Big decisions ahead as Blue Jays aim to shape roster in shortened camp

Hazel Mae is joined by MLB insiders Shi Davidi & Ben Nicholson-Smith as they analyze the Blue Jays 2020 schedule. Plus, they shed light on the challenges still facing the Blue Jays and MLB to get season underway.

TORONTO – Shortly after 7 p.m. on Thursday night, the Blue Jays will take the field at Rogers Centre just as they’ve done on so many other July evenings over the years. As always, players will be looking to prove themselves in the eyes of coaches and front office staff. Weather permitting, the dome might even be open.

But in most other ways, the intrasquad game that follows will be completely different from the version of baseball you’d normally see here. If the Blue Jays’ latest workouts offer any indication, many players and staff will be wearing masks. Others – about 12 in manager Charlie Montoyo’s estimation – will be far away in Dunedin, Fla. to contain the spread of COVID-19. And fans will not be in attendance or even watching on TV.

No, this version of summer baseball will be unlike anything Rogers Centre has ever seen. It’s far from ideal on so many levels, and yet these games do have real significance for a Blue Jays team with a number of significant roster decisions to make in the two-plus weeks remaining before opening day.

Among the questions facing Montoyo and other club decision makers: how will the Blue Jays structure their pitching staff? Will Nate Pearson be a part of it from day one? How often will Vladimir Guerrero Jr. play? And who fills out the bench?

Of course for any of those questions to matter, health and safety protocols must be followed closely. That’s why Montoyo was relieved to learn the Blue Jays could train in Toronto, rather than Florida, where the coronavirus case count keeps rising. After departing Arizona, where he’ll leave his family for the duration of the season, Montoyo stopped in Florida to catch the northbound team charter. For him, that brief stopover was enough.

“To tell you the truth, going to Florida, when you see the Florida cases, that made me nervous as a human being, but I knew we had a chance to come to Toronto,” Montoyo said. “That’s great for us to be here.”

At some point soon, the Blue Jays expect to learn whether their stay in Canada will be extended beyond training camp. But while they seek federal approval on that front, there are still plenty of decisions to make between the lines.

Like most teams, the Blue Jays will likely break camp with a pitching-heavy roster, according to Montoyo. With 30-man rosters in place and no restrictions on the number of pitchers rostered, the Toronto bullpen could include as many as 11 or 12 relievers. Early in the season, the Blue Jays will ease their starters in with outings lasting “anywhere from two innings to five or six,” according to Montoyo. An expanded bullpen will do the rest.

Given the uncertainty created by the virus, the Blue Jays are considering a wide range of candidates to round out the starting rotation. Included in that group is Nate Pearson, who recently placed seventh on Baseball America’s updated list of the game’s top prospects. While Montoyo stopped short of making promises, he said Pearson does have a chance to break camp with the team on July 24.

“Yes, just like everybody else,” Montoyo said. “We’re building everyone to be ready in case we need them. It’s not a typical spring training, so you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day and he’s one of those guys. He was outstanding in spring training and I’m looking forward to seeing him pitch again.”

Over the weekend, GM Ross Atkins said the team loves Pearson’s work ethic and preparation, and will prioritize “what’s going to be best for his development” in the weeks ahead. Given that there won’t be a minor-league season in 2020, the only place for Pearson to compete in game environments is the majors.

However, the Blue Jays would gain a year of team control if they wait about a week before promoting the 23-year-old and some industry observers with no affiliation to the team say they expect the club to break camp without him.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Of course as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. showed last year, top prospects aren’t always finished products. Though Guerrero Jr. held his own as a rookie in 2019, he hit too many ground balls to fully tap into his explosive power, struggled defensively at third base and acknowledged toward the end of the season that he was feeling fatigued.

A year ago, regular days off helped the Blue Jays keep Guerrero Jr. relatively fresh, but the club now faces a different challenge ahead of a 60-game sprint. Ideally, the Blue Jays would like Guerrero, still their most promising hitter, to be in the lineup as often as possible. But once again, Montoyo’s ready to make adjustments as the season progresses.

“That’s day to day stuff,” Montoyo said. “How the kid feels. Part of my job is communicating with the players to see how they feel. It would be great if he can play almost all of the games, but I don’t want to name a number because you want to go day-to-day and see how the kid feels.”

“But yeah,” Montoyo continued. “He’ll play, he’ll DH.”

Beyond the stars, expanded rosters will also allow teams to carry bigger benches. Working everyone in may be a challenge at times, but Atkins says keeping players engaged falls right in Montoyo’s “wheelhouse.”

For out of options players like Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher, the chances of breaking camp with the team now seem better than ever. Whether it’s those two outfielders or someone else entirely, some players on the bubble will benefit from the extra space. And while the contributions they make may seem modest, each pinch hit appearance and defensive substitution will have heightened importance in the shortened season ahead.

“Every game means more than when you play 162 games,” Montoyo said. “So we’re going to go all out every game.”

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