LAKELAND, Fla. – Late Monday afternoon, Charlie Montoyo approached Gosuke Katoh in the visiting clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium. The Blue Jays’ game against the Detroit Tigers had ended five or ten minutes earlier and the 27-year-old utility player wasn’t expecting anything when he saw his manager approach nonchalantly.
“Congratulations,” said Montoyo.
“Congratulations on what?” replied Katoh.
“You made the team.”
Katoh couldn’t believe it. He thought Montoyo was messing with him. But it was true. Now entering his 10th season in professional baseball, Katoh will finally get the chance to play in the major-leagues for the first time. He beat out Greg Bird, another former Yankees prospect, for a spot on the Blue Jays' bench.
“A lot of hard work went into this, and it's an emotional day for me,” Katoh told Sportsnet outside the Blue Jays’ clubhouse in Lakeland. “I worked for this for a very long time and. It means the world to me.”
As Katoh accepted congratulations from his teammates he thought back to his time at low-A Charleston in 2015. Back then, he was a highly-touted second-round pick of the Yankees, but he wasn’t living up to his potential, batting just .161 with a .466 OPS. At the time he considered walking away from the game, but on Monday he was grateful that he didn’t.
“A lot of sleepless nights,” he recalled. “I want to thank the (version of) Gosuke from back in 2014 and ’15. I thought about quitting but kept going and I'm here now because of him. So there are a lot of people I want to thank. I'm a product of thousands of people who helped me throughout my career and all the way from T-ball to this wonderful staff with the Blue Jays, I've been able to work with the past five to six weeks. And I wish they were all here, behind my back right now. But I'm sure they're watching and I hope they're smiling.”
A left-handed hitter, Katoh has the versatility to play first, second, third, left and right. He's not a power hitter, with just 19 home runs in 197 career games at triple-A, but he has good bat to ball skills and plate discipline as evidenced by his lifetime .294 average and .385 on-base percentage at the minors' highest level.
Despite making a strong push for a spot on the Blue Jays’ bench, Bird was released earlier in the day. He exercised an out clause in his contract after learning that he wouldn’t be added to the team’s 40-man roster, and he’s now a free agent.
There’s still a chance Bird could re-sign with the Blue Jays, as he’s believed to have enjoyed his brief stay with the organization. At the same time, other teams are likely to have interest in the 29-year-old after a strong spring in which he hit two home runs and posted a .958 OPS in 11 games.
On Sunday, the acquisition of catcher Zack Collins for Reese McGuire changed the complexion of the team's bench. A left-handed hitter, Collins was acquired for his bat, which the Blue Jays believe is promising despite underwhelming results against big-league pitching to this point.
“He swings the bat. He’s a good hitter,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’d be that third catcher if we go with it.”
Collins was in Charlotte at the time of the trade since Chicago’s triple-A team plays there, but he has since driven south to Dunedin and will be in Blue Jays camp Tuesday when they play their final game of the spring. The Blue Jays have until Thursday at noon to finalize their rosters, but at this point Collins is well positioned to break camp with his new team.
Meanwhile, Kevin Gausman pitched in a Grapefruit League game for the first and only time of the spring, throwing 68 pitches over six effective innings during which he mixed in his fastball and splitter. Afterwards, he threw another 15 pitches in the bullpen to replicate another inning of work and build up his pitch count.
“I’m very pleased with what I saw,” added manager Charlie Montoyo. “He looked really good.”
“The biggest thing for spring is to get through healthy,” Gausman added afterwards. “And so to have those five guys in your rotation get through spring healthy, you know, all of their bullpen guys have been healthy too, so that's huge. The position players, nobody's taken a heater off the hand or anything like that. So we've been really lucky.”
Nate Pearson (non-COVID illness) won’t break camp with the Blue Jays while Ryan Borucki (hamstring) is questionable for the season opener. Otherwise, the Blue Jays are healthy and eager for what’s next.
“I've always wanted to be a big leaguer,” Katoh said. “But more so than that I always wanted to win the World Series.”