Blue Jays Confidential: How will season on the road impact Jays’ chances?

Shi Davidi, Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith discuss what long term implications could come into play on the Jays decision to not put Nate Pearson on the Opening Day roster.

The last time the Toronto Blue Jays played a game that counted, they were a 95-loss team playing out the string on a difficult 2019 season. Clay Buchholz was on the mound that day, but already the discussion around the team had moved ahead to the long list of needs to address over the winter. To be fair, at least they could play at their home park.

Ten months later, the Blue Jays are about to begin another season, this time under unprecedented circumstances. There’s now reason to be far more hopeful about the team’s chances, since the front office added significant pitching over the winter and the playoffs have since expanded to eight teams per league.

On the other hand, the Blue Jays didn’t have a home park until the day their season started. That has obviously been the biggest question facing this team, but there are plenty of others, too. With that in mind, we polled some Sportsnet baseball writers and broadcasters for their thoughts on the year ahead…

Livestream Toronto Blue Jays games all season with Sportsnet NOW. Plus, watch marquee MLB matchups, the post-season and World Series.

We now know that the Blue Jays will be without a traditional home park this year. How much of a disadvantage will this prove to be? Big difference-maker, or just one more obstacle in an already-weird year?

Arden Zwelling
I think it’s a significant competitive disadvantage. MLB athletes are extremely routine oriented and accustomed to the luxuries of MLB life. You can bemoan that and call them pampered, but you’re also not living in reality. Blue Jays players will be without a clubhouse that truly feels like their own; they’ll have limited access to batting cages, bullpen mounds, conditioning equipment and rehab facilities. Their preparation for — and recovery from — games will be hindered. They’ll live in hotel rooms for more than two months straight. They may or may not be able to see their families. From a physical and mental health standpoint, this season will be a considerable challenge.

Shi Davidi
This is a ready-made excuse for the Blue Jays to break out, but I don’t think they’ll use it. Everything about this year sucks, and there are inconveniences far more significant than those they are going to face. Any disruption for creatures of habit is suboptimal, but it’s on them to find workarounds. Besides, their pitchers might actually enjoy playing at a place with a negative park factor for hitters. At least they should be happy.

Mike Wilner
I have gone back and forth on this one – as we all have with the suggestions that the Blue Jays may play home games in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Raleigh, Hartford, and even nowhere – but now that we know the majority of their home games will be played in Buffalo, I think this could really work out to the Jays’ advantage. They’ve been resigned to playing without a real home for a couple of weeks now, and now they have one, so that’s a plus. It’ll take them a bit of time to get used to being in a minor-league facility, but they will.

Their opponents are a different story. It’s a real possibility that the teams that come in to face the Jays will spend the first day or two grousing about how it’s not a big-league stadium, it’s not a big-league training room/weight room/whatever, and by the time they get their heads around all the peripheral stuff, the series is over and the Blue Jays have beaten them a couple or three times.That’s a factor, and so might be the idea that the Jays will be galvanized by being the only big-league team that doesn’t get to play in its home ballpark.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
In an ideal world, Blue Jays players and staff could focus as much of their energy as possible on preparing for, playing and recovering from baseball games. This year, that simply hasn’t been possible. Mentally, that uncertainty has the potential to be draining or stressful. Physically, it could be tiring or disorienting for players and staff alike.

Quantifying the extent of this challenge is tough, but I’m confident in saying none of the 29 other teams would be eager to switch spots with the Blue Jays right now. It’s a clear disadvantage – not one that should sink the team’s season entirely but one that should be acknowledged as a significant obstacle for the 2020 Jays.

Jeff Blair
Seems to me that the players and their families will actually get to enjoy a more normal life wherever they end up playing their home games than they would have been playing under enforced quarantine in Toronto. It’s for two months; three if they’re lucky and make the playoffs which is a long shot. If it’s a more centrally located city, travel will be less onerous.

If you were running the Blue Jays, would you have broken camp with Nate Pearson?

Ben Nicholson-Smith
The Blue Jays’ most competitive roster includes Pearson, and there’s no better place for him to develop than in the majors. If you’re really respecting the spirit of competition you’re breaking camp with him. But if I’m being honest with myself, I wouldn’t do it. Would it be service time manipulation? Pretty much. But the incentive of another year of club control would likely be too tempting, despite how unfair this is for fans and players alike.

Shi Davidi
Yes. I get the economic argument and that we’re talking about a week and a half. But it’s garbage to look your future ace in the eye, someone who clearly merits a roster spot, and essentially say we’re manipulating the CBA to gain an extra year of control. If there were actual minor-leagues this year, maybe. But this is blatant service time manipulation and it’s not a healthy thing to do to your player, or your team.

