiago Espinal
In past years, the Blue Jays have signed players like Eric Sogard and Joe Panik who have typically grown into utility roles, seeing a good deal of playing time. That may not be as necessary this year with Espinal, who made a good impression in 2020. With the ability to play second, third and short, plus the potential to hit for average thanks to his line-drive stroke, Espinal could carve out a nice role for himself over the coming years.
Starting pitchers (5): Hyun Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, free agent, free agent, Tanner Roark
Ryu and Pearson could form an incredible one-two punch atop the rotation with very different styles, but that requires Pearson staying healthy and, frankly, proving that he can start a full season in the Major Leagues. Both of those are major variables, but the Blue Jays are banking on it from their No. 1 prospect. Roark’s $12 million salary will likely keep him in that No. 5 role to start, and perhaps the Diesel engine can get back to his inning-eating ways in 2021.
Toronto’s biggest decision of the offseason comes in the middle. Will the club target upside in the form of another No. 2-calibre starter, or will it seek veteran stability? Starters from 2020’s team -- including Matt Shoemaker, Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray -- will be options, but there’s more upside to be found if the Blue Jays are aggressive. They also have Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay and Julian Merryweather waiting in the wings, all of whom have earned a shot at a job at some point. Trent Thornton needs to factor into this competition, too, so there’s no shortage of options.
Relievers (8): Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Ryan Borucki, A.J. Cole, Ross Stripling, free agent, free agent, free agent
The Blue Jays won’t rush to put relievers in defined roles, which we saw when the club lost Ken Giles in 2020 and the closer spot was shared, but they do have some balance to work with already.
Romano was the story of the season until a middle finger injury cut his 2020 short, and he could end up being the club’s most important reliever in ‘21. Dolis has proven to be a great signing while Cole earned the trust of Montoyo, and Borucki looked like a new pitcher coming out of the bullpen. Stripling gives Toronto a very solid multi-inning arm, or even a swing man who can make some starts, while Shun Yamaguchi -- who can also provide some length -- will need to pitch his way onto the team after a poor MLB debut in ‘20.
Expect the Blue Jays to chase more relievers like Dolis and Cole, both signed last offseason to deals that didn’t cost the club much. Toronto’s front office has done very well shopping at the bottom of the relief market in recent years. They do view Hatch, Kay and Merryweather as starters, but it will be very tempting to slide one back into a bullpen role after flashes of dominance in 2020. Other internal options, like Jacob Waguespack and Sean Reid-Foley, are also expected to be considered depending on how many external additions are made.
Keegan Matheson covers the Blue Jays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.