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Blue Jays Notebook: Guerrero vs. Harper, Outfield Mix, Shaun Anderson’s New Role – Sports Illustrated

DUNEDIN, Fla — Bryce Harper dropped the gauntlet.

A first-pitch slider to the 2021 NL MVP left the confines of Dunedin’s TD Ballpark with haste.

Harper sent Yusei Kikuchi’s delivery careening over the right-field wall and bouncing off the catwalk. A half-inning later, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. accepted the challenge, delivering his own missile to the same outfield seating.

“I think they were both born to hit,” Teoscar Hernández said after the game.

Harper and the Phillies’ half-billion-dollar outfield ended up getting the best of the Blue Jays on Sunday, winning 10-5, but the outlines of Toronto’s offense began to take shape. Guerrero improved his spring slash to .375/.412/.750, new outfielder Raimel Tapia made his Blue Jay debut, and Hernández made his return after battling a wrist injury.

First Look At New Blue Jays Outfield

Raimel Tapia drifted to his left on Sunday, tracking the fly ball before capturing it in his outstretched glove. 

Making his spring debut for Toronto, the Blue Jays’ newest addition spun back toward the TD Ballpark wall, tossing the ball up to the standing crowd. The throw didn’t quite make it there, ricocheting back down into the Phillies’ bullpen, and George Springer laughed with his newest teammate as the pair jogged off the field.

Tapia, who sauntered into the box for the first time to some Mexican polka music, brings needed speed and a left-handed bat to the Blue Jays’ outfield mix and, according to right fielder Hernández, the former Rockie will fight right in.

“He’s like us,” Hernández said. “Always laughing, having fun in the dugout.”

Hernández made his spring return on Sunday, notching a single hit in four plate appearances. Hernández stayed in longer than most of Toronto’s starters and expects to play as many as seven of Toronto’s final eight spring games. Before Hernández’s return, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo lauded the underrated performance of his right fielder, amid Toronto’s other offensive stars.

“This guy’s a Sliver Slugger and he’s been hitting since he came back from the minor leagues in 2019,” Montoyo said. “Putting up great numbers, and for some reason, he [gets forgotten]. We do have a lot of good players. But I never forget about him.”

In the past two seasons, Hernández ranks top five among all outfielders in HR and RBI, posting a .290/.341/.528 slash.

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Anderson Stretching Out

Claimed from the the Padres in November, Anderson hasn’t started a game since 2019. 

The 27-year-old bounced around baseball in 2021, pitching in relief for the Padres, Twins, and Orioles before joining the Jays and clearing waivers in the fall. Adding a new changeup, refining his sinker, and working on strike-throwing during the offseason, Anderson caught the attention of the Jays upon arrival in Dunedin. The organization asked Anderson what he wanted to do, and he chose to build back up his innings.

“Getting all those innings, mixing all my pitches,” Anderson said. “Whatever they want me to do, I’m ready to go.”

Anderson worked at BioCore Sports Performance this offseason, training with other big leaguers like 2021 World Series champ Luke Jackson and pitching to Nick Castellanos, Jonathan India, and Eric Hosmer.

Even with the new four-pitch mix, Anderson’s main weapon remains his slider, which he throws in many shapes and at varying velocities. Out of the pen last year, the righty was over 60% slide piece (seen below, from PitcherList).

The righty has pitched four innings so far this spring, striking out four and allowing two earned runs. He’ll get his first spring start on Monday.

Bird On First?

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the Toronto Blue Jays’ first baseman. After him, though, things get a bit murky. When the MVP candidate isn’t manning first, Toronto’s top 1B options on the 40-man roster right now are an out-of-position Cavan Biggio or Lourdes Gurriel Jr..

There’s a buzz around camp, however, for another first bag option in 29-year-old Greg Bird. I broke down Bird’s path to the 2022 Blue Jays last week, but the former Yankee has continued to impress. Montoyo lauds his hands in the field and the lefty has a 1.300 OPS in 15 spring at-bats. Against his old team, Bird smacked his second spring homer of the month at New York’s Steinbrenner Field on Saturday.

“He’s doing what it takes to try to make the club,” Montoyo said. “Hitting three-run homers.”

The other main position battles for the final week of spring camp lie in the bullpen, with Trent Thornton, Julian Merryweather, Ryan Borucki, Andrew Vasquez, Nate Pearson, and David Phelps all vying for the final few spots on the 28-man roster.

Spring OPS Leaderboard

Bird leads all Blue Jays hitters in OPS so far this spring training:

Greg Bird – 1.300

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 1.162

Alejandro Kirk – 1.138

Nathan Lukes 1.071