DUNEDIN, Fla. -- One of the most popular questions asked every spring by reporters and fans alike is, "Who has impressed you the most in camp?" Blue Jays manager John Gibbons couldn't narrow his answer to one player.Gibbons has been asked the question plenty of times by an endless stream
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- One of the most popular questions asked every spring by reporters and fans alike is, "Who has impressed you the most in camp?" Blue Jays manager John Gibbons couldn't narrow his answer to one player.
Gibbons has been asked the question plenty of times by an endless stream of reporters who come and go during Spring Training. He didn't have an answer before, but as camp surpassed its midway mark earlier this week, Gibbons has an answer now.
The veteran skipper picked prospect Anthony Alford, veteran reliever John Axford and outfielder Randal Grichuk with honorable mentions to Kevin Pillar and Aaron Sanchez.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are not a part of this year's camp, which means most of the attention has gone to Alford, and so far he is living up to the hype. Alford has five hits, including a home run, with four RBIs and three runs scored. The team's No. 3-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline looks much more prepared than he did at this point last year, and it's clear the extra reps he put in during the previous two offseasons is starting to pay off. The 23-year-old is not going to break camp with the team, but it's starting to look like he could become a factor at some point in 2018. A knee injury cost Alford some of his speed last season, but so far this spring he has been covering a lot of ground in the outfield, although he has yet to steal a base.
"Shoot, it's probably the biggest turnaround I've ever seen as long as I've been in the game," Gibbons said. "From two or three years ago when I saw him in Spring Training to now, he was just a raw kid with tremendous athletic ability, and really now he's turned into a baseball player. He's got a great swing. He's figuring some things out. The sky's the limit."
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Axford being singled out bodes well for his chances of making the team. The 34-year-old arrived last month on a Minor League deal without any guarantees, but he did know there were three jobs up for grabs in the bullpen. One of those spots was handed to Seunghwan Oh, but Axford has emerged as an early favorite for one of the other two vacancies. Axford made several minor adjustments to his delivery, which the Blue Jays hope will help improve his command after a disappointing 6.43 ERA over 21 innings for the A's in 2017. Al Alburquerque is likely Axford's biggest competition, but it's possible the Blue Jays could forego a second lefty, or long reliever, and carry both.
"The guy who really jumped out at me is Axford," Gibbons said. "He altered some things in the way he pitches a little bit, and I like those Canadians, you know, it never hurts."
The new recruit
The Blue Jays didn't make any splashy moves this offseason, and instead added a bunch of role players they feel will lead to improved results. The player with the most upside is Grichuk, who will open the year as Toronto's right fielder. Grichuk missed a few games last week because of a sprained wrist, but he has since been cleared to play and was in the lineup Tuesday afternoon. With back-to-back seasons of at least 22 home runs, the Blue Jays are expecting power, but it might be the defense that fans notice the most. Grichuk covers a lot of ground in right, and should pair well with Pillar in center. Jose Bautista had -8 defensive runs saved in right field last season, with an ultimate zone rating of 0.1. Grichuk had two defensive runs saved in just 445 2/3 innings as a right fielder last year, with a 4.4 UZR.
"The more you watch him, [the more] I like the way he plays the game and his potential," Gibbons said.
The honorable mentions
Gibbons followed up his initial answer by mentioning Sanchez and Pillar. The first was an obvious choice because Sanchez has showed no signs of the blister issue that derailed his 2017 season, and he has Cy Young-level talent. Pillar was picked because Gibbons has been impressed with his increased willingness to go the opposite way, and take more pitches. Much has been made about adjustments Pillar made in the past, so until his new approach actually carries over into the season, it will have to be viewed with skepticism, but Gibbons has taken notice.
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays
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