The Lookahead: Storylines to monitor ahead of Blue Jays' spring opener

George Springer is joining the Blue Jays as a proven winner and leader, but he says he will be learning and understanding the Blue Jay way to earn the team's respect.

It was my colleague at The Gazette, Michael Farber, who gave me the most important piece of advice about covering spring training, what with all the backfields and bullpens and drills and batting cages.

“Follow the manager,” he told me in my first spring. “If he thinks he needs to see something in particular, you should probably see it, too.”

That is not possible this spring, what with restricted access and social distancing that has rendered off-limits the areas where most of the serious spring training reporting is done which is, essentially, every place other than the press box. So, we are at the mercy of Zoom calls or maybe texts. I sat in on one manager’s Zoom call earlier this week and the first question asked was, in essence: “So … what did you guys do today?”

And here we are: about 48 hours away from the Toronto Blue Jays’ first Grapefruit League game in Tampa against the New York Yankees, the excitement of seeing free-agent acquisitions George Springer, Marcus Semien and Kirby Yates in Blue Jays colours diminished only slightly by the realization that the Blue Jays could spend another season without setting foot in the Rogers Centre.

Still, we are within our rights as sports fans to think glorious things are on offer and with that in mind, here’s what I’d be looking at over manager Charlie Montoyo’s shoulder.

Cavan Biggio at third base: The spirit is willing. It always is. So it’s no surprise that when the addition of Semien moved Biggio off second -- Semien, who has made 766 of his 836 starts at shortstop, won’t budge Bo Bichette -- Biggio’s response was: “In a perfect world I would be at second every day or whatever position… but my value’s not the same as moving around.”

We’ll see how this plays out since this is a team that already has too many outfielders which means it’s not as simple as sticking Biggio at third and letting Guerrero and Rowdy Tellez job-share first base and designated hitter. Biggio’s left-handed bat is a rarity on this team and there is concern how the new deadened baseball might turn some of his homers into warning-track outs. He’s worth cheering for, but I’m not certain that a corner upgrade isn’t in the cards to hold the spot for Jordan Groshans. The fact the Blue Jays front office kept Biggio as informed as Bichette about their off-season moves tells you what the organization thinks of him. He’ll be here, I just don’t know if he’ll be there. Or there.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: General manager Ross Atkins and Montoyo told Guerrero that they want him to win a Gold Glove at first base and then told him and everybody else that he also needs to put in some work at third base. Guerrero sure looks like he’s lost the 40-odd pounds he said he’s shed since summer camp – continuing a process he started during the resumed portion of the 2020 season – and let’s hope the added quickness manifests itself positively at the plate and in the field. I remember an interview last year with Dante Bichette, the Blue Jays’ uniformed hitting consultant, who said he thought Guerrero could settle into a Dave Winfield kind of hitter once he and his body made peace with each other. I’d take that, no?

Nate Pearson: I go back and forth between Pearson breaking with the team or be at Triple-A to start the season because I don’t know what to make of what I saw from him in 2020 or, more to the point, what to read into it. Pearson’s ability to start every fifth day will be the signal that it really is “go” time for the Blue Jays. But now we’re talking about monitoring workloads, and after what was, essentially, a lost season for Pearson, and I’m not certain the creativity that will require can be pulled off by a team that already has myriad power options in the bullpen.

Simeon Woods Richardson, Alek Manoah, Adam Kloffenstein, etc.: Pick a pitching prospect. Any pitching prospect. It’s been fascinating hearing managers discuss how they are going to handle having all the players they have in camp this spring. Remember, because of COVID-19 protocols, minor league camp won’t begin until after the major leaguers vacate the premises. The Blue Jays started camp with 69 players; only 26 will be breaking camp with them. Plans for accommodating players have not yet been made public, but other managers have spoken about their plans.

“I mean, we really have nowhere to send the kids,” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said this week. Added Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez: “The players we cut are going to stay with us. We still want them to get tested every other day like the rest of us. I don’t know if we’ll break them off into different groups for drills. But they’ll be with us.”

So that will mean a lot of "B" games and simulated games and things of that nature as baseball attempts to re-start its development system which was effectively neutered by the pandemic – doing so in a new, slimmed-down minor league environment of the majors’ own creation. The Blue Jays’ young arms have to be factors at some point starting in 2022 and who knows, some scout may see something this spring that resurfaces in talks at the trade deadline. If they want a successful post-season run, the Blue Jays will have no choice but to sacrifice a bit of the future to find some innings this season.

The lineup: Springer’s addition has everybody wondering how he will be accommodated in a lineup that usually had Bichette and Biggio at the top, but what about Semien? He hit leadoff in 39 games last year and started 145 games out of the leadoff spot in 2019 when he finished third in American League Most Valuable Player voting. Semien worked hard to get to that place, slicing his strikeout rate by five per cent in 2019, working to make better contact and forcing Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin to lead him off against righties as well as lefties.

THE LOOKAHEAD

Stuff to watch, non-baseball category.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Edmonton Oilers, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET: Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews? Heads will explode. You can catch the game on Sportsnet and CBC.

Carolina Hurricanes at Florida Panthers, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET: The Discover Central Division’s got it going on, folks. The Tampa Bay Lightning were among the Stanley Cup favourites going into the season, Carolina and Florida are interesting long shots and who knows what to make of the Chicago Blackhawks?

