Blue Jays still have roster spots up for grabs
Left field, fifth starter among position battles yet to be settled
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- With less than two weeks to go until Opening Day, the Blue Jays' roster is beginning to take shape and the club is entering its final phase of the talent evaluation process.
There are technically still five jobs up for grabs, but each has a clear frontrunner. There's no set timetable for when the final cuts will happen, but Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos would prefer not to purposely delay any official moves.
"When we feel like we've made a decision we try to send guys out," Anthopoulos said. "I think we've been a little more aggressive this spring, making our cuts just because why string anybody along?
"Also, at the same time, it gives a chance for the group that's going to be here to gel, and it's just going to be easier for them to get everybody innings and at-bats."
The Blue Jays still have to make a decision on who will be the starting left fielder, utility infielder and No. 5 starter. There are also two open spots in the bullpen. Here's how those competitions break down:
Left field: Incumbent Eric Thames is competing against Travis Snider for the starting job. Thames has quietly enjoyed a strong spring, entering play Friday with a .324 average, four extra-base hits and six RBIs in 13 games. He has also displayed increased range and improved arm strength in the outfield. It was his job to lose at the start of the spring, and his solid performance appears to have secured the position.
Snider is still in the mix but likely is facing an uphill battle. He has been one of the Blue Jays' most dangerous hitters in the Grapefruit League, as he is tied for the team lead with four home runs and also is hitting .325 with 15 RBIs. Despite the high level of success, Snider is expected to begin the year in Triple-A Las Vegas.
Utility infielder: Veteran and potential future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel, 44, is up for the job while Luis Valbuena and Mike McCoy also are in the mix. The biggest question surrounding Vizquel this spring was whether he still had the range and arm strength to play shortstop, but he has been passing the tests and would provide a veteran influence in an otherwise inexperienced Toronto clubhouse.
According to the new collective bargaining agreement, the club must decide what to do with Vizquel five days prior to the start of the regular season because of his Major League service time and the fact that he signed a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The Blue Jays can place him on the 25-man roster, release him outright, or choose the unlikely scenario of assigning him to the Minor Leagues and paying him a $100,000 bonus.
Vizquel appears to have done enough to win the position, while McCoy likely will start the year in Las Vegas. Valbuena is currently out of options on his contract and would need to clear waivers before being sent to the Minors.
"We're not going to take things down to the wire if we don't need to," Anthopoulos said. "The minute that we've made a decision, and we know for certain and we don't need to see anybody play anymore, the decision's set, we'll advise the players at that point. It's only fair to them."
No. 5 starter: Dustin McGowan is the obvious choice for the final spot in the rotation, but the club also has Kyle Drabek and Aaron Laffey in the mix. McGowan returned to the big leagues last September for the first time since 2007 following a series of major surgeries. He has been consistently throwing 92-93 mph early in starts before topping out in the 94-96 range.
McGowan's offspeed pitches still need to be refined before Opening Day, but there is a lot of optimism in camp about his potential this season. He is out of options on his contract and must be placed on the 25-man roster or risk being exposed to waivers. Despite those technicalities, Anthopoulos insists the job is still up for grabs.
"There's no question that's why they're still here," Anthopoulos said in reference to Drabek and Laffey. "We haven't made a decision there. Kyle has made tremendous strides, he is getting better each time out, not that he is putting up a shutout each time, but he just has made a lot of strides from his first outing in camp to the last outing.
"Aaron Laffey has done a great job as well. He has pitched great, so I think that one is going to go down to the wire, just because these guys deserve to be here, deserve to battle it out."
Bullpen: Carlos Villanueva and Luis Perez appear to have the final two spots in Toronto's bullpen locked down. Villanueva filled a valuable role in the 'pen last season before being forced into the starting rotation because of a series of injuries to the staff. That eventually led to arm problems, and as a result Villanueva once again finds himself in a relief position. He should serve as the club's long-relief man.
Perez made his big league debut in 2011 and quickly became a favorite of manager John Farrell. He has enjoyed a strong spring by pitching 10 1/3 scoreless innings, and since he is out of options on his contract he is all but guaranteed to make the team. Other candidates such as Laffey and Drew Carpenter are considered extreme long shots.
"I would categorize that final bullpen spot similar to the left-field situation," Farrell said. "There are those who did well in those roles, who did well a year ago, that are here. We'll see how that unfolds and plays out."
Final word: "It's probably gone the way we expected it to. The battles are what we would have expected them to be, and knock on wood, it's gone as we would have hoped for. Pretty good health, team has done well and just have to get through the next two weeks without anybody getting hurt."
-- Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos