By: Martin Oldhues
With spring training less than a month away, the Toronto Blue Jays look for a fresh start after losing in the wild-card series in back-to-back years.
The team struggled primarily on offence last year, ranking 14th in runs scored and 23rd in hitting with runners in scoring position.
It was safe to assume Toronto would go all out during the off-season, considering current free-agent third basement Matt Chapman was unlikely to resign and All-Star Whit Merrifield’s club option seemed likely to be declined, but the team has signed only three major league contracts, one of those being the return of Kevin Kiermaier.
The Jays can rebound from their poor performance and internal help as suggested by Ross Atkins in a recent press conference, but that doesn’t solve the holes in certain positions.
The Third Base Dilemma
Chapman’s supposed replacement, Isiah Kiner-Falefa. He inked a two year, $15 million deal with the team and is expected to be the opening-day third baseman. Last Year, Kiner-Falefa produced a slightly above WAR at 0.1 while being way below leave-average hitting, putting up a 78 OPS+, 28 points below the MLB average.
Other infield options include Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal, who seem to be slated as backup players. Biggio had a sizeable amount of reps at second base. Young Davis Schneider showed a much-needed spark in the lineup, hitting for 1.007 ops, similar numbers to the best in baseball.
While Major League options seem to bear, Triple-A Buffalo has numerous infield prospects ready to jump. One player is Addison Barger, who is the fifth-best prospect in the system, according to MLB Pipeline. Barger had 25 doubles last year and is known for a solid plate discipline. A wildcard in the mix is Orelvis Martinez, known for his power and high strikeout rates but lowered that after playing in Buffalo, walking 41 times compared to 60 K’s. Martinez could slot in as a second baseman come opening day, moving Schneider over to third base.
It is worth noting the Jays assigned Bisons’ hitting coach Matt Hague to the staff after Buffalo led the international league in On Base Percentage last year.
The Fifth Starter Mystery
The downfall of Alek Manoah was shocking for everyone. Once a glimmer of potential to match Kevin Gausman, Manoah found himself having to find his form again.
Luckily for Toronto, starting Pitcher Yusei Kikuchi stepped up after struggling to go deep into games in 2022. He pitched to a 3.86 ERA, striking out 101 Batters to become the team’s fourth starter.
Looking to find depth, international pitcher Yariel Rodrigues was signed to a multi year deal. Rodríguez expects to begin as a reliever, building up innings in the minors, before taking the mound in the big leagues. Scouts view him as a bullpen arm with a good fastball and devastating slider. The Jays believe he can command his curveball based on his years of experience.
Triple-A starter Bowden Francis, who came in the Trevor Richards trade, pitched to a 2.67 ERA in nine starts. Francis looks to be the next Ross Stripling, flexible in his roles but could solidify his worth in spring training.
The second highest left-hander pitching prospect in baseball, Ricky Tiedemann, has intrigued Jay’s fans, striking out batters at high rates with a mid-90s fastball in the minors. Tiedemann made a brief start in Buffalo, mostly pitching in Double-A New Hampshire. Sending the lefty to begin the season seems unlikely, but it’s worth noting teams can be aggressive, as MLB has created draft compensation for top 100 prospect’s placing top three in rookie of the year voting.
The A.L East Juggernault
Last year, three American League teams made the playoffs, including the Baltimore Orioles, winning 101 games and the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best offence in the A.L.
Tampa’s ace Shane Mcclanahan is out, recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Potential sub-in starters include Taj Bradley and Shane Baz in the rotation. The offence looks different, as the Rays traded Luke Railey for Jose Caballero, who hit .221. A big hole for the team is at shortstop, as whether Wander Franco will return to the majors is unknown. Franco currently faces allegations of an inappropriate with a minor. Top Rays prospect Junior Caminero could stand in for Franco, but Caminero, in his short stint, posted a subpar .631OPS.
Baltimore has been mostly silent in the winter months but made one big bullpen move, signing Craig Kimbrel, who could close or pitch late innings. Trade acquisitions from 2023, like starting pitcher Jack Flaherty and hard-throwing righty Shintaro Fujinami are no longer on the team. Considering the Orioles have the best farm in baseball with the number 1 prospect in MLB, Jackson Holliday, set to make his debut this year, along with franchise cornerstones Adley Rutschman and Gunner Henderson, it is hard to go against them winning the division again.
But that’s not the only team the Jays have to worry about. The New York Yankees went big in the offseason, acquiring star Juan Soto and Outfielder Alex Verdugo. In turn, they lost a key in their rotation, Micheal King and coveted right-hander prospect Drew Thorpe. Now having a more balanced lineup, New York hopes to overcome 24th ranked offence in baseball, hitting just .227. Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole looks to continue to carry the pitching staff as Carlos Rodón seeks to find his 2022 form.
Boston ranked last in the division, picked up starter Lucas Giolitio and Outfielder Tyler O’Neil over the winter, banking on them to find their former success. Chris Sale was dealt to Atlanta for Vaughn Grissom, slotting into a much-needed second base for the Red Sox. The starting rotation, led by Bryan Bello, is a weak spot for the team, ranking 22nd for ERA in baseball last year. The bullpen did not fare any better, giving up an average of four runs per nine innings. Kenley Jensen and Chris Martin’s veteran presence bring some stability, while Josh Wincowski’s transition to reliever paid off with a 2.84 ERA. Despite this, Boston’s lack of arms will surely hurt them again in 2024.
With all this in mind, my prediction for the Blue Jays this year is going 87-75, placing 3rd in the division again. For the wild-card race they will be the last team to make it.
Toronto season begins March 28th against the Rays.