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This is the real beginning for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins.
The first home opener that truly belongs to them. The time we start to find out who they are and how capable they will be in bringing the Blue Jays back to some kind of relevance.
The Rogers Centre crowd on Thursday afternoon was larger than expected — and probably quieter, as well, on opening day. The place was almost full, the atmosphere close to ambivalent. This is a show-me town — always has been. It will take something — maybe the call-up of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — to get a disenfranchised baseball population excited again.
The thing is, we don’t know and they don’t know and time will answer questions that need to be asked and, somewhere, a discovery has to be made. This is only March, an unusual time to start a big-league season in Toronto or anywhere else, an unusual roster that will feature bodies ever-changing.
But a lot of this will be about the roster Shapiro, the team president, and Atkins, the general manager, will put on the field — today and tomorrow and the month after that.
On Thursday, Daniel Hudson made his debut in relief for the Jays, pitched one inning, gave up the only two runs of the game against Detroit, and looked like the kind of veteran who may fill a role today, but not necessarily tomorrow.
These are the Blue Jays, trying to find their place, individuals searching for a home in the big leagues, some Jays knowing that the better they perform, the more likely it is they will be moved this summer. That is the incongruity of this roster, with Shapiro and Atkins having moved Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Kendrys Morales elsewhere — that’s about $46 million the club is paying for those three to play for other big-league teams this season. The Jays are essentially buying lineup spots to enable others to play.
That can work — but only if the additions play to any level of big-league significance.
Brandon Drury, brought to Toronto in the J.A. Happ trade with the Yankees, led off on opening day. He went 1-for-4, played three routine balls at third base and will hold the position until Guerrero is handed the spot later this season.
Randal Grichuk, who might lead off, was brought in in a trade with St. Louis, and batted second on Thursday. Teoscar Hernandez, who came to Toronto in a trade with Houston, batted third. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., a signing out of Cuba, batted fifth. Freddy Galvis, the starting shortstop signed as a free agent, batted ninth.
The lineup has shifted from Alex Anthopoulos leftovers to those Shapiro and Atkins will have to make good with. So much will depend on how long they wait before bringing in Guerrero and emerging shortstop Bo Bichette, who was the talk of spring training and probably belongs in the lineup now.
But Shapiro and Atkins are anything but rash. They care more about safety than instant offence. They like the marathon run rather than sprints. The big bet they made, if they in fact made one, was on manager Charlie Montoyo, the happiest winless manager in big-league history, whom they have handed the wheel to their ship.
Montoyo is their choice to lead the rebuild. The more we glean from Montoyo over time — other than he seems to be just a prince of a guy — will say more about how Shapiro and Atkins have scored in this rather significant hiring.
Shapiro, more than his team, more than his GM, needs to make an impression on the city. The impression he’s made through three seasons here is he doesn’t comprehend the market, the media, the expectations, the place the baseball team holds in the community.
He has been disappointing and standoff-ish from his baseball perch since arriving here in 2015. Up to now, he has spent more time on garage-sale buys such as the reliever Hudson than he has about anything worth bragging about.
The lineup on opening day included players he inherited — Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Rowdy Tellez, Danny Jansen — and, over time, expect Pillar to be replaced, Tellez to split time with Smoak at first base and designated hitter and Jansen to maintain as starting catcher.
Marcus Stroman was near-perfect on the mound through seven innings on Thursday. He was so inspired he did a little backward dance and shimmy when he came off the mound at the end of seven innings. Stroman is part of the incongruity the Blue Jays face, and Shapiro and Atkins are most aware of it. The better he pitches — and he was awfully good against the Tigers — the more likely it is he will be traded away.
“I’m not going to panic,” Montoyo said after his opening-game defeat. “It’s just one game.”
He said all that with a smile. Everything he says these days are with a smile. Everything is so new for him.
It’s not necessarily new for Shapiro, who needs to put on a daily display that this club is headed in the right direction. He needs to build the trust of this city. He needs to be more open, more at ease, more about baseball and less about corporate buzz words.
His best pitchers, Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, were left for him. So was Guerrero. Which next ones now are Shapiro’s players? Which ones are Atkins’ players? When do they mesh in with those left behind?
One game, with all the pomp and circumstance that opening day brings, changes the look, but not the equation. Shapiro has a chance to alter his own perception that he has created for himself.
This is his new beginning. For the first time ever, this team is now his, win or lose. His team.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019