It may be hard to believe, but the Toronto Blue Jays are a little under two months away from first pitch at Spring Training. While heads will be turning to see what the core will look like after trading some key players, there is more to the show than just the big names. That won’t be the end of the interesting stories to follow, as other players vie for the limited remaining roster spots. Here are five players you should keep your eyes on when Spring Training opens in a handful of weeks.
Julian Fernández – Relief Pitcher
On December 29th, the Blue Jays inked a minor league deal with flamethrower, Julian Fernández, and it has sparked plenty of conversation among fans. The deal has commonly been called “low-risk, high-reward,” and it’s very easy to see why. For one, it’s a minor league deal, and as such, comes with essentially zero commitment on the Blue Jays’ behalf. Secondly, Fernández throws gas, and if he can improve his control through working with Pete Walker, he could become a difference-maker in the pen.
Fernández spent the 2022 season with the Albuquerque Isotopes (one of the best team names in baseball, for what it’s worth), and the numbers weren’t pretty. In 58 games, the Boca Chica, Dominican Republic native won just two of his seven decisions (although that state is relatively useless), and owned an ERA north of six and a half. He allowed 15 home runs, a high number, but it is worth noting the elevation is similar to Colorado, where Coors Field has built a reputation for being easy to hit home runs at, thanks to the elevation.
Fernández appeared in the Major Leagues for the only time with the Rockies in 2021, pitching in six games, and sporting a bloated ERA of 10.80. According to Baseball Savant, Fernández’s fastball was in the 99th percentile for velocity, the 87th percentile in spin, and the 68th percentile in extension, all of which are better than average, with the velocity and spin being considered “great.”
While in the Majors, Fernández brought a two-pitch mix; a blistering fastball, and a slow changeup, the perfect mix for keeping hitters off balance. The now 27-year-old threw the fastball nearly 85 percent of the time, throwing the changeup just 18 times in his six games, but the speeds at which each pitch comes in are important. Fernández throws his fastball with an average velocity of 99 miles per hour, while his changeup crosses the plate at a snail’s pace in comparison: just 89 miles per hour. In fact, his fastball has reached into the triple digits in the past, making that difference even bigger when he reaches back for one.
Although the sample size was small, Fernández did find a way to avoid giving up solid contact while in Colorado. Only eight percent of his batted balls were barreled up, and he allowed solid contact on just four percent of batted balls. There’s no guarantee that any of the positives will translate for Fernández, and now at the age of 27, he’s approaching the pivotal moments of his career.
Again, with a minor league deal, the Jays have no commitment to Fernández, and if things don’t end up working, it’s no skin off their back. It’s worth the shot, if nothing else, and Walker has worked his magic with a handful of pitchers already, including Robby Ray and Ross Stripling. If things do work out, there’s nothing better than a free acquisition of a player who is under team control until 2027.
Nate Pearson – Starting Pitcher
Another Blue Jays pitcher with a rocket for an arm is Nate Pearson, who once upon a time, was the Blue Jays’ top prospect, and boy, was the hype ever real. Since then, Pearson has gone through the trials and tribulations, and hasn’t yet been able to live up to the hype. The Floridian missed virtually the entire season in 2022, making only a handful of appearances with both the Buffalo Bisons and the Dunedin Blue Jays, seeing action just 13 times.
It has been set back after setback for Pearson, but this winter, he has gotten back some of that lost time, playing in the Dominican Winter League with Tigres del Licey. He has made 12 appearances, all of which have come in relief, allowing just five hits in 12 innings of work. The strikeout-to-walk ratio has also been impressive, as Pearson has sat down 16 hitters, while walking just four. Of course, it is only winter ball, and success there doesn’t always translate into success in the Major Leagues, but it’s never a bad thing to have a good winter ball season.
So far, there has been a general reluctance to move Pearson to the bullpen, as the Jays hope to develop him into the rotation piece they expected him to become a handful of years ago. With his injury history, it’s seemingly becoming increasingly unlikely that it can/will happen.
At the age of 26, Pearson has pitched in just 17 games for the Blue Jays thus far, and has only started five of them. Much like Fernández, Pearson is in the 98th percentile for fastball velocity, but he’s actually below average when it comes to spin rate, according to Baseball Savant. When Major League baseball was going through the pine tar dilemma, pitchers were using it to increase their spin rate, thus resulting in more strikeouts, fewer home runs, and overall, a massive advantage for pitchers. Pearson has been touched up at times while with the Jays, and you have to wonder if the spin rate is a part of the issue.
All of the statistics and metrics baseball has can’t help Pearson with his biggest issue to solve, however. He could increase his spin rate, he could improve his control, heck, he could even add a fifth pitch to his repertoire, and it could be the nastiest knuckleball you have ever seen, but it wouldn’t matter. Until Pearson can stay healthy, nothing else matters.
So what to do with Pearson this season? The Blue Jays have two choices, ultimately. The first one is to stick to the plan, and use him as a starter. If they do that, there’s no promise he will start in the Major Leagues, and it could put extra strain on his arm and cause another injury. The second option is making the change, and converting him to a reliever, with the ultimate goal of (hopefully) making him a closer. Neither option promises success, but it’s starting to get to the point where it’s results or bust for Pearson.
Orelvis Martinez – Shortstop/Third Base
In 2022, Orelvis Martinez was ranked as the Blue Jays’ second-best prospect, with an estimated time of arrival of 2023, also known as this upcoming season. Now 21, Martinez spent the entirety of the 2022 season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Blue Jays’ ‘AA’ affiliate, and the numbers tell an interesting tale. Although batting average isn’t always a telling stat, Martinez hit just .203 with the Fisher Cats, and had an on-base percentage of .286. Despite that, he hit 30 home runs, driving in 76 runs in 118 games.
