TORONTO – Even with cautious optimism building that some sort of 2020 baseball season will indeed be played, all kinds of possibilities are still in play.
Everything from start dates to roster sizes to schedules remains up for debate, and even if plans begin to take shape in the weeks ahead, the global pandemic that led to the current delay could conceivably derail everything once again.
Under those circumstances, no coach can provide the kind of clearly structured road map players typically expect. As Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker has discovered over the last seven weeks, flexibility has displaced certainty for those anticipating a potential season.
These unprecedented circumstances create a challenge for anyone accustomed to the routine of the baseball season, one that has led to new ways of keeping in shape and keeping in touch. But in Walker’s estimation, a delayed season might even benefit a Blue Jays team hoping to take a step ahead after years of rebuilding.
Not only has the health of left-hander Ryan Borucki improved as of late, Walker believes the Blue Jays’ group of established starters may be well-suited to an abbreviated schedule.
“If it is a shortened season, veteran guys may benefit,” he said on a conference call with reporters Friday morning. “Over the long haul, it’s a little bit of a grind for the guys who have been doing it for a long time.”
“It could benefit us in some ways,” Walker added. “With some of our starters coming off of missed seasons – a guy like (Matt) Shoemaker for instance.”
Of course the Blue Jays aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a shortened schedule. Take the Yankees, for example. Not only do they have a veteran staff, the current pause will allow left-hander James Paxton to recover from the back operation he underwent in February. Still, the shorter the 2020 schedule is, the more opportunity exists for potential upstart teams like the Blue Jays.
Either way, it’s still encouraging for Walker to see that Borucki, who experienced soreness in his surgically-repaired left elbow this spring, has been making progress.
“He’s been feeling great,” Walker said of the 26-year-old. “This pandemic, obviously, is a terrible situation, but it’s given Ryan a chance to kind of catch up. He’s made some mechanical adjustments and feels great, arm feels great. He has been throwing sides. If there is a spring training and a season, which we’re very hopeful at this stage, he should be right in the mix and a big part of it.”
That improvement would be significant at any time, but with the possibility of a condensed schedule looming, starting pitching depth may prove especially valuable. If the 2020 schedule ends up including double-headers or limited off days, teams will churn through more pitching than ever. On that front, the Blue Jays would appear to be well-positioned after adding Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Shun Yamaguchi over the winter.
To go along with those veterans, there’s Nate Pearson, the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. By this point, he should have been on the brink of the major-leagues after honing his off-speed stuff at triple-A Buffalo for a month. Instead, he’s in wait-and-see mode like the rest of the baseball world.
Eventually, Walker, GM Ross Atkins, manager Charlie Montoyo and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann will have to make all of the pieces fit together. In theory, rosters could expand beyond 26 to accommodate for a condensed schedule or shortened pre-season. Or, each club might have a taxi squad of minor-league players preparing nearby to ensure reinforcements are available when injuries strike.
It’s imaginable that teams would consider structuring their staffs differently to deal with the change in workload. Six-man rotations? Tandem starters? More openers? For now nothing’s concrete, so while Walker has considered various possibilities, it’s too early to focus on any one scenario.
“Looking at it right now, we have some good depth,” Walker said. “We have some opportunities to do some things if the need arises. Right now we’ll just wait and see.”
While the wait continues, the Blue Jays are keeping in touch with their players on a near-daily basis with Zoom calls, texts and videos. “They’re probably getting tired of hearing from us,” Walker joked. Team trainers have ensured that players have all of the workout gear they need and Walker has offered remote feedback on some clips of pitchers throwing at their homes.
At some point in the next couple of months, those players hope to get a different kind of call – one informing them that the 2020 season can finally start safely. In the meantime, it’s a matter of staying ready in case that moment arrives.
“Nobody has a crystal ball and is going to see how this plays out in the end but I think we’re doing our due diligence as far as keeping these guys prepared for whatever season is left,” Walker said.