TORONTO – Baseball of any sort, even an intrasquad game, is a thing of beauty as we emerge from four months of shutdown. Bo Bichette taking Matt Shoemaker hella deep was a sight to behold. So too was Rowdy Tellez going oppo off southpaw Brian Moran, as the relievers in the ‘pen gave bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, playing left field, the gears for his sketchy tracking of the drive.
“Come on, Busch. Get up!” one of them shouted.
Good times, though that Buschmann not only played left field, but bounced between there, centre and right, that catching prospect Riley Adams covered a few innings in right, that shortstop prospect Kevin Smith did the same, that Teoscar Hernandez was the only regular to see any action Thursday evening raised an important question: Where are the club’s outfielders?
Along with Sportsnet colleagues Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith, we spotted 43 of the 46 players manager Charlie Montoyo said made the trip north from Dunedin, Fla., last Sunday. Twelve others not identified by the club remain there after one player tested positive for COVID-19 during intake, and the rest were pulled away because they had direct contact with him, an industry source said earlier this week.
The team has thus far declined to disclose which of the 46 players are in Toronto.
Here are the players, in alphabetical order, we’ve seen here:
Riley Adams, Chase Anderson, Bryan Baker, Anthony Bass, Travis Bergen, Bo Bichette, Ryan Borucki, Andy Burns, Rafael Dolis, Santiago Espinal, Sam Gaviglio, Ken Giles, Jordan Groshans, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Danny Jansen, Caleb Joseph, Alejandro Kirk, Patrick Kivlehan, Reese McGuire, Julian Merryweather, Justin Miller, Brian Moran, Joey Murray, Joe Panik, Thomas Pannone, Nate Pearson, Jake Petricka, Sean Reid-Foley, Tanner Roark, Jordan Romano, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Travis Shaw, Matt Shoemaker, Kevin Smith, Ruben Tejada, Rowdy Tellez, Trent Thornton, Ty Tice, Jacob Waguespack, Simeon Woods Richardson, Shun Yamaguchi and T.J. Zeuch.
Of the seven outfielders on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster, only Hernandez is on that list. Of the other six, only Jonathan Davis is on the injured list, added last week in an unannounced and unexplained transaction.
Whether the Blue Jays are facing a problem in their outfield, and how big it might be, is unclear.
It’s possible some of them are in Toronto and were out of sight Thursday, but that would make for some odd outfield coverage. It’s possible some of them are being sidelined as a precaution as part of contact-tracing measures. It’s possible some of them have contracted the coronavirus. Teams are not allowed to divulge whether a player has been placed on the COVID-19 injured list, but infection numbers can be announced, something the Philadelphia Phillies have done regularly, and players can be identified if they grant permission, the way Brad Keller and Ryan O’Hearn of the Kansas City Royals did this week. The team even included quotes from both in their news release.
The absence of information makes things murky, and leads to speculation, a byproduct Yankees GM Brian Cashman acknowledged during a conference call with New York media last week: “The information I’ve been given is (media) will be left to try to figure that out. Somebody might be down and out, but we might not be able to speak to why, and it would be a speculating circumstance, you would have to use your journalistic superpowers to determine if there’s anything there or not, what the circumstance might be.”
What we know as it relates to the Blue Jays is that 12 players aren’t in Toronto, and Hernandez is the only outfielder on the 40-man roster seen Thursday or in the limited video clips of the club’s workouts here the past few days.
The situation highlights the personal health risk each player is taking this summer, and very, very secondarily, the challenges infections and the steps taken to prevent spread present to fielding a roster. They’re the obvious downsides to playing amid a pandemic.
Bichette, speaking generally about the sacrifices players must make this summer for the endeavour to work, put it this way: “There’s definitely going to have to be some discipline from the team, staying inside and making sure that not only are we keeping ourselves healthy, but keeping the rest of the team healthy. It’s bigger than ourselves, and we’re going to do our best to make sure we keep everybody healthy in here.”
The upside, of course, is having baseball again, of regaining a slice normalcy amid the enduring uncertainty that surrounds us all.
Bichette got to Shoemaker, but beyond that, the veteran right-hander was remarkably effective over five-ish innings of work, allowing just the two runs with four strikeouts. He got up to 60 pitches, 42 of them strikes, and rather than being at the beginning of the ramp-up process, he’s at the dialing-in pitches phase, on track to be pushing toward 100 once the season begins.
Tellez added a couple of singles around his home run, Travis Shaw cleverly poked a single against the shift, Caleb Joseph threw out Reese McGuire trying to steal third after reaching on a line-drive double and the infielders turned a pair of crisp double play, all done with an air of competitive collegiality.
“Some of us talked about this (Wednesday) night, we’re still playing baseball, even though it’s against our team. It is different than playing a different team, but when you’re on the mound, and you just have that mentality that you’re going to beat that guy, you’re going to get that guy out, you can still make it pretty similar and game-like to in-season,” said Shoemaker. “When you can lock it in, I’m battling, me-versus-you right now, just go to battle. Having that mindset just gets us ready for the game and gives us a better chance to win.”
To give the proceedings some formality, the Blue Jays piped in walk-up music, sound-effects on foul balls and dropped some beats during the changeover between innings. Conversations reverberated through the predominant silence, a sneak-preview of what fan-free games during the season will sound like.
Surreally weird all around.
“We’re getting ready for a different kind of season, no fans, so when the season starts we’re going to have to learn how to create our own adrenaline, so I guess we’re practising that now,” said Bichette. “There’s not a whole lot of adrenaline when you’re facing your own teammates – it’s more like a practice scenario. We’re going to figure out how to get as ready as we can, get that adrenaline going to the best of our ability on our own merit and see what we can do.”
Within that environment, the Blue Jays will need to make several difficult roster decisions, with manager Charlie Montoyo praising Jordan Romano’s work during live BPs Wednesday, saying the right-hander was building a pathway to leverage innings.
Intrasquads certainly aren’t the ideal way to settle on a roster, but Montoyo appreciates the way his players are making the best of what they’ve got.
“They’re really competing against each other. It was fun for me to watch the live BPs, it was fun for me to watch (Hyun-Jin) Ryu face Bo Bichette and try to get him out, and Vladdy and them (Wednesday). They’re competing and they’re having good at-bats. It’s been fun watching that. These guys are professionals, they can have fun, but at the end of the day, when someone is on the mound, the hitter wants to get a hit, and the pitcher wants to strike him out. That’s what I saw and that’s fun to watch.”