Spring Training continues to roll on in Dunedin, FL for the Toronto Blue Jays, but with four Grapefruit League games left and just five days until the team's Opening Day matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team is starting to look towards the 2023 regular season.
The Jays young core is looking to take the next step this campaign after a devastating AL Wild-Card loss to the Seattle Mariners in 2022. After finishing 92-70, marking the first time the club had reached 90 wins in back-to-back seasons since the early 1990s, the Jays were swept by the Mariners after squandering a seven-run lead to lose 10-9 in front of the home crowd in Toronto in Game 2.
The Blue Jays have some new faces in 2023, including Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Belt, Whit Merrifield and Chris Bassitt, just to name a few, but the young core remains the same and the expectations are as high as ever for the Blue Birds.
The slate is wiped clean in 2023, and here are the questions that still need answering ahead of Thursday's Opening Day:
The Final Roster Spot
25 of the 26 roster spots for the Blue Jays are basically set in stone, but the final battle is intriguing.
It could be Otto Lopez, the Blue Jays' No. 14 overall prospect who played shortstop for Canada at the World Baseball Classic and opened Spring Training 7-for-15 (.467). It could be Nathan Lukes if the team wants to keep a more traditional fourth outfielder, but with Whit Merrifield and Cavan Biggio crowding the outfield, it's complicated. Or it could be Addison Barger, the team's No. 6 prospect who had a huge 2022 season in the minors, hitting .308 with 26 home runs and a .933 OPS.
It'll be intriguing to see who makes the list when the final roster is released next week.
The Fifth Starter
The Jays basically have the top four in the rotation set, with Alek Manoah getting the mound on Opening Day, and Kevin Gausman, new addition Chris Bassitt and Jose Berrios taking the next three spots.
Yusei Kikuchi has the clear path to the No. 5 job, but after struggling mightily for long stretches of last season, it's certainly a question mark. Mitch White could slide into the fifth spot if Kikuchi continues to falter, or could slide to the bullpen in an important swingman role.
The goal is that the top five can stay healthy, but that's always wishful thinking in a long MLB season, and Drew Hutchison and Zach Thompson would likely be next in line if a starting pitcher were to go down.
Hyun Jin Ryu could also return later this year from Tommy John surgery, but ideally, you're looking at a rotation that features Manoah, Gausman, Bassitt, Berrios and Kikuchi. Not too shabby.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Health
Toronto's star first baseman missed the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic due to right knee discomfort, and Jays manager John Schneider said the slugger had minor inflammation in the knee, although the MRI didn't show any structural concerns. The injury occurred while the star 1B was running the bases in a Spring Training game.
It goes without saying that the team needs one of their best hitters healthy for the 2023 season, and it isn't yet known if he will miss any regular season time. But with Opening Day looming, it's certainly a possibility.
Guerrero Jr. played in 160 games last season, hitting .274 with 32 homers and 97 RBIs for the Jays, and the team needs him healthy if they hope to have a better start to the season than last campaign.
Who will Catch?
The Jays made a huge splash by acquiring versatile Daulton Varsho from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason, but it cost them one of the best prospects in baseball in Gabriel Moreno.
Still, the duo of Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk is a clear strength for the team, with both players more than capable behind the plate.
“We’ve been talking about that quite a bit,” Schneider said earlier in Spring Training. “It may be a few less games for Jansen and Kirk at the DH spot. We’re going to look at matchups and try to dive deep in performance, and health plays a part of it. Ideally, you have Brandon [Belt] healthy and it allows Kirky and Jano to stay healthy. That’s a great thing. I think it’s going to be pretty evenly split.”
So, it looks like the two will split catching duties, with Kirk probably figuring to get most of Manoah and Gausman's starts due to his exceptional pitch-blocking numbers.
Jays' fans have reason to be excited for this season, with a potent lineup, a great starting rotation and multiple game breakers on both sides of the plate. But with the expectations getting higher and higher for this core, anything less than playoff success will be considered a failure for the 2023 Toronto Blue Jays.