TORONTO – Well, it’s almost here, this baseball season of disquiet, and as much as the Toronto Blue Jays and the other 29 teams around the majors are seeking to pick up where they left off, the realities of pandemic life also mean they’re starting fresh, too.
A 60-game season is a different beast than the 162-game grind, and in its inherent small-sample-size randomness there is both opportunity and risk. Beyond that, the pandemic is a variable that can immediately change the balance of power in a division, a league, or submarine the entire venture.
Factor in the unpredictability of youth and that the Blue Jays, as you may have heard, are scrambling to find a home, and good or bad, this is going to be an unforgettable summer for Canada’s lone MLB club, barred from playing in its home and native land.
So as the Blue Jays’ opening day at the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday looms, let’s get you caught up on where things stood, and cast forward a bit, too.
Umm, where will they play?
Certainly a pertinent question, one the players and front office are completely focused on, perhaps to the detriment of other things. As of Monday night, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and Baltimore’s Camden Yards are the two likeliest scenarios, although given how sideways this has already gone, that could change in the blink of an eye. The impacts of not having a proper home-field advantage are somewhat mitigated with COVID-19 preventing fans from gathering in the stands, but tenant life for a couple of months will give this season a barnstorm feel for the Blue Jays, which is without a doubt suboptimal.
OK then, what’s up with their pitching?
Home aside, this is the most pivotal matter for this club. The off-season adds of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson (who will begin the season on the injured list with an oblique strain), Shun Yamaguchi, Rafael Dolis and Anthony Bass created a depth lacking last year, when the Blue Jays at one point were left with an unorthodox two-man rotation. Manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker shouldn’t face the same making-things-up-on-the-fly stress they had last year, when the Blue Jays ranked 22nd in the majors with a 5.25 rotation ERA. Ryu starts opening day and is a legit ace. Matt Shoemaker, back from a knee injury, is No. 2, to be followed by reliable innings-eater Roark, sophomore Trent Thornton, and, perhaps, Ryan Borucki. There’s this dude named Nate Pearson you might want to keep an eye on, too.
Yeah, what’s happening with the big fella?
Pearson looked ready to mow through big-league hitters during the first spring training, and then spent the shutdown further refining his breaking pitches to look like a starter with a cheat code during summer camp. Triple-digit velocity, a vicious slider, snapping curveball and developing changeup – the dude is just unfair. Even more unfair is the way baseball teams are manipulating the game’s service-time rules, which means if the Blue Jays hold him down for about a week and a half, they’ll gain another year of contractual control on the elite prospect. When there are proper minor-leagues for him to be sent to, a somewhat plausible best-for-his-development argument can be made. But not this year, when he’d be relegated to the club’s yet to be determined alternative training site. Such a blatant manipulation will be a bad look, and the public shouldn’t accept these decisions as smart business.
Now at first base …
A different look this summer will be Vladimir Guerrero Jr., across the diamond at first base, after playing only at third in games during spring training. Quietly, the young slugger worked in the backfields with infield coach Luis Rivera during the first camp and the switch was made ahead of the second camp. Why did they do it? Well, this was coming at some point, and the defensive metrics on Guerrero last year were not kind. Though Rivera believes he’s better than that, the Blue Jays infield is better defensively with him at first and Travis Shaw at third. And ultimately, the Blue Jays feel this is the best way to maximize Guerrero’s bat, which is really the part of his game that needs to be maximized. If he’s raking, who cares where he plays?
As for the rest of the kids …
Intrasquad games aren’t any sort of meaningful indication, we don’t think, but regardless Bo Bichette certainly looks ready to pick up exactly where he left off last year. In the first formal competition of summer camp, he homered on the first pitch he saw and generally played with the same killer-swag he showed during his two-month audition in 2019. Cavan Biggio impressed as well and Danny Jansen, who tore things up during the spring, looks to have maintained his rhythm at the plate and carries that same leader-of-men demeanour behind the plate. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is nursing some side discomfort, which bears watching as the season approaches, while Teoscar Hernandez remains a tantalizing vision of power and speed in the outfield. Rowdy Tellez mashed throughout a two-week camp in Toronto, too, adding to the mix of potential and promise that makes the Blue Jays the type of team so difficult to accurately project.