DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays have a complicated puzzle to put together when it comes to selecting their fifth starter, and that process officially starts on Saturday when the club opens its Grapefruit League schedule in Tampa against the Yankees.
Manager Charlie Montoyo has Trent Thornton scheduled to start the opener, and he’ll be followed by Anthony Kay on the road before Shun Yamaguchi starts the home opener on Monday.
All three will be part of that competition, which will be one of the main storylines to follow as spring unfolds. It can be difficult to handicap these spring competitions as they go on, as pitching lines in February and March aren’t given as much weight, so it will be important to listen closely to the reviews from Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker.
“They’re competing for a job. We don’t go much by Spring Training [results], but we want to see people pitch good when you’re competing for a job,” Montoyo said. “So I’m looking forward to seeing them compete. That’s going to be good for all of them.”
With so many arms and limited innings in Grapefruit League games, the Blue Jays will also use Minor League games and piggyback their starters, which would see one pitcher throw a couple of innings off the top and be followed by another starter for the third and fourth innings, for example.
Call it a good problem, but it’s one Toronto will need to navigate carefully.
“It’s always an issue when you have a plethora of starters, I guess you'd say,” Walker said. “But there's a way to work the puzzle and put the pieces together and make sure guys are prepared for the season. That's the bottom line, so obviously you have some priority; you got to make sure that their pitch count is where it needs to be and then you work from there.”
The biggest buzz in camp will be reserved for the club’s No. 1 prospect, flame-throwing right-hander Nate Pearson, who still isn’t expected to make his MLB debut until midseason. Montoyo got his first look at him recently throwing a bullpen, and his review was simple.
“I saw his bullpen the other day,” Montoyo said, “and I said, ‘Yup.’”
Shortening up the bullpen
The Blue Jays were forced to carry multiple relievers capable of pitching bulk innings in 2019, largely due to their use of the opener and their inconsistent starters in between. With a rotation that looks better, deeper and more predictable this season, that won’t be necessary.
“We have so many starters now. You can never enough pitching, but I don't have to worry about stretching guys,” Montoyo siad. “It will be one or two innings at the most.”
Montoyo was asked earlier in camp which relievers have jobs locked down and, while closer Ken Giles might be the only true guarantee, he was quick to mention Sam Gaviglio as an option. Gaviglio is capable of being that multi-inning arm if he cracks the roster, so Toronto could focus more on high-strikeout arms and hard throwers, the latter of which the club has lacked at points in recent seasons.
• Sean Reid-Foley will remain a starter and open the year in the Triple-A Buffalo rotation if he doesn’t crack the Major League roster. The clock is ticking, though, as some believe that his stuff would play better in shorter stints.
• Jacob Waguespack is a starter for now, but could be shortened up into a bullpen role as another multi-inning option.
• Left-hander Thomas Pannone is being used as a reliever this spring.
• Reliever Rafael Dolis got his visa on Tuesday and is travelling to Dunedin to join the Jays.
• Julian Merryweather isn’t competing for the No. 5 job this spring, but Toronto hasn't yet decided if he’ll remain a starter or be shortened up into a relief role.
• Tanner Roark will pitch shortly after the opening three starters who are scheduled because he opened camp dealing with the flu.
• The Blue Jays will be careful with Matt Shoemaker early in camp as he completes his comeback from a torn left ACL in 2019. Montoyo said, “He’s got to do his routines moving side to side before we start him in a game.”