Blue Jays’ at-bat crunch a good problem, but one that must be managed

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. (Carlos Osorio/CP)

TORONTO – The cliché is that when a team has more players deserving of at-bats than at-bats to give them, it’s a good problem to have. In principle, that very much holds true, as the Los Angeles Dodgers show year after year. Depth is a prerequisite for the season’s inevitable attrition, and between injuries and underperformance, playing time often sorts itself out.

Still, in practice a crowded roster requires deft touches from everyone involved, a prime challenge for the Toronto Blue Jays this season. Meritocracies are ideal, but with four outfielders used to playing every day, Rowdy Tellez reminding everyone of his capacity for impact in Sunday’s spring opening 6-4 win over the New York Yankees, and plans to sprinkle DH days around the roster, manager Charlie Montoyo won’t be able to keep everyone happy, especially if they’re all hitting.

Still, while competition can bring out the best in people, it can also lead to players pressing for results one day to ensure a spot in the lineup the next. In turn, a run of days on the bench can seed doubt, which is why explanations from the coaching staff to players about why different decisions are being made will be especially pivotal.

“It’s all about communicating and in the big-leagues, you always have to do that,” Montoyo said. “I always do that anyways, but this year, if it’s going to look like that, many guys are going to have good years, there’s going to have to be a lot of communication with players when they’re not playing.”

Quite obviously George Springer, who’s slated to see his first Grapefruit League action as the DH on Tuesday, is going to play every day. So, if Tellez continues to build off his progress last season – he ripped a two-run double off Michael King in the first and added a base hit in the third off Asher Wojciechowski that set up Jonathan Davis’ RBI single – and Teoscar Hernadez is back in Silver Slugger form, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is raking again, and Randal Grichuk takes another step towards consistency, someone has to end up wearing it.

Given how driven players must be to reach this level, being content with regular days off isn’t in their wiring. Hence, keeping everyone active and engaged through the whims of daily matchups and hot/cold streaks will be a difficult dynamic to navigate.

“If that happens, I’ll take that pressure any day,” said Montoyo. “I’ll be good with that.”

No doubt, a good problem to have, but one that can create unintended consequences.

Take Hernandez, for example, coming off a breakout in which he delivered MVP-calibre numbers. In 2019, he was optioned to triple-A Buffalo after an extended stretch of looking lost, changed his approach, salvaged his season and then took off last year.

Up to that point, he thought, “I just didn’t realize it, I can do all of the things that I did last year,” he said. “Guillermo (Martinez, the hitting coach) helped me a lot. Dante (Bichette, a major-league coach last year) helped me a lot. For me now, everything is about trust. Try to trust myself, trust the things that I know I can do it and just go out there and have some fun.”

Credit to him for finding the confidence to leverage his sizable talent, but the Blue Jays need to ensure that a day or two off after an inevitable 0-for-12 doesn’t impact that trust. Same goes if someone cycles in and goes off, it doesn’t affect his approach the next time he steps up to the plate. And given that when asked about being the DH he said, “honestly, I don’t like it,” they must be careful there’s no cumulative effect.

“I don’t think (at-bats) are going to be harder (to get),” said Hernandez. “If they have four outfielders, they know what they’re doing and I feel like they’re going to do a pretty good job playing everybody every day to get a lot of at-bats. I don’t think there’s going to be anything different this year.”

That’s a good answer and the right outlook, to bear down and continue on the path that made him successful a year ago, a route that should earn him a long bit of rope.

Tellez, too, also has the right attitude.

“I can’t control (the off-season) moves, but I can control my effort, what I do when I get into the box, what I do when I’m on the field, what I do around my people, strength coaches, training staff,” he said.

“Those are the things I can control, how hard I work and the effort I put in. You say the at-bats thing and I’m not worried about that. If I can be an impact in any way, shape or form, that’s what’s going to happen. It takes takes a lot of people to win a World Series and not many people can say they’ve won a World Series. I’m just here to be the best I can and help this team win the World Series.”

All that is easy to say right now amid the early joys of spring training, with the Grapefruit League schedule just underway and the promise of 162 only beginning to unfold.

To keep roster surplus as a good problem to have, the Blue Jays must maintain those positive outlooks through the tough times that loom, when managing frustrations from the slumps and the losing streaks inherent to the long grind arrive, and there simply aren’t enough at-bats to go around.

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