Projecting The Toronto Blue Jays’ 2018 Lineup

When I went through this exercise last year, there weren’t many 25-man roster spots up for grabs. A talented 89-win Toronto team had snuck into the playoffs via the wild card in 2016 and the Blue Jays brain trust elected to keep the roster mostly intact. A combination of bad luck, injuries, and regression from older players saw the 2017 team slip to 76 wins, one game ahead of the last place Baltimore Orioles. During the off-season, Toronto GM Ross Atkins jettisoned much of the team’s refuse and deftly shored up the middle infield and starting pitching depth – two areas sorely lacking on the 2017 club. However, a glut of outfielders and a wide-open bullpen means there will be more positional battles over the course of spring training.

While the backup catching position and bullpen are in need of improvement – and the potential for injury is omnipresent – this is likely the roster the Blue Jays will run with for the first game of 2018:

The Starting Nine:

  1. Devon Travis 2B
  2. Josh Donaldson 3B
  3. Justin Smoak 1B
  4. Kendrys Morales DH
  5. Randal Grichuk RF
  6. Russell Martin C
  7. Steve Pearce/Curtis Granderson LF platoon
  8. Aledmys Diaz SS
  9. Kevin Pillar CF

This lineup is predicated on the health Devon Travis, who has looked fine during limited spring action. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is continuing to rehab a gruesome ankle injury, complicated by a bone-spur in his heel. He has only recently been able to take a full round of batting practice and hasn’t yet attempted to run at full speed. I don’t anticipate that he will be ready for opening day. The fact that Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith Jr., and Dalton Pompey all have minor league options means that they will be ticketed for AAA Buffalo, along with the recently outrighted Ezequiel Carrera.

What could happen:
Kevin Pillar and his borderline .300 OBP, theatrical defense, and character issues are traded for a backup catcher, a bullpen piece, or some middling minor league prospects. This would pave the way for the extraordinarily athletic and talented Anthony Alford to play centrefield. Randal Grichuk – with 162 games played at CF under his belt – is another option for centrefield.

Anthony Alford
Anthony Alford. Photo credit: John Lott

The Bench

Luke Maile
Yangervis Solarte
Steve Pearce/Curtis Granderson
Troy Tulowitzki (7-day DL)
Gift Ngoepe

The name that sticks out like a sore thumb on this list is Luke Maile, and for good reason. With Russell Martin entering his 13th season – and a great deal of wear and tear on his body – a solid backup catcher is needed to shoulder the load now more than ever. Luke Maile isn’t that guy. However, the Blue Jays don’t have anyone other than Maile in the system who can step in and do an adequate job. You would think the Blue Jays would have learned their lesson with Jarrod Saltalamacchia last season – and maybe they have – but if the backup catching position is the biggest weakness on your team, you’re in pretty good shape.

Gift Ngoepe is a placeholder to backup Aledmys Diaz until Troy Tulowitzki is fully healthy, at which point he will be sent on his way. It’s will be nice to see him get another cup of coffee –  I’ve quite liked him since 2009. John Gibbons apparently does too.

What could happen:
Luke Maile’s play becomes untenable at the big league level and he goes the way of Jarrod Saltalamacchia before him. If it’s Buffalo’s Danny Jansen who replaces him, I’m not sure we see him before the middle of May because of service time manipulation. Ideally, Kevin Pillar is traded for a backup catcher and the problem is solved.

If Troy Tulowitzki’s creaky body takes much longer to heal than anticipated, Lourdes Gurriel may make an appearance. If I’m not mistaken, Gurriel’s contract isn’t subject to the same service time theatrics because he signed as a free agent, though he may still be able to opt into arbitration. I don’t think Richard Ureña is an MLB calibre player; he’s minor league roster filler.

The Starting Rotation

  1. Aaron Sanchez
  2. Marcus Stroman
  3. J.A. Happ
  4. Marco Estrada
  5. Jaime Garcia

To me, Aaron Sanchez is the best pitcher with the best stuff on the Blue Jays. He’s a true “ace,” as he clearly demonstrated in 2016. Sanchez looks to have put his blister issues behind him and is poised for another dominant season in 2018.

Not being the #1 guy in the rotation will probably result in a few angry tweets from Marcus Stroman, but I’d rather have Sanchez going up against the Chris Sales, Corey Klubers and Luis Severinos. I’m not saying that because Stroman’s tweets can rub people the wrong way. With a shoulder inflammation issue that has plagued Stroman since January, I would like to see him focused on healing properly instead of trying to be “the guy.”

You could even make the argument to slot J.A. Happ into the second spot of the rotation to mix-up the right-handed/left-handed starts (as John Gibbons is wont to do).

When one (or more) of these guys eventually hit the disabled list, the Blue Jays are in a better position to handle it than they were last year. Instead of scrap heap arms like Mat Latos, Mike Bolsinger, and Cesar Valdez, the Blue Jays have hot-shot prospects Ryan Borucki and Thomas Pannone ready to step in. Other options include old friend Deck McGuire and Sean Reid-Foley, if he’s able to bounce back from an off-year in 2017.

What could happen:
There’s talk of stretching out Joe Biagini and leaving him in Buffalo to be the Blue Jays de-facto backup starter. This is a bad idea. Biagini is terrible in the role of a starting pitcher and is much more effective pitching out of the bullpen. And it just so happens that the bullpen is a glaring area of weakness for the Blue Jays! If there was ever a time to stretch a reliever into a starter, it was Roberto Osuna two years ago, but I digress…

Sean Reid-Foley
Sean Reid-Foley. Photo credit: Mark LoMoglio/Tampa Yankees

The Bullpen

Roberto Osuna CL
Seung Hwan-Oh SU
Ryan Tepera
Joe Biagini
Choose one: Matt Dermody, Craig Breslow, Aaron Loup, Chad Girodo, Tim Mayza
Choose two: Carlos Ramirez, Danny Barnes, Taylor Guerrieri, John Axford, Jake Petricka, Rhiner Cruz

Apart from Roberto Osuna, it’s not a very impressive list is it? While the back-end of the bullpen is going to be relatively solid, if not spectacular, there are a lot of question marks. Who will be the LOOGY? What a motley crew to choose from.  I think it’s going to be Loup, just because of his history with the team. As for the final two spots, it’s probably going to be Ramirez and Barnes.

This is the same situation the Blue Jays were in last year, and they were able to wring out a middle-of-the-pack performance from the bullpen: Toronto’s relievers ranked 8th of 15 American League teams in ERA. If this group of guys can do the same, I think that’s all you can really ask for.

What could happen:
That Pillar trade I’m pining for happens and another arm shores up the pen. Or, a more likely scenario, these guys walk the whole ballpark/get lit up fairly regularly, forcing Ross Atkins to get crafty with the waiver wire, the 7-day DL, or even beg the Rogers board for spare change to pick up a free agent.

Featured image photo credit: Kevin Mazur/HBO

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