It is supposed to be the time of year for optimism, the belief that, no matter how far-fetched, somehow you are following a team worth watching and, if all goes well, one that will be playing meaningful baseball late into summer.
For the first time in a handful of seasons, it’s a claim that can’t be made about the Toronto Blue Jays.
With a new manager and a lineup void of any established superstars, the pickings are expected to be slim over the next six months. The glimmer of hope — assuming it is supplemented by some reliable starting pitching and the continued development of young players — is that the future is bright.
Just how that translates into wins will start to unfold when the 162-game season gets under way on Thursday afternoon at the Rogers Centre. With expectations the lowest in years — a view punctuated by team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins — declines are expected on multiple fronts: On-field performance, which already skidded significantly the past two seasons; Rogers Centre attendance, which just two years ago was the pride of the American League; and overall interest in a team that had enjoyed unprecedented, coast-to-coast support.
But opening day always brings with it a whiff of hope (in lieu of any other meaningful signs of spring) and the youth movement has some promise, even if the two most prized jewels will start the season in Florida and Buffalo respectively.
Answers will come eventually, but for now, we present our 10 burning questions in advance of opening day.
- Can you bet the over?
The wise guys who establish the lines in Las Vegas aren’t buying into the enthusiasm of Montoyo, the big spring of starting pitchers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez and the great Dominican hope, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The bookmakers know the Jays are in rebuilding mode and that they are in arguably the toughest division in baseball, so 75.5 is the established over/under total.
While low, much would have to go right to top that number, especially if the bullpen remains suspect and if, by the end of July, management pawns off proven assets to further bolster the youth movement.
- Who will watch?
For the past four-plus seasons, the Jays built themselves into a huge sports entity both in the marketplace and coast-to-coast across Canada.
There were two seasons leading the American League in attendance, through-the-roof TV ratings for Rogers — the parent company of both the team and the network — and untold riches coming the team’s way.
Much of those riches (more than US$38 million) is being paid for veterans Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki to go away, but we digress.
Viewers and ticket holders aren’t dummies, evidence of which will be apparent by early next week. Factor in potential long playoff runs by the Raptors and Maple Leafs and interest in the team could be its lowest in decades. How low can those numbers go before shareholders pressure Rogers bean counters to put the heat on Shapiro?
- What will be the biggest improvement?
First-year manager Charlie Montoyo told us on Wednesday that the team will play hard every day, the only guarantee the man replacing the popular John Gibbons can make.
By that, Montoyo believes he’s lit a fire under at least a couple of players who didn’t always run out ground balls with max effort and that mental miscues will be at a minimum compared to previous seasons.
For sports fans who appreciate innovation and effort, plus a glimpse at the future, at least it’s something.
- Who is on first?
Well, that would be Justin Smoak, of course. But of note is Montoyo’s belief that the pride of Goose Creek, S.C., and 2017 all-star has emerged as a clear clubhouse leader.
Smoak had a special relationship with superstar prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during spring training, until the latter was hurt. He also was a veteran that younger players gravitated toward.
“He was one of the pleasant surprises for me when I got to see what kind of guy he is,” Montoyo said. “Plus he’s a good player, so that helps. He’s taken a leadership role in the clubhouse and, hopefully, he’s going to have a great year.”
The manager will give Smoak the best opportunity to do that, batting him cleanup in the order with Brandon Drury, Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk ahead of him.
“If he hits 40 home runs, he might get 200 RBI,” Montoyo quipped.
- What about Vladdy?
Since Guerrero injured his oblique in spring training and was tucked away at minor-league camp, the big story surrounding this team went quiet.
That won’t last now that he’s returned to the batting cage. The 20-year-old remains the top-rated prospect in the majors. The Vlad watch is expected to follow the big lad through some early games in Florida before some ramped-up action in Buffalo.
If all goes well, he could make his major-league debut in May — and with it bring at least a brief spike in interest. If the promotion happens early enough, Guerrero could even be seen as a candidate for American League rookie of the year honours.
- Will April resemble September?
Short answer? No.
Expect roster upheaval, the arrival of Guerrero and possibly the exodus of veterans, should they deliver with solid seasons.
Since the 2019 campaign is so much about development, opportunities will fall to those who earn them. There is some position-player depth, for example, creating internal competition as management evaluates who it wants to be an ongoing part of the great Shapiro rebuild.
- Are Stroman and Sanchez pals again?
Remember when the two would-be aces of the Jays staff were inseparable, only to have their bromance end up on the rocks?
Well, don’t look now, but social media suggests they’ve mended some fences and a source on the team confirms that bridging those differences was a spring-training project that seems to have had some success.
Stroman tweeted a picture of himself and Sanchez on Wednesday confirming the development.
In the bigger picture, there appears to be a more upbeat attitude in the Jays clubhouse, partly a function of youth, partly a reflection of Montoyo’s mantra to keep business loose and fun. We’ll see how long it lasts.
- Can Stroman and Sanchez carry the load?
Sticking with the above pair, there is a quiet confidence that both have recovered from injury and both are ready to resume their upward curve toward being elite starters in the American League.
Their respective performances this spring would back that up.
The trouble is that the Jays rotation is one big injury-rehab ward. Clayton Richard is returning from a knee injury. Like Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker (forearm) hasn’t pitched a full season since 2016, and lefty Ryan Borucki will start the season on the injured list after experiencing some elbow discomfort late in training camp.
- Who has had the strongest early impact?
That short list includes one player who will be in the opening day lineup (left fielder Teoscar Hernandez) and another who will begin the season in Buffalo (Bo Bichette).
Hernandez became the first official fixer-upper of Montoyo’s regime, with a determination to improve his dodgy defensive play. The manager visited him in the Dominican Republic during the winter and had several members of his coaching staff working with him in Florida.
The results, so far, have been solid. Hernandez still wields an electric bat that Montoyo wants and needs in his lineup. Through better positioning, Hernandez has shown signs of being less of a defensive liability.
As for Bichette, there wasn’t a Jays coach or executive who wasn’t dazzled by the infielder’s showing. Defensively, he was smooth and intuitive, and at the plate, he displayed both power and productively.
The only question is how long the Jays want to keep him buried on the farm.
- Who are the biggest trade prospects?
Tough to say exactly where management plans to go with veterans currently on the roster, but one of the most intriguing aspects of the Stroman and Sanchez campaigns is where it takes them.
If either or both return to form, they could be valuable trade assets come the July 31 deadline? Of course, they will. Would the team want to swap both for more young prospects or keep them as the building blocks of a long-term rotation?
Elsewhere, if Ken Giles pitches back to his 2018 form, the closer could be in demand, especially given that a Jays team not expected to challenge the .500 mark might not have as much need for him.
And what about Kevin Pillar, who has also been the subject of trade whispers during the off-season?
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019