Martinez has a smooth stroke at the plate, and is noted for his power. MLB.com says “Martinez can really turn on balls and drive them at fast exit velocities and to far distances. Given his age and athletic body type, there’s the belief that even more power could be coming out of his already promising bat speed.” Power and bat speed are great, especially when it comes to young players, but Martinez isn’t without issues to sort out.
MLB.com goes on to say “He has struggled with chasing breaking pitches at the lower levels, and he could be vulnerable to that against more advanced pitching as he climbs the chain, which would lead to just a below-average hit tool.” In the minor leagues, where scouting reports don’t exist in the same detail they do in the Major Leagues, Martinez may be able to get away with tendencies like this, but against the best pitchers in the world, that is going to be exploited.
But having just turned 21 in November, it should be expected that there will be shortcomings in his game. There are very few prospects, if any, that come into the majors that young, and are already among the best players in the league. There is still plenty of time for Martinez to sort out his plate discipline, and sit on those tough pitchers. We have seen it happen before, with the perfect example being José Bautista. That isn’t to say Martinez will become as good as Bautista, but improvement in plate discipline can happen.
There are a couple of reasons why Martinez is so exciting. For one, the long ball is fun, and when young players who are known for hitting the ball out of the park come up, naturally, attention follows. There should be intrigue around where the Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic native is at in his development, because with a swing like his, it’s only a matter of time before he’s hitting homers at the MLB level.
It’s nearly certain that Martinez will not start the season on the Blue Jays’ major league roster, likely starting in ‘AAA’ Buffalo, depending on how he looks at Spring Training. As the Jays’ number two prospect, he could hold some value when it comes to a trade, as well. It’s hard to think they would want to deal the young infielder, but if it came at the expense of getting an elite starting pitcher, or significantly upgrading at another position, it just might happen.
Otto Lopez – Second Base/Shortstop/Outfield
Further down the list of Blue Jays’ top prospects, you will find Otto Lopez, Toronto’s 18th-ranked prospect. After a good season with ‘AAA’ Buffalo, where Lopez hit .297 with 34 RBIs in 91 games, he was called up by the Blue Jays when Santiago Espinal was placed on the injured list. Now with nine games of major league experience under his belt, the Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic native is looking to break into the Jays’ lineup on a more regular basis.
With the bat in his hands, Lopez tends to hit the ball on the ground a lot, but one of his best assets is his legs, and boy, can he run. He makes life difficult for defenders, running out his ground balls, routinely making the play close, if not beating it out entirely. He doesn’t hit for much power, and he likely won’t be known as an RBI machine at any point, but he gets on base, potentially serving as the future leadoff hitter for the Jays.
This winter, Lopez has played with the Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, playing in 22 games, and owning a batting average of .304. His lack of power has persisted, but his trends of getting on base, and takes his walks. Once Lopez is on base, he is always a threat to run, stealing 14 bags with the Bisons on 19 attempts last season, and another 15 on just 16 attempts in ‘AAA’ in 2021.
Compared to the current roster, Lopez may not hold an advantage (or much of one) with the bat against anyone on the team, but with the glove, he brings a tremendous amount of versatility. On any given night, manager John Schneider can stick Lopez anywhere in the outfield, second base, and even shortstop. This is important, because as the Jays search to find their fourth outfielder, it could provide Lopez with the perfect opportunity to break the roster on Opening Day.
MLB.com suggests that Lopez’s arm might be a little bit weak to play in the outfield on a consistent basis, but that is likely what the Jays need from him this season, if he is to make the roster. Now 24, Lopez may not have significant trade value, but he could be an important role player for the Jays, almost like Bradley Zimmer was supposed to be last season. If Zimmer was somewhat capable at the dish, all while being the same player everywhere else, he may have stuck around for a while, but that’s what you might be able to expect from Lopez. Spring Training will be an interesting time for him.
Cavan Biggio – Second Base
The size of the question mark beside Cavan Biggio’s name is astronomical, as we enter what is likely a make-or-break season for the soon to be 28 year old. When Biggio broke into the Major Leagues in 2019, he put together a campaign that inspired plenty of hope in Jays fans, driving in 48 RBIs and mashing 16 home runs in 100 games. Since then, it hasn’t been the same. In the three seasons that have followed, Biggio has played in 235 games, driving in just 79 runs, and hitting 21 home runs.
After his first season, a future where Biggio was an integral piece to the Blue Jays’ puzzle, along with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, seemed almost inevitable. It hasn’t worked out that way, and now, Biggio’s place in the lineup is about as uncertain as it could possibly be.
The Houston, Texas native is still under team control until 2026, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. This ensures that Biggio’s contract values will stay relatively low, unless he has a breakout season, but it could also make him more appetizing for a team to take him on, and give him a change of scenery, and a chance to turn things around. It seems as if we are soon going to get to the point where the Blue Jays need to make a choice regarding Biggio, but it could still go either way.
With the Jays’ infield now packed, thanks to Santiago Espinal leaping him in the depth chart, Biggio will need to take advantage of the limited playing time he will find both in the infield, but also in the outfield, possibly starting the season as the fourth outfielder. If Biggio has one element he brings that the Jays will love, it’s his versatility, and congruence to play wherever needed.
Even if Biggio does manage to find his game at the plate while continuing his defensive shrewdness, it won’t guarantee that he will remain a Blue Jay for the entire season. If Ross Atkins finds a deal to improve the team, and the package just so happens to include Biggio, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the trigger pulled.
If Biggio can’t find a way to better his numbers this season, his Major League career could hang in the balance, with the Blue Jays or otherwise.
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