Blue Jays’ Montoyo must navigate tricky spring training challenges

Sid explains why it could be a good thing for the Blue Jays to hold off on calling up Vlad Guerrero Jr., despite every fan wanting to see him opening day.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Feb. 14 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training roster with 56 names didn’t stay current long, as catcher Alberto Mineo showed up Thursday morning and fellow last-minute non-roster invite Conor Fisk, a right-hander, checked in a bit later. Ryan Feierabend, another righty who pitched in South Korea the past three years, was in the clubhouse as he awaited a physical to make his minor-league deal official, while Canadian John Axford was en route to Dunedin, set to make it a nice round 60 players at camp.

New manager Charlie Montoyo had his hands full simply keeping track of who’s who, let alone worrying about all the minutiae he now oversees. In recent days leading up to the club’s first official workout for pitchers and catchers, he’d been in contact with Rays manager Kevin Cash and new Minnesota Twins skip Rocco Baldelli, who like Montoyo coached in Tampa Bay last year, discussing what do with his opening address to the club and the like.

And then there are the number-only spring jerseys the Blue Jays wear.

“I really have to pay attention when I meet somebody,” Montoyo said with a grin. “I’ve got to remember his name, because you know how it is, you say hello and then when they turn their back, oh, that’s who that is. I won’t have that chance here.”

For diehard fans, too, a cheat sheet with player names and numbers will be helpful after the extensive roster turnover of the past two years. There is precious little of permanence on the roster, with centre-fielder Kevin Pillar the longest-serving Blue Jay, having debuted with the club in 2013.

Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman both debuted in 2014, while Ryan Tepera debuted in 2015 but predates them all in the organization, having been drafted in 2009. The 31-year-old reliever now finds himself as one of the team’s elder statesmen.

“It’s kind of funny looking at it – I’ve always thought of myself as the young guy coming up and now I’m kind of, for whatever reason, the older veteran guy in the clubhouse, and the bullpen especially,” he said. “We don’t have too many set roles right now and a chance to prove yourself just like everyone else in there right now. There are a lot of open spots on the roster, especially in the bullpen, so it’s a good chance to take advantage of it.”

Montoyo described all those opportunities and the number of candidates to fill them as a strength the Blue Jays have, but the challenge will be in identifying the right players as the club sifts through the various options.

Simply mapping out playing time for the glut of infielders competing for jobs will be demanding, and Montoyo said the plan is for Devon Travis, as well as Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Brandon Drury, to work with new first base coach Mark Budzinski in the outfield.

Once players start making the decisions for the coaching staff, Montoyo will need to slot everyone into place, and he insists that as of yet he hasn’t written out a possible lineup, even though he has thought about it.

“I’ve been around, I’m pacing myself,” he quipped.

No area will demand as much attention as the pitching staff and the Blue Jays are still looking at the free agent market for additional arms.

General manager Ross Atkins said, barring injury, four of the five spots in the rotation are spoken for between Sanchez, Stroman, Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard, while rookie Ryan Borucki isn’t guaranteed a turn every five days.

“He’ll be competing for the fifth spot,” said Atkins.

Essentially, the job is his to lose, the way the starting catcher’s job, after the departure of Russell Martin, is Danny Jansen’s to lose. In the outfield, Pillar and Randal Grichuk have centre and right covered, with Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney holding a leg up on challenges from Anthony Alford and J.D. Davis, who’s made plenty of fans in the organization on his way up the ladder. Dalton Pompey, who is out of options, is still around, too.

Behind Tepera, closer Ken Giles and free agent David Phelps, you can almost put names in a hat for the remaining bullpen jobs, although Axford, Joe Biagini and Tim Mayza probably have a head start on a group of candidates that also includes Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano, Trent Thornton, David Paulino and Danny Barnes among others.

You can understand then, why after months of buildup Montoyo said, “it felt real today.”

Montoyo’s touch will be needed in navigating the way, and his experienced touch was on display in telling pitchers that the salsa beats he loves that blared during workouts weren’t his doing, and in minimizing his pre-workout address to the club.

Pitching coach Pete Walker set out some expectations and “I said something real quick, but I’m leaving my whole talk for everybody else,” said Montoyo. “You don’t want to have the same talk twice. It’s going to be quick, to the point, because from experience, if you talk too much, you lose people.

“Nobody ever remembers that first talk the manager gives, like, ‘Oh yeah, he got us going, remember in spring training?’ Nobody ever says that. So I’ll be quick.”

NOTES: Tepera sought to clarify comments he made Wednesday to the Toronto Star’s Laura Armstrong, when he expressed anger at the arbitration process, during which he heard “my side brag about me for an hour, and then the other side kind of talk crap about me for an hour.” The Blue Jays won the case, a panel of independent arbitrators awarding him the club’s offer of $1.525 million rather than his ask of $1.8 million. While he didn’t want to expand on his comments in depth, he insisted that “there are no hard feelings between the club and I at all.” … For his part, Ross Atkins said, “The arbitration process is difficult for players and certainly respect and understand how competitive he is in wanting to have won. But the process is in place for a reason.” … Axford’s minor-league deal will pay him $1.65 million if he makes the club. … Tepera on Martin: “I loved him. He was a leader, he was a guy that controlled the pitching staff, on and off the field he was a guy I would look up to. He’s played this game for so long and I idolized him, I really did. When I found out he got traded, I sent him a text and just told him, ‘Hey man, I really do look up to you and I’m going to miss you.’”

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