Rotation plans; Lourdes gets infield reps

February 18th, 2021

TORONTO -- The biggest, broadest decision facing the Blue Jays between now and Opening Day is how they'll structure their pitching staff, with everything from a traditional five-man rotation to much more creative options on the table.

Year after year, you'll hear managers say that you can never have enough pitching depth. That's never been more true than in 2021, when starters are coming off the shortened 60-game season. That will effect a young arm throwing 100 mph, like Nate Pearson, differently than it will a veteran arm throwing 90 mph, like Hyun Jin Ryu, so this will be a strategy that develops from week to week.

The short answer is that this will be much clearer by mid-March. Until then, though, teams will be forced to adapt.

"We're going to pay attention to that this year more than ever," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers. "The good thing about having all of the equipment we have is that we can see when somebody who's been throwing 95 mph, all of the sudden is throwing 92, 91 mph. We're going to pay attention to all of that. It was a weird year last year and not everybody had that many innings."

To their credit, the Blue Jays are set up well to weather this challenge. While their rotation still needs some help at the top end, their starting depth goes eight or 10 players deep with Major League arms. Toronto can ride with a piggyback strategy, mix in extra days of rest or cycle multiple arms through to keep them fresh.

Hope for the best, but plan for the rest.

"Hopefully it's the traditional way, but let's see how Spring Training goes and see how the arms are doing and we'll go from there," Montoyo said.

If the Blue Jays had to roll out a traditional starting rotation now, ace left-hander Ryu would likely be followed by No. 1 prospect Pearson, Robbie Ray, Steven Matz and Tanner Roark in some order. Beyond that, the depth group expands to include Ross Stripling, Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Julian Merryweather and T.J. Zeuch. There's no shortage of options.

Ryu was more optimistic when discussing the ramp-up to a full 162 games. The veteran has missed time with injuries in the past, but when he's been healthy, Ryu says that he doesn't typically tire or feel weak late in seasons. Because of that, Ryu feels he can get back to a full workload without issue.

"To be honest, I don't think it's really been affecting our pitchers too much. It wasn't like we had to play through shortened seasons for several years," Ryu said through club interpreter Jun Sung Park. "It was just that one season last year, so I feel like our pitchers are ready for a regular season again. I can tell that everyone has prepared really well through the offseason to get themselves ready for Spring Training."

As this develops through Spring Training, keep an eye on which starters are being used back-to-back in the same games, as that could hint at some strategy to come. The strategy on Opening Day is just Step 1 of a larger pitching philosophy that will need to adapt to a unique season.

Trying new things
A staple of Spring Training is players getting reps at new positions. Nine times out of 10, the idea fades and doesn't reach Opening Day, but there's intrigue nonetheless. Here are a few to keep in mind with the Blue Jays:

• Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has been taking some ground balls at first and third base, Montoyo said. Third base would be particularly interesting. Gurriel has the arm strength and his seeing even sparse time at third would free up Cavan Biggio to play one of several positions. That being said, Gurriel looks at home in left field, where he was a finalist for the American League Gold Glove Award in 2020.

• Teoscar Hernández has taken some fly balls in left field, giving him some options outside of right field. George Springer is expected to be the everyday center fielder, but he'll also take some reps in right.

• Expect Marcus Semien to focus solely on second base with shortstop as his secondary position.

• Yes, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is still expected to get some Spring Training reps at third base. Guerrero wants to prove himself there, and while he's likely a first baseman long term, perhaps he can show the Blue Jays enough to be comfortable with him sliding across the diamond once a week to help optimize a lineup.

Five-star reviews in Dunedin
Catcher Danny Jansen knows Dunedin, Fla., well. The catcher played parts of two seasons for the Dunedin Blue Jays and has been through his fair share of Spring Trainings now, so he knows TD Ballpark and the club's training complex well, both before and after the recent renovations. Now living in Florida, Jansen was able to work out at the new complex over the winter and loved what he saw.

"It's tremendous here. We're lucky to have it," Jansen said. "It's completely different than the old one, the Bobby Mattick [Training Center] across the road, so we're very spoiled to have. The weight room is ginormous and the outdoor areas -- the covered field out there and the cages, the fields -- are nice, so it's been great training here. Good offseason to move down here."

Jansen's also familiar with how the ball flies at TD Ballpark, where the Blue Jays will be opening their season.

"I'd say it's a hitter's park. It plays a little smaller," Jansen said. "It plays to right field a bit more than left field, so we're going to have to deal with it and act accordingly."

Extra bases
• Right-hander Patrick Murphy, the club's No. 18 prospect, came into camp with a shoulder injury, Montoyo said. Murphy isn't active now, and while there's no timeline at this point, Montoyo suggested it wouldn't be a long-term issue.

• Stripling isn't in camp yet, but he should be soon as he and his wife are expecting a child.

• Ryu threw a 50-pitch bullpen session on Thursday. The review from Jansen, who caught it?: "Same old Ryu."