As Blue Jays finally gather, front office aggressively pursuing more additions

Watch as Hazel Mae and Shi Davidi discuss how the emphasis will be on pitching for the Blue Jays at spring training, what other additions they may make as they go forward, and why Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was taking grounders at third base.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Kevin Gausman checked into Toronto Blue Jays camp shortly after lunch, was eagerly met by a couple of his new teammates and quickly began making the rounds. Yusei Kikuchi, the club’s latest pending rotation addition, is due to take his physical Monday to finalize a $36-million, three-year deal.

And as the likes of George Springer and Jose Berrios joined up Sunday with the locally-based players who had already reported for camp, a hopeful group began more completely filling out the Player Development Complex, while the front office continued to explore further adds.

All of that is borne out of motivation from “the momentum that we finished last season with,” manager Charlie Montoyo said after a relatively light day of work centred around the position players. “We're ready. We were one of the best teams in baseball (in 2021) and of course, we ran out of schedule, but that's how they feel right now. They feel good about themselves and what they did last year.”

The Blue Jays aren’t resting on those laurels.

They are said to be aggressively working the market and Kikuchi’s front-loaded guarantee – $16 million this year, $10 million in each of the next two years, per an industry source – doesn’t seem to be impeding them.

A leverage bullpen arm (they’ve looked as far up-market as Kenley Jansen) and an infielder (they’re indeed interested in a reunion with Jonathan Villar, as Hector Gomez of Z101 Digital in the Dominican Republic reported) remain the top priorities, with a left-handed hitting outfielder a nice-to-have.

Villar, who posted a .481 OPS over 22 games with the Blue Jays as a deadline addition in 2020, isn’t their only option right now. They spent a lot of time exploring trade opportunities before the lockout and with the Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds just beginning their selloffs, that market is just beginning to mature.

Jose Ramirez is the dream fit but the Cleveland Guardians’ price is thought to be prohibitively high. With one agent suggesting a run on free-agent position players is imminent, the Blue Jays could find themselves at a decision point soon.

As those market forces play out, the abbreviated buildup to opening day on April 8 is due to pick up with the first full-squad workout Monday. A focal point will be getting pitchers ready.

An 18-game spring schedule begins Friday and to avoid having starters only built out to 60-75 pitches once the bell rings, the Blue Jays will adjust initial workloads accordingly.

Before the lockout, pitchers were given individual buildup plans and once the collective bargaining agreement was settled, the club distributed questionnaires and spoke to each to track exactly where they stood.

In-person assessments are being done upon arrival in Dunedin that are then factored into a pitching schedule, which could have starters going three or four innings right out of the gate, with relievers seeing action almost immediately, akin to a normal mid-March pace.

The prep work they did leading up to camp is pivotal.

“These guys have been throwing a lot. (Hyun Jin) Ryu's been throwing a lot, Berrios has been throwing a lot, Gausman, (Alek) Manoah, it's a testament to them,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “It's important that we assess properly when they get here. It's one thing to hear it, but then to see it in person and to make sure it lines up is really important.

“There's basically time for at least three, possibly four starts for every starter, and to get them to a reasonable (pitch-count) number is very possible based on the work that they've been doing. For some teams, if their starters are coming in without being prepared, they're going to definitely be behind the 8-ball.”

The three-week sprint has some parallels to the quickie summer camp ahead of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, although one key difference is that players were free to work out as needed without public-health limitations.

Berrios, who may pitch Friday’s spring opener at Baltimore, prepared himself in a similar fashion, throwing bullpens and live batting practice regularly. As for how built up he expects to be by opening day, he says, “it's a good question,” but intends to be full go.

“I'm a competitive guy,” he said. “If you give me a choice, I can go out there and throw 90, 100 pitches in the first outing of the season. Everything is going to depend on how Pete and Charlie see me. They have a plan. We have to try to figure out what's the plan and then execute it.”

That applies to players across the board.

Montoyo said the approach is going to be, “all about the individual. What do you need? You need more at-bats, more live batting practice?”

Danny Jansen said the experience of ramping up quickly two years ago will help and this time is easier because, “we had a good idea just to stay ready.”

“It’s not an ideal time frame,” he added, “but it's not like 2020 where it was, we don't know if we're even going to play a season.”

The Blue Jays were still a team on the make back then, coming off a 95-loss 2019.

Now, they’re carrying themselves with the air of a team that’s arrived, with the expectations of achieving far more.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Jansen. “We were all rookies and now we've got two, three, four years of experience. We've gone through those days together and now it's an exciting team. People want to come play here, play with us and the core has built a great environment. The signings we've brought have been great additions. It's an awesome clubhouse in there.”

One that’s now back together, with some expected new members still to come.

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