Barcelona at Sevilla, La Liga, Saturday, 10:15 a.m. ET: We are seeing the end of something at Barcelona, who seem to be running out of runway both in the short and medium term. Sevilla can knock Barca into fourth place with a win and even if Barca emerges victorious, they’ll have played two more games than leaders Atletico Madrid, who will still be two points in front.

Team Adidas (Minnesota) vs. Team New Hampshire (Women’s Sports Foundation), PWHPA Dream Gap Tour, Sunday, 7 p.m. ET: After the collapse of the NWHL’s bubble on the eve of its U.S. network TV debut, the PWHPA will attempt to put the women’s game back on solid footing with its first game at Madison Square Garden. I like their chances with this arrangement. Teams are based in regional training centres. You can catch the game on Sportsnet 360.

Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors, Sunday, 7 p.m. ET: The Raptors have done a nice job recently against teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. Time to take care of the teams around them with a run of games against the Bulls, Pistons, Celtics and Hornets. And keep those Kyle Lowry rumours at bay. You can catch the game on Sportsnet.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG, ETC.

Musings on the Boys of Summer and the game they play.

• George Springer probably won’t be upset if the pandemic allows him to avoid daily interactions with the media because there are two books due out this year detailing the story behind the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal: one by The Athletic’s Evan Drellich (Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston AstrosCheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign-Stealing by Andy Martino of SNY New York.

Martino’s book is a fun read that goes deep into the “education” of some of the key members of that Astros team and looks at the long-celebrated ability to detect tipped pitches and steal opponents’ signs -- accepted in the game as long as it isn’t aided by technology or garbage cans. Carlos Beltran is one of the focuses of the book and Blue Jays fans will enjoy the influence of Carlos Delgado, who taught Beltran some of the intricacies of picking up tipped pitches and the like when the two were teammates with the New York Mets. Delgado was a master, honing his craft with the Blue Jays who had sign-stealing built into their DNA thanks to the likes of Roberto Alomar and Cito Gaston.

• For now it appears as if 26-year-old speedster Myles Straw will get the nod initially as Springer’s replacement in centre field for the Astros, at least until Cuban free agent Pedro Leon arrives on the scene. But can his speed replace that of Springer at the top of the lineup? And is that on-base percentage enough for an old school dude like manager Dusty Baker? Might he roll with someone such as Jose Altuve?

“Springer was an unusual lead-off man; gonna be hard to replace that power,” said Baker. “Straw’s in there, but we might experiment a bit. He’s a work in progress. He has speed but if he hits the ball in the air, all he’s doing is promoting outs.”

Baker was clear that he would prefer a settled lead-off spot, offering this nugget when asked if he could see a matchup-based door such as the one the Tampa Bay Rays employed in running out four different lead-off hitters in their seven-game, 2020 ALCS series win over the Astros.

“Tampa does a lot of stuff people agree with and disagree with,” Baker said. “That’s their thing… we have ours.”

• COVID-19 is never far away these days and in the case of the Washington Nationals and Astros, the daily lineup of cars going to a COVID-19 testing site near their shared ballpark of the Palm Beaches is a daily reminder of the pandemic. Nationals manager Dave Martinez thinks it’s impacting clubhouse life. “We’ve noticed our wi-fi is really slow,” he said. “It’s good to see those people taking care of themselves. But I think they’re stealing our wi-fi while they’re waiting.

• Interesting to hear Mets manager Luis Rojas suggest that one reason the team was so keen on free-agent pitcher Taijuan Walker was the fact that it had ample videotape of him pitching against AL East opponents after he joined the Toronto Blue Jays. The Mets will play 18 inter-league games this season against the division. And while there are those in the game who wonder whether Walker needs to back off his splitter usage – Walker used it 21 per cent of the time, five per cent more than average – Rojas said the Mets thought his splitter became more effective after time with the Blue Jays and pitching coach Pete Walker. It probably didn’t hurt that the only start Walker made for the Blue Jays against an opponent from outside the AL East was against the Mets’ NL East rivals in the Philadelphia Phillies. Walker struck out eight and walked two in six innings of four-hit pitching against the Phillies, his best outing with the Jays.

• Baseball has never looked or felt different. Smaller minor-league footprints. The advent of seven- and five-inning options for spring training games, in addition to nine-inning games, the ability -- for the first two weeks of Grapefruit and Cactus League games -- to call off a half-inning if a pitcher reaches 20 pitches. Are we moving toward a “controlled scrimmage” mindset more akin to the NFL? The most pressing issue will be figuring out how a missed year of development will manifest itself.

“My guess it’s at the lower levels of organizations where you’ll see the biggest impact,” Royals GM Dayton Moore told reporters this week. “I’ve been out in the field with some of our amateur scouts and it’s been interesting. We’ve seen a lot of pitchers over-throwing. More command issues and rustiness from hitters..."

THE ENDGAME

Nice to see the Mike Babcock Redemption Tour® has booked dates in the middle of the pandemic. But here’s where I need to call B.S.: the idea that poor old Babs couldn’t find an outlet to answer his critics in real-time is rubbish. There wasn’t a columnist or talk-show host in this country that wouldn’t have given him all the time he needed the second he asked for it. Babcock was entirely within his right to disappear while he cashed his big cheques from the Maple Leafs and learned how to talk about himself in the third person. But don’t even begin to suggest you were ever denied a forum.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

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