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Charlie Montoyo can’t stop smiling. He is smiling throughout his pre-opening day news conference. He is smiling on the field, holding a bat, as his team goes through batting practice.
He is smiling — and he is, he says “nervous” and “grateful” and “thankful” and all the things you do and say before your first big league game as a manager. This manager, on a team full of happy-to-be-here momentary big leaguers, is certainly happy to be here after bouncing all over baseball most of his life.
This isn’t a weird time for him — this is a happy time — but this is one of the weird openings in Blue Jays history. The team that starts the season isn’t expected to finish the season. The best players or the most anticipated players, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, will not begin the season with the Blue Jays.
It’s likely Guerrero will not be called up until late April or early May, depending on what his numbers are — hits, home runs, OPS, weight. The Jays want the offensive numbers to go up, the weight number to come down. That will be part of the ongoing Guerrero Watch, this season and into the future: He is the star on the come. Just when his arrival time comes is still to be determined.
I can’t remember a Blue Jays season beginning like this one, with so much community ambivalence at a time when the Raptors and Leafs have taken over the market, and the eventually rebuilding Jays are trying to determine where exactly they fit into the sporting landscape of this city.
I can’t remember a Blue Jays season beginning like this one, with almost nobody talking about baseball, the playoffs of 2015 and 2016 seemingly so long ago, the hopes and prospects slowly make their way to the city.
This is an odd time for Toronto baseball, a new time really because of the rebuild, because of the silly baseball rules about service time, because of the roster disconnect between how players perform during the season and what their futures here are expected to be.
Take the case of Marcus Stroman, starting pitcher on opening day and either the best of Blue Jays’ starters or one of baseball’s most overrated players, depending on whom you ask about him. This is the view on Stroman from the inside: The better he pitches this season, the more likely he’ll be traded sometime in July.
The better he pitches, the better the trade market should be open for him. So the Jays begin the season with a curious starting rotation that could, in fact, get worse as the season gets longer. The thought is Stroman won’t be here all season long. And that brings the next question to Aaron Sanchez, former close training buddy of Stroman.
Sanchez has been pretty much lost the past two seasons and had ace stuff before he couldn’t stop the blisters. Now, apparently, all is good — and the better Sanchez pitches, the better chance he’ll be sent packing as well this season.
So we play this waiting game from the outside. It’s about who’s coming and who’s leaving and when are they arriving and when are they departing.
Really, the four most valuable players in the organization are in a variety of places as this new season begins for this first-year manager.
What’s the over-under on starts Stroman will make for the Jays — and what can they get in return for him?
What’s the over-under on starts Sanchez can make and how effective will they be? And if he returns at all to the quality of two years ago, what can the Jays effectively reap in return?
This is a year about moving parts. Bichette has been sent to Buffalo where he will play shortstop in triple-A and truly believes he’s major league ready. He impressed a whole lot of people with his bat and his defence in spring training. He believes he’s ready to play every day, but the Blue Jays have veteran Freddy Galvis at shortstop, which buys them some time on the Bichette Watch.
Bichette thinks he can play right now. He’s that confident. The Blue Jays might believe that, but they won’t say that for attribution. They are playing the long game with Bichette — the thinking is once they call him up, they’ll be calling him forever.
Montoyo said the “funnest part” of spring training was watching the kids, watching the young array of talent the Jays have.
“We have good players,” he said.
And then he takes the company line. The good players will be here when he’s told by the Jays development evaluators that they are ready to be ready.
That’s code for the young stars on the way will be here when management has determined the time is right economically.
“Vladdy’s hurt, he won’t be ready (to start the season),” Montoyo said. “Bo needs at-bats in triple-A. When they (the evaluators) says they are ready, they will be here. You can count on that.”
We don’t know what we can count on. The two prizes of the Jays farm system will not begin the season here. The two best pitchers may be gone by July. The race with Baltimore is on in the American League East. Somebody has to finish last.
It all begins Thursday afternoon, this season of talk and conjecture and hope. For now, Charlie Montoyo is smiling. And why shouldn’t he be? He has yet to lose a game this season. That part starts for real Thursday afternoon.