TORONTO — In the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse on Monday, 38 players packed two bags of equipment — a road bag and a home bag.
The players were readying to board a flight for Boston, where they’ll play two exhibition games this week, before 30 of them — plus a three-man taxi squad — head to St. Petersburg, Fla. to begin the regular season vs. the Tampa Bay Rays. The road bags will accompany the players throughout that journey. And the home bags?
“I don’t know where the home bag’s going,” said Blue Jays infielder Joe Panik. “It’s not a joking matter, but we kind of laugh about it. The way 2020 has gone in so many different ways — this just seems like one of those years.”
That’s certainly relatable. This year has been a calamity for the best of us, so of course the Blue Jays have no idea where they’ll play their 2020 home schedule. All they know is it won’t be in Toronto, their home for the last two-and-half weeks as they rushed to prepare for a season unlike any they’ve ever played.
They have eight days to figure out a home, but even fewer to figure out a roster, with a list of 30 names due to MLB at 12:00 pm E.T. on Thursday. And as the Blue Jays enter the final days of camp, here’s where things stand.
The rotation will obviously be fronted by opening day starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, followed by veterans Matt Shoemaker and Tanner Roark. Chase Anderson was expected to be among that group, as well, but a strained oblique will sideline him for the beginning of the season.
Trent Thornton, who led the team in innings pitched last season, won a job with a strong spring training and summer camp. That leaves only one opening in Toronto’s rotation — with Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay and Nate Pearson the candidates to fill it.
Kay threw live batting practice Monday at Rogers Centre, while Pearson will start Tuesday’s friendly against the Red Sox with Borucki scheduled to enter the game immediately following him.
That configuration is certainly interesting, as the Blue Jays appear to be getting Borucki accustomed to throwing bulk innings out of the bullpen. The club has discussed the possibility of piggybacking starters in that fifth rotation spot, and Borucki has said he’d be open to pitching in any role if he makes the opening day roster, which he almost certainly will.
“He’s looking really good. He’s got a really good chance to make the club,” Montoyo said. “We’re going to see him one more time, see how he feels, how he looks. And if he looks the same as he’s been looking and he’s healthy, he’s got a good chance to be on the club, for sure.”
The other obvious name to watch in Boston is Pearson. The Blue Jays’ top prospect has been dominant every time he’s taken the mound in 2020, both during spring training and Toronto’s abbreviated summer camp. He last pitched in a live batting practice session on Thursday, leaving a wake of big-league hitters who couldn’t catch up to his stuff.
Pitching at Fenway Park against the Red Sox will be a different kind of challenge — easily the toughest he’s faced in his career. But if Pearson goes out and shoves again, will the Blue Jays be able to deny him a roster spot?
Leaving Pearson off the roster for the first 7-10 days of the season, and gaining an extra year of contractual control in 2026, is an obvious trade off to make in a vacuum. But the club has to worry about what message that sends, not only to Pearson about how coldly they’ll manipulate his career, but to the rest of the roster about how competitive they intend to be in this shortened season.
And is that juice worth the squeeze if the collective bargaining agreement is altered upon its expiration after the 2021 season anyway? This entire exercise may be moot. Of course, the Blue Jays are best served to play by the rules in place today, not some theoretical ones that may or may not become reality in the future.
But what if the club begins the season with Pearson on the roster and then watches that season get wiped out a week later thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak? Now you’ve blown a year of contractual control at both the beginning and end of Pearson’s service clock. It’s another hypothetical situation that could never come to pass. But it’s one the Blue Jays would at least have to consider, as cold and calculated as that may seem.
None of this is easy, which is why the Blue Jays are still debating the decision internally — and likely will continue to until they’re forced to make one.
“We’ll see where we are when we’re done in Boston,” Montoyo said of Pearson’s chance to make the roster. “Because you never know what can happen. Like I’ve said from the beginning, you just never know. We’ve just got to have enough options. And we’ll see.”
Either Kay or Borucki would slot in as Toronto’s fifth starter if Pearson isn’t on the team, or perhaps even both in a piggyback scenario. Thomas Hatch, Jacob Waguespack, and Sean Reid-Foley are all stretched out to varying degrees, as well, and could be kept that way at the club’s alternate training site in anticipation of the need for a spot starter.
In the bullpen, Ken Giles is this team’s closer, with Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis and Jordan Romano ticketed for the high-leverage innings ahead of him. Sam Gaviglio gives Montoyo a multi-inning reliever who can also face leverage. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see non-roster invitees A.J. Cole and Justin Miller in uniform on opening day, provided the Blue Jays can make room for them on their 40-man roster.
Shun Yamaguchi’s on the team and will likely pitch in a variety of situations, eating up bulk relief innings, making short leverage appearances when the matchup’s right, or even pitching a spot start if needed. Left-handed relievers Thomas Pannone and Brian Moran are headed to Boston still trying to win jobs, but it’s unclear if the Blue Jays will have room for even one of them.
Wilmer Font was expected to be a factor in Montoyo’s bullpen, but he never made it to Toronto from Florida and was added to the club’s injured list a week ago without a reason being given. He won’t be with the club in Boston and his status for opening day is in doubt.
Meanwhile, you know Toronto’s position player core. Danny Jansen will start behind the plate most days, with Reese McGuire working in behind him. Caleb Joseph will stay ready — and likely travel as part of the team’s three-man taxi squad — in case he’s needed.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, and Travis Shaw will line up from first through third around the diamond. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk, and Teoscar Hernandez will work left to right in the outfield. Rowdy Tellez will claim a large share of the team’s designated hitter plate appearances, particularly if he keeps getting his barrel to pitches as effectively as he did throughout camp.
Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher are on hand for outfield depth, while Panik and possibly Santiago Espinal provide infield cover. If he doesn’t make the roster, Espinal would be another ideal fit on the club’s taxi squad along with Joseph and a swingman pitcher like Waguespack or Reid-Foley.
Brandon Drury was expected to play a utility role off Montoyo’s bench this season, seeing time at third, second, first and the outfield corners as he did in 2019. But he’s been on the injured list since the beginning of camp for an undisclosed reason and never made it to Toronto, remaining in Florida while the rest of the team worked out at Rogers Centre.
And he’ll remain there while his teammates are in Boston this week, rejoining the club Thursday for a workout at Tropicana Field. Montoyo says Drury’s been able to participate in some baseball activities while separated from the team, but there is some question as to whether he’ll be prepared enough to step into a live MLB game this weekend.
“I’ve got to see how he feels,” Montoyo said. “I’m going to see him for the first time, see how he feels, and then we’ll go from there.”
Of course, Panik’s presence stood to eat into Drury’s playing time, anyway. While he was brought in to provide a middle-infield safety net behind Biggio and Bichette, Panik’s been told he could factor in at third and first base, as well. He’s also taken outfield reps during training camp and should assume the role Eric Sogard played for the club last season, giving Montoyo a high-contact left-handed bench bat to situationally deploy.
“Whatever the team needs, I’m here. I feel like I could play all over,” Panik said. “I’ve got all the different mitts now. Not just a second baseman’s mitt. So, I’m ready for whatever position. The only thing is pitching. I did tell [Montoyo,] let’s leave that one alone.”
That’s fair enough. But what if both catchers went down and Montoyo needed someone to strap on a chest protector?
“Let’s hope that never has to happen. But, listen, my brother is a catcher and I have no problem getting behind the plate and blocking a few balls,” Panik said. “I haven’t worked back there. But I told Charlie: Whatever the team needs. I’ll do whatever it takes.”