Blue Jays: Breakout candidates for the 2021 season

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 5: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts with Rowdy Tellez #44 after hitting a three run home run during the sixth inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox on September 5, 2020 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 5: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts with Rowdy Tellez #44 after hitting a three run home run during the sixth inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox on September 5, 2020 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

The level of stardom on the Blue Jays roster has overshadowed some really talented depth pieces. Although those types are just depth players until they put numbers on paper, the Blue Jays have a really solid crop of these kinds of pieces that could contribute right on par with the cornerstone pieces like Springer, Biggio and Bichette.

Here are a couple breakout candidates that are currently penciled in on the 40 man roster.

1. Rowdy Tellez (1B/DH)

Rowdy Tellez probably has the most raw power out of any player in the Blue Jays organization who is not named Vladimir. When he connects on a ball, he mashes them farther then pretty much anyone on the roster. This is highlighted by Rowdy’s upper tier peripherals. In 2020, Rowdy was is in the 79th percentile in exit velocity, 81st percentile in hard hit % and 84th percentile in xSLG.

Rowdy did have a pretty good 2020 season, posting an OPS right around .900. However, he played in just 35 games, which is way too small of a sample size to call a breakout season. In his short time on the field in 2020, he showed massive improvements. His strikeout rate dropped from 28% to 16% and his walk rate increased from 7% to 9%. If Rowdy could prove that he is the real deal in 2021, then I could see him turning into an everyday 1B/DH with the potential to hit about 40 home runs in a season. Obviously the maximization of his plate appearances will depend on how Vladdy fairs at 1B, or if he plays 3B this season on a semi-regular basis.

In addition to Rowdy’s raw power, he is a lefty bat who hits well against same-side pitching. That’s a commodity that is difficult to find nowadays in the MLB. He has posted a respectable .764 OPS against left-handed pitchers with a .259 BA. In the most recent campaign, he hit .333 against left-handed pitching.

All of the raw tools are there, it’s just a matter of putting it together. I think Rowdy will open the season as the main DH on the depth chart. Although manager Charlie Montoyo likes to use the DH as a half day-off spot for players in the field, I think it’s about time that Tellez plays everyday, at least for the first few months of the season to see what the Blue Jays have in him.

The Jays don’t want to make the same mistake that the Twins made with David Ortiz. In six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz had less than 1500 PA before being released in 2002. He would go on to make a Hall of Fame case with the Red Sox from 2003-2016. I make this comparison because Tellez profiles very similarly to Ortiz early in his career, namely that they are both slugging DH’s with very raw power and they both have similar builds.

If Rowdy gets the consistent at-bats, I think he can fashion himself into one of baseball’s best DH’s.

2. Julian Merryweather (RHP)

Julian Merryweather is an interesting case. The right-hander has been mediocre throughout his entire pro career, at least on paper. In his minor league career he only posted a 4.00 ERA, and in his first MLB campaign in 2020 he posted a 4.15 ERA in 13 innings pitched. To add on to all of that, his MLB debut came in his age-28 campaign.

The reason I think that Julian Merryweather has the opportunity to have a breakout season is because his numbers in the minors don’t reflect what his ceiling could be as a relief pitcher. In the minors, the majority of his appearances were starts where he was forced to pitch multiple innings and use a wide repertoire of pitches that weren’t all that effective.

Julian Merryweather’s repertoire features of devastating four seam fastball in the upper 90’s, a change-up in the low 80’s, and a below average slider/curveball. As the common saying goes, most good relief pitchers are failed starters who had too wide of a repertoire. If Merryweather could be put in a position where he doesn’t need to use such a wide array of pitches (i.e, the bullpen) then he could be a dominant high-leverage reliever using just his 100 mph cheese and his 80 mph changeup.

In 2020, his changeup had hitters way out in front because they had to make a 20 mph adjustment. Merryweather’s consistent arm action makes his change-up look even more like a fastball out of the hands. This simple two-pitch repertoire would mean limiting his use of the curveball and slider which is okay. He could always have those pitches in his back pocket, but in situations where he only needs three outs, he could dominate on the fastball and changeup alone.

Merryweather is not expected to compete for a spot in the rotation come spring training, so I think he will end up entering spring as a candidate for a high leverage bullpen spot. That said, at the moment it sounds like he could start the year in the rotation in Triple-A.

3. Alejandro Kirk (C)

Since becoming the primary catcher on the Blue Jays, Danny Jansen has struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball. The back-up, Reese McGuire has not been able to soften the blow of Danny Jansen’s subpar production. Although it is not a position of offensive prowess, many of the top tier teams still have catchers who can hit. The Dodgers have Will Smith, the Yankees have Gary Sanchez, and the White Sox have Yasmani Grandal. Given the lack of depth around the league, it makes an offence a whole lot deeper if they have a catcher that can produce with the bat.

This is where Alejandro Kirk comes in for the Blue Jays. Although Kirk didn’t play much in 2020, he made the most out of his short time with the Blue Jays. In 25 PA down the stretch, he hit .375 including an imperative 4-hit game against the Yankees in September that featured an opposite field double off the top of the wall, and an opposite field home run. He also had a hit in his lone playoff start against the Rays.

Kirk hit all sorts of different pitches after getting called up. He hit breaking pitches, and upper 90’s fastballs inside and away. For a guy who had never played above A+ ball, Kirk looked like a real pro. Although a very short sample size in 2020, Kirk also produced at an elite level in the minors. In his minor league career, he hit .315/.418/.500 with 89 BB and just 60 K in 619 PA. That kind of ratio for any catcher signifies an elite approach at the plate. If Kirk picks up where he left off, he is a great candidate for a breakout campaign.

I will say that conditioning is definitely a concern right now. Presently, Kirk is not only the shortest player on the roster but also the heaviest, a dubious combo. He is still very young and seemingly motivated, so I have no reason to doubt his ability to get in shape. If Alejandro Kirk could add some offence to this already deep Blue Jays lineup, then there wouldn’t be a single offensive hole on this club when healthy.

Honorable Mention: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1B/3B/DH)

After giving it some thought, I decided to leave Vladimir Guerrero Jr. off the list. I do think he will improve a ton, but he has been an above average major league player for two full seasons, so it’d be hard to call any significant improvement a “breakout season”.

Next. Players on a short leash in 2021. dark

Still, Vlad is primed to be one of the most improved players on the Blue Jays. After entering summer camp out of shape and over 280 lbs, Vladdy put in the work this offseason, reportedly losing over 40 lbs. At just 21 years old, Vlad is on a very favourable area on the aging curve. When you add in the apparent offseason work, it looks like improvement is on the way.