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What we know – and don’t know – about the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster

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DUNEDIN, Fla. – Months from now, when the Toronto Blue Jays’ season is on the line and the shape of their roster looks different than anyone predicted, this might all seem pretty trivial. It’ll definitely seem distant.

So, before we get too invested in the specifics of the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster, it’s worth remembering players such as Gosuke Katoh, Zack Collins and Tayler Saucedo, all of whom began the season on Toronto’s big-league team a year ago. Or the one making the announcements, current White Sox bench coach Charlie Montoyo. In baseball, rosters are built to be tinkered with. The only given is change.

But the early games count, too, and in an American League East division that features five competitive teams, every advantage matters. With that in mind, the Blue Jays take the challenge of building their opening-day roster seriously. So what if this group is destined to shift as the season unfolds? This group is still the best the Blue Jays have to offer right now.

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In the days ahead, the Blue Jays must finalize their 26-man roster, a group that’ll be evenly split between pitchers and position players. Until then, let’s take stock of what we know – and don’t know – about the group of players that’ll fly north to St. Louis after the team’s final Grapefruit League game Tuesday evening:

POSITION PLAYERS
Locks (12): Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Brandon Belt, Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, Santiago Espinal, Cavan Biggio, Whit Merrifield, Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier, George Springer
Leading contenders (3): Otto Lopez, Nathan Lukes, Vinny Capra

Now that Addison Barger and Wynton Bernard are no longer in big-league camp, the competition here seems relatively straightforward.

Tactically speaking, this last player won’t get many starts to begin the year, but should be able to provide a quality at-bat against left-handed pitching and pinch-run. Typically, the last player on a team’s bench should be versatile, and that’s obviously ideal at all times, but the flexibility of Biggio and Merrifield would also let the Blue Jays use this spot for more of a specialist if they wanted – someone who offers elite speed, or power or defence.

Capra bats right-handed, a positive on a team that might want to find ways to complement its new collection of left-handed starters: Belt, Varsho and Kiermaier. Yet Capra is in camp as a non-roster invitee, meaning the Blue Jays would have to select his contract. Conversely, Lukes is already on the 40-man roster, but as a left-handed hitter he doesn’t complement the team’s starters quite as neatly.

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At the intersection of those two sweet spots is Lopez, a right-handed hitter who already has a 40-man spot. Plus, Lopez has arguably had the best spring of the three with an impressive showing for Canada at the WBC to go along with stellar Grapefruit League play. That makes him the favourite to head north.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the Blue Jays make a late-spring acquisition and fill this spot from outside the organization. Barring a waiver claim or trade, though, it’s down to these three, with Lopez seemingly in the lead.

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PITCHERS
Locks (12): Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, Yusei Kikuchi, Jordan Romano, Erik Swanson, Yimi Garcia, Tim Mayza, Anthony Bass, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards
Leading contenders (4): Mitch White, Zach Pop, Nate Pearson, Jay Jackson

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This last spot appeared to be White’s to lose, but a shoulder impingement delayed the start of his spring and he has yet to appear in a big-league game. He still hasn’t been ruled out, but if he does start the season on the IL, that would leave an opening for the Blue Jays.

Asked about the final bullpen spot Friday night, manager John Schneider said a small group of pitchers are in competition for it.

“A few. Probably three or four that are in the mix,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to how we’re going to open, but there’s guys that won’t start with us that are deserving to be up with us at some point. Really good teams have some tough conversations at this point in time, knowing that you have really good options that are sent to triple-A.”

Case in point: Trent Thornton and Zach Thompson, both of whom appear more likely to join the likes of Casey Lawrence and Drew Hutchison in the Blue Jays’ triple-A rotation.

Both Thornton and Thompson will likely see big-league time in 2023, but traditional long relievers are no longer seen as a necessity, which opens the door for Pearson, Jackson or Pop. The velocity Pearson offers is undoubtedly tempting, and he’s struck out 13 in 8.1 innings this spring, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Blue Jays send him to triple-A – at least to open the season.

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In Jackson, they have a veteran in ring-chasing mode with a 95-96 mph fastball and a hard slider. He has impressed in camp this spring, with 13 strikeouts in 9.1 innings, and it’d now be a surprise if he doesn’t contribute at some point in 2023.

But don’t forget about Pop, who’s already on the 40-man roster, which may give him an edge over Jackson. As pitching coach Pete Walker recently pointed out, there’s Clay Holmes-type upside for Pop, whose two-seam fastball averaged 96.5 mph last year. So far this spring, he has six strikeouts in 4.1 innings of work with just one earned run allowed. If that’s the last arm in your bullpen, you’re in a good spot.

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