TORONTO – At one point Friday evening, the Toronto Blue Jays’ outfield consisted of a backup infielder, the bullpen coach and the team interpreter.
If fans had been there to witness it, they wouldn’t have noticed any dropped balls or errant throws. But still: backup infielder, bullpen coach, interpreter. With all due respect to Ruben Tejada, Matt Buschmann and Hector Lebron, no team wants to be that far down its depth chart, training camp intrasquad game or not.
“Hey, Matt Buschmann was looking pretty good,” manager Charlie Montoyo joked.
And he did, but that’s not really the point. In the few days since arriving in Toronto for training camp, the Blue Jays have been woefully underrepresented in the outfield. With only two weeks remaining before opening day, the shortage of outfielders was starting to look concerning.
Late Thursday night, that changed. Randal Grichuk, Cavan Biggio, Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher arrived on a flight from Florida and joined the team at Rogers Centre. On Friday afternoon, all five players took batting practice on the field. Before long, they’ll be playing in games again, too.
“For those guys that got here, we have to be careful,” Montoyo said. “I’m not going to rush them in there. You might see them in the games (Saturday).”
At that point, the likes of Joe Panik, Santiago Espinal and Andy Burns can return to the infield and Montoyo can direct his attention to more pressing matters. On that front, there’s plenty to choose from.
While those five outfielders successfully rejoined the team, two other candidates for the big-league roster have not been seen at Rogers Centre thus far. No reason has been given for the apparent absences of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Jonathan Davis, nor is one expected (Davis was among the four players placed on the injured list earlier this month). Regardless, the club does not appear to be operating at full capacity just yet.
Even beyond the outfield, plenty of hurdles remain for team decision makers. In a surprising move, Montoyo announced that Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s primary position will now be first base, rather than third. While many industry observers have wondered about an eventual shift across the diamond for the 21-year-old, the Blue Jays had to this point seemed intent on developing Guerrero Jr. at third base, growing pains and all.
Instead, he moves to first base after just 94 career games at third. If he can hit like Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto or Freddie Freeman, the Blue Jays will be thrilled, but there’s still the challenge of learning a new position in a few short weeks. First base may not be as challenging defensively as third, but the ground balls Guerrero Jr. took at first in March were just the start of his apprenticeship there.
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
Meanwhile, Travis Shaw becomes the Blue Jays’ primary third baseman and Rowdy Tellez, who homered twice Friday, will be fighting for DH at bats. Shaw homered too, incidentally, but it wasn’t his bat that landed him in the spotlight Friday. In a Friday afternoon tweet, he expressed skepticism that the Blue Jays could realistically remain quarantined within Rogers Centre beyond their current training camp.
“All summer isn’t gonna happen. Not an option,” Shaw tweeted.
At this point, it’s unclear whether the Blue Jays will even get the chance to play their home games in Toronto. They’ve stated many times that their strong preference is to play at Rogers Centre, rather than Dunedin, Fla. or another U.S. city, but they’re awaiting approval from the Canadian federal government on that front.
For now, players are left wondering what’s next. At the very least, a few more of them are in Toronto now, allowing the coaching staff to make the most of the limited time remaining before Opening Day. Still, the delayed arrival of Grichuk, Biggio, McKinney, Alford and Fisher underscores a pair of challenges facing the Blue Jays in this abbreviated 2020 season.
First of all, it’s yet another example of how challenging it’ll be to navigate through a baseball season in the midst of a pandemic. And second, it’s a reminder of how costly a few missed days can be. For starters like Grichuk and Biggio, less than two weeks remain to establish a sense of timing before the games start to count. For role players like Alford, McKinney and Fisher, there are even fewer chances to prove themselves.
Starting Saturday, expect to see more of the new arrivals in game settings. Finally, the bullpen coach and the translator can get some rest.