Arden Zwelling
From a purely cold, calculated and heartless front office perspective — no. It’s your job to do the best thing for the franchise, and 2020 brings even more incentive than normal to keep him off the opening day roster. What if a COVID-19 outbreak wipes out the season two weeks from now? Now you’ve blown a year of contractual control at both the beginning and end of Pearson’s service clock. And believe me, I resent arriving at that conclusion. I despise the current service time structure — it incentivizes teams to keep some of the best baseball players on the planet out of MLB competition. That’s bad for baseball. But I can’t naively pretend to not understand why teams do it.

Mike Wilner
Yup. But I understand the long-term view of gaining an extra year of service time by missing just one start. Would have been nice if that start was against the Orioles and not the Rays, though.

Jeff Blair
No. We’re talking about having him miss – what? – one or two starts for an extra year of service time? Ten innings? Not sure that’s going to impact his development. It’s a no-brainer: if I can’t cover those missed starts my team isn’t likely good enough to make the playoffs and if it’s not going to make the playoffs … what’s the rush? Ain’t like you have tickets to sell. If he was a position player, I’d think differently. But he isn’t. So I don’t.

Sign up for Blue Jays newsletters
Get the best of our Blue Jays coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

Blue Jays Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

When the season ends, who will we consider the Blue Jays’ best hitter?

Shi Davidi
Bo Bichette. He’s going to do a bit of everything from them at the plate, and while he won’t put up the gaudy power numbers I expect from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or the plus OBP of Cavan Biggio, he’ll be a dynamic, jack-of-all-trades offensive guy who’s the catalyst for the lineup.

Jeff Blair
Same as the Jays’ best hitter today: Bo Bichette. There’s no argument right now and there won’t be any when the season ends, either. Or when 2021 begins.

Arden Zwelling
Bo Bichette.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Even after an up-and-down rookie season in which he battled fatigue and hit too many ground balls, I expect Vlad Guerrero Jr. to establish himself as the team’s best hitter in 2020. He generates so much power at the plate, and his hand-eye coordination and strike zone judgment only add to his potential.

Mike Wilner
It’s dangerous to make any real value judgements based on a 60-game season. It’s possible – hugely unlikely, but possible – that, say, Derek Fisher or Joe Panik hits .400 this season. I think at the end of the year, it’ll still come down to Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Bichette is likely to have the better batting average, Guerrero should have the better OPS. Hopefully, they’ll go back-and-forth for the next decade and change in the debate over who is the best hitter in a Blue Jays uniform.

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.

Do you think the Blue Jays can really contend this year? What would have to happen for them to break through?

Mike Wilner
An expanded playoffs will help immensely, though with Cleveland, Minnesota and the White Sox all getting to beat up on Detroit and Kansas City for a third of their schedules, it’s difficult to imagine any of those teams missing the post-season. Cleveland plays 46 per cent of its games against teams that lost at least 93 games last year, while for the Twins and White Sox, it’s 40 per cent.

In a 16-team playoff world, the Blue Jays are right there with the Angels for the final spot in the American League. The Jays play one of the most difficult schedules of any big-league team. Only 14 of their 60 games (23 per cent) are against teams that finished under .500 last season. But they’re certainly capable of getting hot for two or three weeks, and any team that can run off a 12-3 stretch has a really good shot to make that stand up all the way to October.

Jeff Blair
Under this new format, who doesn’t have a chance? Vegas has them for around 27.5 wins, which seems about right to me. History suggests that health has to be a concern with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Matt Shoemaker and there is still too much swing and miss in this lineup and ‘miss’ in the outfield when it comes to defence. Playing the National League East in interleague play is no help to the cause.

Shi Davidi
Yes, with several massive ifs. If Hyun-Jin Ryu repeats as an ace, Matt Shoemaker can go wire-to-wire and Nate Pearson transitions as seamlessly as we expect. If Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen and Rowdy Tellez take steps forward while Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez deliver their good half-seasons. If the bullpen holds up behind closer Ken Giles. That’s a lot that they need to break right, but if enough of those pieces fall into place, this could get interesting.

Arden Zwelling
I don’t. This season will be a 60-game road trip in which the Blue Jays play a team that’s better than them 75 per cent of the time. The club’s pitching isn’t good enough and its offence isn’t consistent enough. The Blue Jays won’t be one of the top two teams in the American League East, meaning they’ll be competing with four other AL teams projected by ZIPS to win more games than them for the two final playoff spots. Three of those teams would have to under-perform their projections — and the Blue Jays would have to out-perform theirs — in order for Toronto to sneak in. I don’t see it happening. I think this team wins 26 games.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
A few days ago, I would have answered this differently, but the expanded playoff field helps the Blue Jays immensely. The obstacles they face are significant – they’re young, homeless and playing one of the toughest schedules in baseball. But there’s lots of upside on this roster and the pitching staff is far, far better than the one we watched last year. Like everything this year, their bid for a playoff berth will come down to health.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.