Spring of intrigue looms for Blue Jays, with Ricky Tiedemann’s progress among key subplots

Shi Davidi and Hazel Mae report from the Blue Jays player development complex in the days leading up to Spring Training, to discuss the team's focus on getting their offence back on track and the competition for the final rotation spot.

TORONTO — A year ago at his first big-league camp with the Toronto Blue Jays, Ricky Tiedemann made a point of watching and learning. His goal, the club’s top prospect says, was “to be a fly on the wall” as his veteran pitching counterparts went about their work. Based on what he saw, “I added a lot to my routine.”

But after his second Grapefruit League outing, his left shoulder started barking and delayed his start to the year. Once he got going, he made four starts before biceps soreness shut him down again. Shifted from on-the-cusp to catch-up mode, Tiedemann didn’t find a groove until summer’s end. By the time he went home to California for the winter, he’d logged only 44 minor-league innings, plus 18 more in the Arizona Fall League.

“Definitely last year I had a couple of obstacles, but I think I learned a lot from them when it comes to my own routines and habits throughout the year,” Tiedemann said in a recent interview. “I feel like, as a starter, sometimes adding too much is a detriment. You’ve got to keep it simple sometimes. Going out there once every five days is already a routine in itself, so you want to slow down a little bit in between then. Last year, I wasn’t doing that so much. I was continuously adding stuff rather than slowing it down and regrouping between starts. I’ve kind of honed that in coming into this year.”

Tiedemann is looking to apply all those experiences during his second camp with the Blue Jays, which kicks off Thursday as the club holds its first workout for pitchers and catchers in Dunedin, Fla.

What that looks like and just how close he is to pitching in the big leagues will be among the more intriguing subplots in the club’s build-up to the 2024 season.

Front and centre, obviously, will be whether the Blue Jays offence, which faltered throughout a trying 2023 and returns largely intact, can be more productive, especially hitting with runners in scoring position (.730 OPS, 20th in the majors). New DH Justin Turner will be key in that regard, as will a revamped coaching staff structure featuring Don Mattingly shifting into an offensive co-ordinator role, overseeing returning hitting coach Guillermo Martinez and assistant Hunter Mense plus new assistant Matt Hague

Also tasked with helping to extract more from the group in place is DeMarlo Hale, who returns to the Blue Jays as associate manager under John Schneider. Among the tasks on their plate will be ensuring none of the discord over Jose Berrios’ early removal from the season-ending, Game 2 loss to the Minnesota Twins and game-planning concerns linger.

Other tasks to be sorted is how exactly the Blue Jays plan to mix-and-match their assortment of infielders to cover the gaps left by free agents Matt Chapman (137 games at third) and Whit Merrifield (84 games at second).

And then, of course, there’s Alek Manoah and how he recovers from a crashed-into-a-wall 2023 in which he posted a 5.87 ERA in 87.1 big-league innings over 19 starts, finished the year on the minor-league temporary inactive list and ended up getting platelet-rich plasma injections in his right arm. 

GM Ross Atkins positioned Manoah as the favourite to land the vacant fifth starter’s spot early in the off-season and then banked on it, with promising Cuban righty Yariel Rodriguez the only major add on the pitching side.

Rodriguez will be stretched out as a starter but how much work he can handle this year is uncertain, as he didn’t pitch competitively after the World Baseball Classic last spring so he could get to North America. His $32-million, five-year contract allows the Blue Jays to option him without his approval this season only (he’ll also be a free agent once the deal expires), an inclusion that demonstrates the need for flexibility with him.

Other pitching depth pieces include Bowden Francis, who drew praise from teammates as he logged 36.1 innings in 20 games bouncing between triple-A and the majors, and the out-of-options Mitch White, who impressed late in an injury-marred season.

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All of which makes Tiedemann’s progress all the more essential.

The 21-year-old left-hander is ranked as the sport’s No. 22 prospect by Baseball America, No. 26 by Baseball Prospectus and No. 29 by MLB Pipeline, underlining how impactful he can potentially be for the Blue Jays.

With clock ticking on the current core — Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Jordan Romano, among others, are just two years from free agency — the club needs some internal talent to emerge. Along with other prospects with the potential to bubble up in the near-term such as Orelvis Martinez, Addison Barger, Damiano Palmegiani and Alan Roden, Tiedemann has perhaps the best chance to factor sooner than later.

For that to happen, he needs to maintain the consistency he started showing toward the end of last year, when he struck out 82 batters in 44 innings across three levels, including one start at triple-A Buffalo.

That starts with health, and Tiedemann feels he better understands what he needs to do to keep himself in a good spot this season, especially “more on the recovery side, just doing certain things to get you feeling right between each start.”

“Last year, I added a couple more routines than I should have and it was kind of maybe frying my arm, rather than giving my arm time to rest,” he explained. “I was just firing it up all the time.”

When on, Tiedemann fries opponents, and to that end, everything starts with consistent command of a fastball that touched 98 m.p.h. during the Arizona Fall League. The more effective his fastball is, the more lethal his elite changeup becomes, while he also seemed to find a slider shape, inconsistent throughout 2023, toward the end of the season that “was working very well with my repertoire.”

“At the beginning of the year, everything was out of place, in a way. Not too much, but just a little bit off. But I think at the end of the year we got it locked in,” he added. “Everything started falling into place, routine-wise and everything started feeling good in between each start. That’s where I want to be this year.”

The same goes for the Blue Jays with the long road ahead to another season set to begin anew.

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