The Blue Jays have addressed most of their off-season needs so far, but they could still use a utility man who is capable of playing shortstop.
It’s not very often that the Blue Jays take care of most of their off-season checklist before the calendar flips, but a fast-moving market has brought just that.
The major concern was addressing the starting rotation, but with Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson, Matt Shoemaker (returning from injury), and even Shun Yamaguchi, the Blue Jays have taken care of the priority. They also needed a replacement for Justin Smoak and found a pretty solid bounce-back candidate in Travis Shaw, who signed a pillow contract to try and re-establish his value.
I’d still like to see the Blue Jays add a couple of bullpen arms, and perhaps even an upgrade to centre field, but most of the big items are taken care of. That said, there’s one more addition that I’m not sure the Blue Jays can go without, and that’s bringing in a utility man. Specifically, one who is capable of backing up Bo Bichette at shortstop.
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The nice thing about Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro’s focus on “flexibility” is that the Blue Jays should actually have several options at pretty much all defensive positions next year, with the exception of shortstop. Bichette will obviously man the position as the starter, but he won’t be playing 162 games, at least not defensively.
Charlie Montoyo does have a few options that can get him by for a game or two, but neither should be relied upon as a shortstop on a full-time basis. The first would be Brandon Drury, who made five appearances and played 35 defensive innings at the position last year. He did an adequate job when called upon, but he’s definitely a stretch as the infield captain. The other would be Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who has played there in the past and showed off some exciting abilities, but I have a feeling the Blue Jays will keep him locked in left field so he can improve his defensive skills out there.
The Blue Jays do have three in-house options on their 40-man roster, although Breyvic Valera is probably in the same boat as Drury, and I’m not sure he’ll survive the roster crunch in advance of Opening Day. That leaves Richard Urena and Santiago Espinal, and it remains to be seen if the Blue Jays are comfortable using either of them in that role.
Urena has played in 91 games at the MLB level over the last three seasons, and at times has been a very solid contributor. He’s a career .253/.300/.356 hitter across 241 at-bats, and he’s also proven capable of playing at second and third base, and even at first if necessary. A shortstop by trade Urena is the best in-house option on the roster at the moment, and should be the leading candidate for the role. That’s especially the case because he’s out of minor league options.
Espinal could get a shot at the job, especially after he performed well in a short stint at Triple-A last season. He started out in Double-A with New Hampshire and played 94 games there with a .343 OBP, and then raised things to another level in Buffalo over 28 more contests. He slashed .317/.360/.433 for the Bisons, and continued to play all over the field. My guess is the Blue Jays will return him to that level to start the year, but a hot performance during Grapefruit League play could change their mind.
What the Blue Jays really have to ask themselves is, “what happens if Bichette gets hurt?”. It’s not a fun thing to think about, but they need to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, both short and long term. If Atkins and Montoyo are comfortable handing that job to Urena or Espinal, then perhaps they’ll do just that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they looked for a veteran to fill the role. It’s also possible that Urena could slip through waivers (although not terribly likely), or that the Blue Jays view Espinal, who has minor league options, as a potential replacement if they were to try and lose him through the waiver process.
My guess is it’ll be an addition that comes later, if it does at all, but I still think the Blue Jays need a hard answer about who will be their back-up shortstop. Given the rest of the upgrades, I’d be fine if chose to give Urena or Espinal the opportunity, but I suspect the front office will have their eyes open for an upgrade.