Blue Jays finalizing roster as season of transition approaches

Arden Zwelling and Nikki Reyes talk about the expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays this season and the interesting situation with Elvis Luciano.

TORONTO – With a little more than 24 hours remaining before his first game as a big-league manager, Charlie Montoyo stood on the third base line at Rogers Centre watching batting practice with his 11-year-old son, Alex. Every seat in the stadium was empty as the Montoyos watched the Blue Jays take BP. Relatively speaking, the ballpark was quiet.

On Thursday afternoon, the place will feel much different. Led by Montoyo, the 2019 Blue Jays will line up along that same third base line amidst the pageantry of opening day. By then, the manager’s mother, sister, and sister-in-law will also be among the thousands filling up the stadium, and sharing that first game with family will be particularly meaningful for Montoyo considering his path to Toronto included more than 2,000 games as a minor-league manager and three open-heart surgeries for Alex.

"It’s going to be special," Montoyo said Wednesday. "How I’m going to feel, I don’t know, I haven’t been there yet. I’ll tell you after the game, but it’s going to be exciting. I know that."

He’s hoping that the same can be said for his team. As the Blue Jays enter a rebuilding season, they plan to graduate top prospects to the big-leagues while adding further to a farm system that now ranks third in baseball. That’s easier said than done, of course, but on opening day every team can dream.

First, there are smaller questions to resolve, as the Blue Jays have yet to finalize their 25-man roster ahead of Thursday’s season opener against the Detroit Tigers. The final spot in question will likely go to a reliever, and because Bud Norris continues battling forearm fatigue the Blue Jays are considering alternative ways of reinforcing their pitching staff.

"If I had to guess right now, yes, it’s going to be a bullpen spot," Montoyo said. "We might go with eight pitchers in the bullpen."

Javy Guerra, a 33-year-old right-hander who posted a 5.55 ERA in 32 appearances with the Marlins last year, was in Toronto Wednesday if needed. The Blue Jays are also considering adding a pitcher from outside of the organization as Norris’ status remains uncertain.

The team needs arms at this stage because starting pitchers aren’t fully stretched out this early in the year. Plus, the Blue Jays’ schedule begins with 11 consecutive games, meaning there’s not much built in rest.

"Pitch counts now, early in the season, they might go five or six innings. The more pitchers you have, the better," Montoyo said. "Of course I’d (eventually) love to go back to seven pitchers in the bullpen and four guys on the bench."

Regardless of which pitcher they add, the Blue Jays will have to create room on a 40-man roster that’s now full. Julian Merryweather has progressed far enough in his recovery from Tommy John surgery that he’s not expected to land on the 60-day injured list. Instead, the Blue Jays will likely move Dalton Pompey to the 60-day IL as he recovers from the concussion he sustained bumping his head into bats in his locker.

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.

Really, though, the question of which arm to add amounts to minutiae that will be long forgotten by the time the season ends. More important are the young players in and approaching the big-leagues. For another week or so, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will continue rehabbing his oblique strain in Florida while fellow prospects Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio prepare for their first season at triple-A Buffalo.

"They’ve got to go through the minor-leagues like everybody else did," Montoyo said. "They haven’t been at triple-A all that long, so they need the at bats. Whenever you see them here it’s because they’re ready to compete at this level."

Best-case scenario, they all join the likes of Danny Jansen and Ryan Borucki in the majors this year. At this point, the Blue Jays can even dream that Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will take major steps forward, too.

One way or another, it’s a virtual guarantee that the roster will look far different by the time the season ends. But big picture, it’s the progress of those young players that will define the 2019 season.

"Here’s the future," Montoyo said. "Here we go. That’s what I want to see. Of course wins and losses count, but that’s the main thing: for the kids to get better."

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