“Who are those guys?”
It’s a question that can easily be applied to the Toronto Blue Jays as they embark on a season with a roster brimming with so much new blood that buying a program will be mandatory for those still inclined to buy tickets.
The big rebuild begins in earnest Thursday with the first of a four-game series at Rogers Centre against the Detroit Tigers.
The season opener is not yet sold out at the 46,000-seat downtown facility. In the past, the opener used to sell out in a matter of minutes.
Nor does there appear to be a shortage of tickets available through ticket resellers, another indication that baseball fans remain in a wait-and-see mode as to how things will play out on Bremner Boulevard.
The spectre of watching the likes of Freddy Galvis, Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard, Trent Thornton and Danny Jansen has yet to spark the imagination of the paying public.
Attendance sank by almost 11,000 a game during last year’s 73-89 debacle, the largest dip of any major-league club, so the attendance bar has already been set at limbo levels.
That the Blue Jays will lose, and lose often, is almost a foregone conclusion with a team desperately lacking in true star power. Whether that number might be 85 or 90 games or – egads! – even 100 is a matter open to debate, one that the team’s cautiously optimistic front office will not entertain.
Brighter days are on the horizon is the mantra of this team. Help is on the way, just not quite yet.
“We’re building something that’s going to make this fan base proud,” Toronto general manager Ross Atkins said in a recent interview. “The way our staff and players go about their business on and off the field – the way we compete, the way we treat people and fans – will all be very exciting to be a part of.
“We’re going to play to win and not tolerate anything less. There are great storylines in baseball every year and our hope is that we can be one of those stories. We aren’t setting limits on what we can accomplish this year.”
The front office remains bullish in its belief that, with a farm system ranked among the top three in baseball, chock-filled with blue-chip prospects, it is just a matter of when, and not if, the Blue Jays return to playoff contention in the American League.
“It’s hard to talk about specific expectations,” Atkins said. “We’re aware of the challenge of the division, think we have the ability to compete with those teams and could not have more confidence in what the future holds.”
Youth has to be served in any rebuild and with the Blue Jays that charge – eventually, anyway – will be led by 20-year-old third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., regarded as the game’s top young talent who will start the season in Triple A after recovering from an oblique strain.
The spring-training injury is timely given the Blue Jays were already taking heat for their decision to delay Guerrero’s ascension into the big leagues to help in the player’s development process, Atkins said.
Officially, it has nothing to do with the fact that delaying Guerrero’s promotion for several weeks will give the Blue Jays an additional year of his service down the road, when he is presumably a star and Toronto is presumably in a position to contend against the likes of the deep-pocketed Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Others players not yet considered ready for prime time, but certainly on the cusp, include shortstop Bo Bichette, who cranked out four home runs in 20 games in spring training, first baseman Rowdy Tellez and pitchers Nate Pearson, Julian Merryweather, T.J. Zeuch and Sean Reid-Foley.
The job of putting the pieces together this season falls on Charlie Montoyo, the new analytics-friendly manager who will take over the reins from the popular John Gibbons, who decided to step away with a year left on his contract.
After 18 years managing in the minor leagues and four years as a coach with the Tampa Bay Rays, this will be the 53-year-old Montoyo’s first crack at calling the shots in the majors. It will not be an easy task.
Of the eight position players who started in last year’s opener, only three are expected to be in the Toronto starting lineup Thursday: Justin Smoak at first base, Kevin Pillar in centre and Randal Grichuk in right.
Veteran catcher Russell Martin is gone, moving on to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Also departed is shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, another holdover from those back-to-back 2015 and 2016 teams that generated thrilling runs into the AL Championship Series.
Others who were on Toronto’s 25-man roster at the start of last year, who have since been vanquished, include Josh Donaldson, Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Aaron Loup, Yangervis Solarte, Tyler Clippard and Roberto Osuna.
The future of the Blue Jays will include Jansen, the 23-year-old catcher who will handle the everyday catching duties after auditioning for the spot over the final six weeks last season.
There will be a new second baseman in 25-year-old Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who made 62 infield starts a year ago – at least until incumbent Devon Travis returns from yet another knee injury.
Brandon Drury will take over at third, at least until Guerrero’s arrival, at which time Drury could be shifted over to second.
Another newcomer will be Galvis, who will take over at shortstop. Toronto’s biggest free-agent acquisition during the off season, Galvis will come with an iron-man mentality having played in 325 consecutive games, and should be a stabilizing defensive influence on the left side.
The outfield will feature Teoscar Hernandez in left (the Blue Jays hope he is improved defensively), with Pillar in centre and Grichuk in right.
Billy McKinney be the fourth outfielder with Richard Urena the reserve infielder. Designated hitter may be a bit up in the air as Kendrys Morales was traded on Wednesday night to the Oakland Athletics. Luke Maile will back up Jansen behind the plate.
Pitching will likely be the team’s Achilles heel, especially the starting rotation.
Marcus Stroman, who will get the opening-day start, has looked great during spring training and is looking to rebound from a rough 2018 campaign. Fellow returnee Aaron Sanchez has experienced two successive injury-racked seasons and has to prove his hand issues are a thing of the past.
Atkins has been busy stockpiling starters, with Shoemaker, Richard and Thornton rounding out the rotation, at least for the start of the season. Thornton is a rookie while Shoemaker and Richard are two veterans coming off recent injury concerns.
Toronto also has Clay Buchholz, another veteran starter, who is waiting in the wings, remaining in Florida where he is recovering from a partial tear in his right flexor tendon. He could be ready to pitch at the big-league level before the end of April.
The makeup of the bullpen has also been altered with recent arm injuries sustained by Ryan Tepera and John Axford.
Ken Giles will be the closer with Daniel Hudson, Tim Mayza, Joe Biagini, Sam Gaviglio, Elvis Luciano and Thomas Pannone also part of the group.