The Hamilton Spectator
Which Berríos will show up?
Jays about to open spring training with mostly set roster
The Blue Jays are about to open spring training with a roster that appears mostly set and the belief that an off-season of change will lead to better results when it matters the most.
Here are the top five storylines at the Jays’ camp, which opens Monday in Dunedin, Fla.:
Which version of José Berríos will show up?
Berríos is the Jays’ Xfactor this season. There are players who are more important to the team’s success, but there’s a good chance that Berríos’s performance will determine whether this rotation becomes a strength or gets exposed for its lack of depth.
Jays fans saw Berríos at his best when he posted a 3.58 ERA in 12 starts after being acquired at the 2021 trade deadline. They also saw the 28-year-old at his apparent worst when he served up a leaguehigh 199 hits in 2022 to go along with an eye-popping 5.23 ERA.
Which version will the Jays get this season? It’s hard to say but it might not take long to find out. While spring training results are typically meaningless, Berríos struggled throughout last year’s camp. And he’ll be tested early in 2023 as he joins Puerto Rico in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
Who will be named the fifth starter?
Yusei Kikuchi had among the worst runs of any starter in franchise history last season and yet he remains in the mix. Why? The Jays say it’s because of a promising, mid-90s arm that still has a lot of untapped potential. A cynical columnist like me would suggest it’s only because of the $20 million (U.S.) remaining on his contract.
Regardless of the reason, Kikuchi is the favourite to win the No. 5 spot, but he’ll have to earn it or avoid pitching so poorly that the Jays are forced to take it away. Mitch White will be Kikuchi’s biggest competition with Zach Thompson and Drew Hutchison somewhat in the mix.
There’s no denying Kikuchi possesses a lot of raw talent. He made the all-star team in 2021 and had a 3.18 ERA as late as July 1 of that year. Pitchers don’t just luck into numbers like that but, based on how last season went, I wouldn’t bet on a bounceback year either. This roster spot figures to become an ongoing concern for the Jays, even more so if one of the top four starters gets hurt.
Who will get the bulk of the reps at second?
Whit Merrifield, Santiago Espinal, Cavan Biggio and possibly Otto López will be competing for time at the Jays’ most crowded position. Espinal is coming off an allstar season, but it’s Merrifield who figures to have the inside edge after last year’s strong finish.
In 25 games last September, Merrifield hit .338 with a .949 OPS. Those numbers aren’t sustainable over a full season but the offensive upside, combined with his speed and defensive versatility, means Merrifield has a good shot at becoming an everyday player. Most of those starts figure to come at second, but he could be used at all three outfield spots as well.
What that means for Espinal, Biggio and López isn’t clear. They’re all capable of making a case for additional time with a strong camp; otherwise the Jays’ daily decisions likely will depend on matchups.
Are the Jays done shopping?
They shouldn’t be, that’s for sure. There’s a lack of depth in the outfield and the Jays will be in trouble if any of Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier or George Springer go down with a long-term injury. There’s also a clear need to add another righthanded hitter to the bench. There aren’t too many options left in free agency, but a backup spot like this could be filled through a minor trade or waiver claim at the end of camp.
The Jays likely aren’t aggressively shopping anyone this close to opening day but flipping Biggio or Espinal to increase depth elsewhere seems wise. A new outfielder would make for a clean fit while an addition of another reliever likely would have to come at the expense of Trevor Richards, who is out of minorleague options.
Will John Schneider make any changes to the Jays’ style of play during his first camp as manager?
There will be a lot of fundamental changes to the way the Jays approach each game, but that has more to do with the new players on the field than it does the man in the dugout. Varsho, Kiermaier and Merrifield bring speed that the Jays didn’t possess at the beginning of last season. All three will be active on the basepaths and each one has a certain fondness for small ball, either by bunting for base hits or to move runners over.
Former manager Charlie Montoyo loved that part of the game but didn’t have the proper personnel to implement it. Last year’s Jays, and many versions that came before, were focused on power. The 2023 version sacrificed some of that in favour of having a more rounded team.
That means there should be less sitting back and waiting for the big homer, and more pressure applied to opposing pitchers. That doesn’t guarantee more runs, but it should make for a more entertaining product. An improved defence and starting rotation should help, too.