Blue Jays’ depth and resilience will be tested without Bichette

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo speaks with the media about Bo Bichette and his status. Bichette felt something in his knee during the rained out game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Saturday, as his dugout slowly pooled with rainwater, and it became eminently clear his Toronto Blue Jays would have to resume that night’s suspended game the next day before playing another and catching a flight out of town, someone told Charlie Montoyo his best player had “felt something” in his right knee.

“We’re going through a series of tests right now,” Montoyo said Sunday. “And part of the tests is an MRI to see what he’s got. So, that’s the news this morning.”

The news did not get better. After dropping their first game of the day to the Rays, 3-2, the Blue Jays announced Bo Bichette was being placed on the 10-day injured list with a right knee sprain. Not great, guys. Not great at all.

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Bichette — one of Toronto’s best young players, if not one of baseball’s — leaves a crater at the top of Montoyo’s lineup and at a premium defensive position on the diamond. The Blue Jays manager didn’t want to speculate as to the severity of Bichette’s injury Sunday morning, opting to await test results before commenting further. But you don’t typically go for an MRI when everything feels fine.

“He felt it right before he went to hit. He was stretching a little bit and that’s when he felt it,” Montoyo said. “I’m going to wait to see all the tests and see where we’ll go from there. I don’t really know any more than what I just told you. He’s going through all the tests. So, we’ll see what the MRI says and all that stuff.”

To say that Bichette has been Toronto’s most important player to this point in the season would not be an exaggeration. He leads the team in hits, doubles, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He has a hit in 13 of his 14 games, with homers in four of his past five.

And — incredibly — you can make a case he’s been unlucky, as his .433 wOBA falls more than 30 points below his .465 xwOBA, a metric that attempts to predict what a player’s offensive production ought to look like based on the quality of contact he’s been making.

Saturday, Randal Grichuk said he believes Bichette “has a very good chance to be the best Blue Jays hitter ever” and, considering how things have gone over his first 60 games in the uniform, it’s not an absurd thing to say.

Bichette’s hitting. 323/.366/.595 over his first 276 career plate appearances, with a 152 OPS+. His 83 hits are the most of any Blue Jay in their first 60 games and he’s one of only three players in the history of the game to put up 38 extra-base hits over their first 59 career contests.

It’s just a huge loss for a team that now has only four regulars in its batting order boasting an above-average OPS+. Teoscar Hernandez is having a dynamite year; Cavan Biggio has reached base steadily; and Rowdy Tellez and Travis Shaw have each had their moments when in the lineup. But Bichette was carrying a massive load for this offence and the run generation his 1.065 OPS brought will not be easy to replace.

Of course, this is happening right across the league. As of Sunday morning, 191 players were on the MLB injured list, including some of the sport’s biggest names, such as Justin Verlander, Aroldis Chapman and Josh Donaldson.

Aaron Judge, MLB’s home run leader through Friday, joined them this weekend with a calf issue. Same for Ronald Acuna Jr., one of the game’s brightest young stars, who’s out with a wrist problem. And Stephen Strasburg, who has carpal tunnel neuritis.

The list, quite literally, goes on. Baseball players are extremely routine-oriented athletes — ones that have been preparing for 162-game seasons in highly specified and meticulous fashions for their entire adult lives. But pandemic baseball has demanded that they prepare differently, and more quickly, than ever before ahead of an accelerated campaign that will stress them in ways they are unaccustomed to. And the toll it’s taking on their bodies is evident.

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It was all so predictable. And, unfortunately, it’s unlikely the Blue Jays have seen the last of it. The club is scheduled to play eight games this week, and 25 over the next 24 days. And at no point during that stretch are they in the same city for more than six nights. This week, the club starts in Buffalo, heads to Baltimore for three days, returns to Buffalo for one, and then goes off to Florida for four.

It’s a grueling schedule, one that will stretch players both physically and mentally. More bumps and bruises are bound to develop. Toronto’s depth will be tested, as was already the case Sunday with Thomas Hatch taking over a game in the fourth inning, trying to get as many outs as possible, with Sam Gaviglio, Julian Merryweather and Sean Reid-Foley all waiting on the taxi squad, available to be activated if needed for the second game of the day later that afternoon.

But if baseball players, baseball fans and humans in general have grown accustomed to anything in 2020, it’s bad things happening. And the need for resilience. As much as its thanks to his innate talent, Bichette’s gangbusters season is a product of the tenacity and perseverance he’s displayed over his young life in the game. And for however long they’re without him, the Blue Jays will have to display a bit of their own.

“I’m more impressed with his work ethic and how hard he works than what he’s doing on the field,” Montoyo said of Bichette. “It’s not luck. People are good because they work hard. And he’s one of those guys.”

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