Blue Jays: Santiago Espinal may have the inside track as the utility man

DUNEDIN, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 22: Santiago Espinal #72 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for a portrait during photo day at Dunedin Stadium on February 22, 2019 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 22: Santiago Espinal #72 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for a portrait during photo day at Dunedin Stadium on February 22, 2019 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /
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The Blue Jays added Santiago Espinal to their 40-man roster on Wednesday, and there’s a good chance he has the inside track on next year’s utility man job.

The Blue Jays needed to make a few decisions in advance of the Rule 5 draft, and they moved two new players to their 40-man roster to make sure they were protected. Those two were RHP Thomas Hatch, and minor infielder Santiago Espinal.

The Blue Jays acquired Hatch last July when they sent David Phelps to the Chicago Cubs, and there should be no surprise that he’s been protected. In Espinal’s case, it’s not surprising either, but it also means there’s a good chance that he’ll have a legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster in 2020.

Espinal has been a pleasant surprise since he arrived from the Boston Red Sox, having been acquired in 2018 in exchange for Steve Pearce. The now 25-year-old was solid across AA and AAA this season, and actually improved his offensive numbers after his promotion, slashing .317/.360/.433 in 28 games with the Buffalo Bisons.

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His stats in the batter’s box are encouraging, but it might be his defensive versatility that could be the most appealing for the Blue Jays next season. Last year he played 70 games at second base, 33 at shortstop, one at third base, and 12 games in centre field. That skill set should play well in Toronto next season, depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out of course.

Right now the Blue Jays don’t really have an obvious choice as a back-up to Bo Bichette at shortstop. Richard Urena would probably be the leading candidate, but his spot on the 40-man roster is going to be tough to keep depending on how many other players the Blue Jays add through free agency or trades, and the same likely goes for Breyvic Valera, who I thought would be outrighted on Wednesday instead of Justin Shafer, and it feels like a matter of time until it happens anyway.

Beyond those two, the Blue Jays are really limited to Brandon Drury, who is more of an emergency shortstop than a legitimate back-up there, or maybe Lourdes Gurriel Jr., if the Jays decide they want to experiment with him as an infielder again, which remains to be seen. The free agent shortstop options aren’t terribly inspiring either, so an in-house solution seems most likely at this point.

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For Espinal, the roster crunch for the Blue Jays this off-season could mean that he’ll have the inside track on earning that utility man job next year. Based on the strides he took last season in Buffalo, I look forward to seeing what he can do at the highest level.

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