TORONTO – Soon after the Toronto Blue Jays hired Charlie Montoyo, he began reaching out to as many players as possible. As the team’s new manager, he wanted to build connections before the daily grind of the season began.
On Saturday, Montoyo met many of those players in person for the first time at Winter Fest, a fan event held at Rogers Centre this weekend. Some, like Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar, Montoyo already knew from his days coaching with the Tampa Bay Rays, but in other cases he was grateful for the jerseys players wore.
“I’m glad they’ve got the names on the back,” he joked.
No, this edition of the Blue Jays isn’t so easily recognizable. Gone are Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, all of whom were still Blue Jays six months ago. In their place there’s a far younger team that will enter the season with fewer established stars.
“It’s definitely different,” Smoak said. “I feel like I was one of the guys, and now I feel like I’m the old guy.”
Chances are, this team won’t compete in 2019. Montoyo doesn’t use the word ‘rebuild’ and the players all say they’ll surprise people, but more realistically this team looks positioned to contend one or two years from now.
Still, as spring training approaches, the Blue Jays have some clear goals in mind. They want to open the season rested and with better infield defence. And as for the composition of the roster, Montoyo made it clear that just about every player will have to earn playing time regardless of experience or prospect pedigree.
Among position players, no one beyond Smoak, Pillar and Randal Grichuk has assurances of everyday playing time. Even Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will have to earn his chances despite a strong rookie showing in 2018 and the December release of Tulowitzki.
“We’re not set on anybody playing anywhere,” Montoyo said. “Everybody’s got to compete for their jobs. Nobody’s got a (guaranteed) job here. That’s fun for those kids.”
In the rotation, Ryan Borucki will have to earn a rotation spot even after a strong showing late last year. The left-hander enters 2019 intent on making 30 starts and hopeful of reaching the 200-inning plateau, but he realizes that the Blue Jays will only hand him a rotation spot if he earns one.
“I wouldn’t say I’m pencilled in,” Borucki said. “I play like everyone’s trying to take my job. I never want to get too comfortable. I’m trying to get better every year. For me in my mind going into spring training, I don’t have a spot. I’m just going to try to get my job and hold onto it as long as I can.”
Behind the plate, Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Luke Maile will be competing for two jobs this spring now that Martin’s been traded to the Dodgers. The Blue Jays aren’t about to hand Jansen the job, but his prospect pedigree and success late last season did impress Montoyo.
“I’m excited about Danny Jansen,” he said. “From watching him from the other side (I believe) he’s going to be very good. I think he’s going to be an all-star someday … I’m going to tell Danny Jansen ‘you do what you did against the Rays. You play the right way, just do that.’”
Regardless of who’s on the Blue Jays’ opening day roster, Montoyo’s intent on fielding a stronger defensive team, particularly on the infield. When the club’s coaching staff met in Dunedin, Fla. earlier in the month they agreed that must be a priority.
“In our division, if you make an error in Boston it becomes a two-run homer,” Montoyo said. “We’re going to improve.”
At the same time, the Blue Jays want to be sure that their players are rested when the season begins. That means the team will begin workouts later than the traditional 8 a.m. start time and build in downtime along the way.
“One goal of mine is when Spring Training’s over, I want these guys to be ready to play 162 games, not tired,” Montoyo said.
If enough young players take strides ahead, the Blue Jays could be in a much stronger position this time next year. As Smoak said, “They’re young players, but they’re really good players, too.”
From Montoyo’s perspective, the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are reminiscent of the young Red Sox core that emerged a few years ago. Young stars such as Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts didn’t make the Red Sox instant winners, but the makings of a contender were there.
“They finished last but you’d go ‘they’re going to be good someday,’” Montoyo said. “That’s how I see our team.”
Right now in the middle of winter, that vision seems distant, but as preparations for spring pick up, Montoyo’s thinking about what the next contending Blue Jays team will look like.