LAS VEGAS – When Charlie Montoyo first got the chance to coach third base for the Tampa Bay Rays, someone asked him if he was ready for the challenge of handling that responsibility at the big-league level.
His response, as a veteran of countless minor-league games: "Yeah, I’ve been practicing for 18 years."
Now the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, Montoyo faces similar questions as he prepares for his first big-league managerial gig. His answer has stayed consistent.
"It’s kind of the same feeling," he said while addressing the media at the Winter Meetings Tuesday.
"So there’s not a feeling that you’re a rookie?" Laughing, Montoyo dismissed the question. "No, no, no."
Decades into his professional baseball career, the 53-year-old Montoyo sounds confident that he’s ready for his biggest challenge yet: managing a rebuilding Blue Jays team coming off an 89-loss season. Montoyo arrives in Toronto exceptionally well respected throughout the baseball industry. Some of his longtime friends have gone out of their way to sing his praises at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Still, Montoyo will face plenty of challenges in his first season leading the Blue Jays and his answers Tuesday offered some insight into how he’ll approach them.
Whenever the topic of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. comes up with personnel from other clubs, they don’t hesitate to rave about his ability. Understandably, the Blue Jays are generally more reserved with their public statements about the game’s top prospect, but Montoyo’s clearly excited to watch Guerrero Jr. on a daily basis.
"The moment he gets there, he could be one of the best players in baseball," he said. "That’s exciting. Being at the triple-A level for eight years, I know sometimes (minor-league success) doesn’t translate to the big-leagues. But what they say about him, he’s going to translate and be one of the best players."
Of course, the Blue Jays will almost certainly delay Guerrero Jr.’s debut until the middle of April or later to ensure that they control his rights for seven seasons rather than six. To determine the precise date of that call-up, Montoyo will keep in touch with the coaching staff at triple-A Buffalo.
"If Vladdy doesn’t make the club and he’s in triple-A, I’m going to be talking to (the staff) all the time," Montoyo said. "(They will) have a good feel when that kid is ready to be in the big leagues."
On a tactical level, the Blue Jays are contemplating various new approaches under Montoyo. Depending on the composition of their pitching staff, they could use the ‘opener’ strategy first implemented by the 2018 Rays, perhaps with a reliever like Ryan Tepera or Tim Mayza. GM Ross Atkins says the Blue Jays would prefer to build a rotation featuring established starters, but there’s clearly an openness to different approaches if needed.
Along those lines, the Blue Jays are considering the idea of starting spring training workouts at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. as a way of ensuring that players get more sleep. Plus, the Blue Jays will continue shifting often under Montoyo, who opposes the idea of banning the infield shift across MLB.
"I don’t think they should," he said. "They’re big-league players, they should make the adjustment. I think they will. Sooner or later they’re going to make an adjustment, because they’re the best hitters in the world so I think they will."
Since joining the Blue Jays in October, Montoyo has made a point of calling as many players as possible. One particularly memorable conversation took place with Kevin Pillar, who told him "I can’t wait to throw champagne over your head when we get to the championship."
Getting to that point will require plenty more work for the Blue Jays, but after all these years that’s nothing new for Montoyo. It’s just that the spotlight’s much brighter now.