TORONTO – Alek Manoah is a really big dude, with giant bear-paw hands and an easy manner that he flashed as he toured through the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, grinning wide each step along the way.
Invited by the front office for a weekend visit to the dome with his family, the 11th-overall pick in the June draft witnessed all the behind-the-scenes prep that goes into a day in the life, a window into the work still to come, a vision of the carrot that waits at the end.
"This is about as close as it gets right now," he said during the first of what the Blue Jays hope is many clubhouse conversations with media.
At the tail end of a rebuild year that’s been a disjointed amalgam of despair, hope, struggle and success — with a bevy of interests tugging at each of those strings — Manoah’s visit, and the home debut for Anthony Kay against the New York Yankees, offered a welcomed refresh. Glimpses at what might one day be can be a good palette cleanser for the lingering Edwin Jackson and Ryan Feierabend experiences.
"It’s extremely exciting, especially thinking I could be that guy in the next two years or so," Manoah said of watching Kay, who cruised through four shutout frames before the fifth inning unravelled on him in what finished as a 6-5 win in 12 innings Friday night.
"I was following T.J. Zeuch, and obviously I followed Nate Pearson. I played with Kloff (Adam Kloffenstein at short-season-A Vancouver), so I know we’re all extremely excited about proving to the organization that we can hang."
Manoah’s window of opportunity is off in the distance, but Kay is among the handful of prospective candidates with varied credentials who’ll be trying to climb into the starting rotation next spring.
Troublingly, there isn’t a single established support beam under contract beneath them, with Thursday’s release of Clayton Richard underscoring just how lacking the Blue Jays are on that front. Clay Buchholz has done yeomen’s work in that regard, but the expectation is that he’ll depart as a free agent in the fall. That leaves Matt Shoemaker, who accumulated 1.2 WAR in five starts before a torn ACL in his left knee ended his season, as the lone in-house veteran option to offer continuity in leadership.
The 32-year-old is eligible for arbitration this fall and would earn a raise on his $3.5 million salary this year. But the Blue Jays are more likely to non-tender the right-hander and seek to negotiate a fresh deal afterwards, a possibility that’s already come up between the sides.
"I guess you could say we have (talked) a little bit, they’ve actually talked to my agent and reached out and expressed interest," said Shoemaker. "Man, I want to be here. I can see the excitement, the potential. Obviously, a great city, a great organization, all that stuff. I just think it would be really great to be here long term. So there’s been a little bit of discussion, but it seems like it could be an off-season discussion."
While Buchholz and Richard both offer master-classes in pitching and competing with whatever they have on a given night while being top-class teammates, Shoemaker is the more ideal combination of someone widely respected in the clubhouse with upside on the mound, too.
His five outings before the freak injury were outstanding, and while he’s unlikely to sustain that level of performance over 162 games, he’s a sensible value play. The Blue Jays would still need at least one established starter with less injury risk – Rick Porcello and Jake Odorizzi are two potential targets who make sense into 2021 when the competitive window is really open – but Shoemaker would be able to connect some dots from this year to next.
"When I got called up by the Angels (in 2013), I feel like I was in a really good position and clubhouse with a very good veteran presence," said Shoemaker. "That’s kind of made me who I am and how I want to give any of these guys information. I love being in the position that I’m going to go out there and play and do great, but off the field, being able to talk to these guys."
The Blue Jays, ideally, should be moving toward a place where the finer points a Shoemaker offers really begin to matter, especially now that so many of the young arms are beyond the initial big-league touch. Of the 20 starters they’ve used this season, six have been openers while six of the remaining 14 have been rookies.
As they move from getting to the big-leagues to sticking in the big-leagues, their clubhouse will increasingly need voices to deliver messages and ensure issues are being taken care of. It can’t only be the coaches.
Shoemaker remembers how as an Angels rookie, veterans "talked to me about failure and talked to me about success. We can come up with 100 topics of the little things I’m talking about, mostly baseball related, the mental side, the physical side, good work ethic, all that stuff."
Kay deserved a better pitching line Friday, as he was bled in the fifth inning and hurt by another round of sloppy outfield defence. He surrendered four hits and a walk in that frame, each coming around, although only one ball in the inning, a D.J. LeMahieu single at 100.4 m.p.h. off the bat, was really scorched.
"I’ll check the video, see if I left anything over the plate, see if I was executing my pitches and stuff like that," Kay said of his self-evaluation process. "The five runs, I think, don’t indicate how well I threw the ball today. Sometimes you make good pitches and they hit them. You’ve just got to see if you were executing your pitches or leaving them over the plate."
By and large, Kay did that, the Blue Jays rallied from the 5-3 deficit he left behind, and eventually won it in the 12th, when Bo Bichette told teammates in the dugout that if lefty Tyler Lyons threw him a slider, he was going deep.
Lyons threw a slide away for a called first strike, went changeup outside for a ball and then served up a middle-in slider that Bichette sent screaming over the left-field wall. Pandemonium ensued, ending a night upon which to dream, even as the work is really just beginning.