TORONTO -- With their young core ready to take the next step and a busy offseason behind them, the Blue Jays enter the 2021 season with one of the best lineups in baseball.
Injuries are testing Toronto early, though, especially on the pitching side. The club has already lost closer Kirby Yates for the season to Tommy John surgery, while No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson is out with a groin strain and right-hander Thomas Hatch is out with right elbow inflammation. Add in a left elbow bruise to Robbie Ray that will keep him out for at least his first start of the regular season, and the Blue Jays are already being forced to lean on their depth.
Star outfielder George Springer is dealing with a Grade 2 strain to his left oblique, and while the club hasn’t made a decision regarding his Opening Day status just yet, there’s a chance he opens the season with a short IL stint.
With that in mind, here’s the latest roster projection.
Catcher (2): Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk
The Blue Jays informed Kirk on Sunday that he’d made the Opening Day roster, bringing a sensible end to a Spring Training competition that’s always been tilted in his favor. The 22-year-old will now back up Jansen in the Major Leagues, where Toronto trusts he can round out his development and also take some DH at-bats.
The Blue Jays are still facing a decision with the out-of-options Reese McGuire, but their catching depth remains impressive throughout the system, with No. 19 prospect Riley Adams expected to start in Triple-A and No. 8 prospect Gabriel Moreno expected in Double-A. Finding a veteran to pair with Adams could be a priority, but this Major League catching tandem is set.
First base (2): Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rowdy Tellez
Guerrero has been determined to earn another shot at third base, and while it’s possible he might get the odd look there to keep some versatility, first base remains his long-term home. Let’s not forget that Guerrero’s defence at first was still a work in progress last season, too, so that’s worth watching as he enters camp in much better physical shape. He’s having an exceptional spring at the plate and driving the ball in the air, which is particularly encouraging after ground balls were a major issue for him in 2019 and '20.
Tellez will see his days at first, too, along with some designated hitter reps. On days Tellez is out of the lineup, he’ll make for a very nice bench bat for manager Charlie Montoyo and his righty-heavy lineup. Tellez’s hard contact this spring hasn’t translated to numbers, but he’ll still have plenty of opportunities when the season opens.
Second base (2): Marcus Semien, Joe Panik
It’s been several years since Semien played second base, but the veteran has looked perfectly comfortable there through the early half of the Grapefruit League schedule. Alongside Bo Bichette, Semien could give the Blue Jays one of the better middle infields in the American League, especially offensively.
We’ll call Panik a second baseman here, a position at which he won a Gold Glove Award in 2016, but the veteran should see time at multiple positions. On Friday, the Blue Jays told Panik he’d cracked the Opening Day roster. Next in line for these reserve infield reps would be Santiago Espinal and Breyvic Valera.
Shortstop (1): Bo Bichette
If Bichette stays healthy, he’ll want to be out there for all 162 games at shortstop. If he needs a breather at any point, Semien can easily slide over to shortstop to cover for him. This is Bichette’s position to run with, and with an .896 OPS over the first 75 games of his Major League career, Bichette has all of the talent necessary to be one of the game’s best young shortstops.
The line between good and great for Bichette comes down to his defence. The Blue Jays trust his fielding to stay there long-term, but next offseason’s free-agent class is stacked and the Francisco Lindor situation this past winter introduced the conversation whether Bichette could be moved off the position for an elite addition. A full 162-game season at shortstop -- and the data that comes with it -- should paint a much clearer picture of Bichette on defence, an area of his game into which he’s poured plenty of work.
Third base (1): Cavan Biggio
Biggio is listed as a third baseman because that’s where he’ll likely see the bulk of his playing time, but the 25-year-old remains the club’s most versatile player. Biggio can play second, first and either corner-outfield spot as the club needs, so this could develop throughout the season -- especially if the Blue Jays target another bat at any point prior to the Trade Deadline.
The Blue Jays’ trust in Biggio’s instincts makes them comfortable with him opening as the primary third baseman, but his arm will be tested throwing across the diamond. Keep an eye on Biggio when he’s forced to charge in on balls or make plays moving to his glove side while throwing. The early reviews have all been impressive, though, and it’s easy to see how Biggio’s maturity on the field helps him slow the game down. Starting the season in Dunedin, Fla., could do wonders for Biggio if he can put the ball in the air to right field, too.
Outfield (4): Jonathan Davis, Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk
Let’s err on the side of caution for now regarding Springer’s oblique, because as much as Springer would love to be out there for Opening Day, it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays want to get their $150 million man back to 100 percent before he debuts. Davis was told on Saturday that he’d made the Opening Day roster and Grichuk was given a day in center, so there are arrows pointing in that direction. If this is how it plays out and Springer only misses a handful of games, this outfield group is perfectly capable and Davis fits into a depth role well given his speed and defensive ability.
Starting pitchers (5): Hyun Jin Ryu, T.J. Zeuch, Steven Matz, Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling
Pitchers across baseball will be challenged as they ramp up following the 60-game 2020 season, and when you add in the fact that the Blue Jays’ rotation leans more on depth than top-end talent, creative solutions will be on the table. This will include piggyback strategies, spot starts to create an extra day of rest and more. This could be a fluid group that stretches the traditional definition of a starting rotation.
Stripling is expected to step in for Pearson, giving Toronto four starters, but the fifth spot is still in question. Zeuch gets the early nod here given how well he’s pitched this spring and the praise he’s earned throughout the organization, but just like Stripling, this doesn’t need to be a traditional, 100-pitch start. This opening stretch will be about weathering the storm for the Blue Jays' rotation as they await clearer timelines on the returns of Pearson, Hatch and Ray.
Relief pitchers (9): Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Ryan Borucki, Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps, Julian Merryweather, Francisco Liriano, Tim Mayza, Trent Thornton
Losing Yates was a major blow to this bullpen, but the Blue Jays faced this same challenge in 2020 when Ken Giles went down. Expect more of the same, with arms like Romano, Dolis, Chatwood and Phelps getting looks in the late innings depending on leverage. Romano has the highest potential of the group, though, so he should open as the club’s top option.
Having Merryweather healthy gives Toronto a one- to two-inning option capable of pitching leverage, too, but the club still needs another multi-inning arm, which is why the Blue Jays decided to add Thornton as their long man to open the year. Thornton often found trouble in the fourth or fifth inning as a starter, but facing a lineup once through could suit him well and allow the Blue Jays to keep someone like Anthony Kay stretched out as a starter early in the season.
Mayza opened camp as a longshot and, frankly, just seeing him throw strikes and look healthy following Tommy John surgery would have been a successful spring. He’s exceeded all expectations, though, and officially earned a spot on the roster on Sunday. The veteran lefty Liriano would also require a 40-man roster spot, and while right-hander A.J. Cole is right in this picture, Liriano has looked sharp in camp. This group has changed plenty in the past week and could continue to evolve through the early series this season as needs arise.