DUNEDIN, Fla. – The agenda for John Schneider in his first spring training as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays is relatively straightforward. There’s a fifth starter to identify between Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White along with a final spot on the bench to be decided between Nathan Lukes, Otto Lopez and potentially others. But beyond that, the roster is largely devoid of questions in need of an answer.
“For the first time in a while we kind of have a pretty set team, I think,” Schneider said as camp opened Monday. “There’s going to be competition for a few spots and you want to look at those and dive into those certain positions, just kind of seeing how the guys play together, too, how they mesh. Building off of the last month of the season last year and carrying it over into this year and seeing how they come together as a team is important this time of year, too.”
To that end, the obvious priority for a Blue Jays team that won the American League’s top wild-card spot last year before getting ousted in two games by the Seattle Mariners in the post-season is the progressive workload buildup needed to have players ready for opening day.
At the same time Schneider, who led the team to a 46-28 finish after Charlie Montoyo’s firing, also has some “general themes” in mind for his squad, starting with “being a little bit precise with the ball, if you want to call it that, or being precise with your work.”
“Every team has the same block of time that they’re going to work, but what you do in those blocks makes a difference,” he continued. “We want guys to take care of every little thing. They’re going to hear that all spring, meaning bases, defence, pitching, all that kind of stuff.”
That message isn’t an unfamiliar one from Schneider, who sought to tighten up the small cracks that undermined the Blue Jays’ performance last year. Now, he’ll be armed with a roster better equipped to meet whatever situations a game presents.
“Different look for sure from offence and defence,” he said. “Run prevention was something we were stressing going into the off-season and I think that we’ve done a great job bringing guys in that can help with that and more left-handed hitters, guys that are versatile, kind of what we had last year with some of those guys. And you look at some bullpen pieces and obviously (starter) Chris Bassitt, it’s a different look, but a team that I’m really excited for this season.”
NO WBC FOR ROMANO: Jordan Romano committed to playing for Team Italy in next month’s World Baseball Classic shortly after tournament plans were announced and he was down for it.
The Blue Jays closer played for Italy in 2017 when the event was last staged and “had a great time,” he said. But as this edition approached, he grew wary of crossing the Pacific to play in Pool A out of Taichung, Taiwan against Cuba, the Netherlands, Panama and host Chinese Taipei, so he bounced.
“I just didn’t feel like it’d be the best decision for me to kind of rush and get ready,” said Romano. “Taiwan’s pretty far away, it’s almost 24 hours to get there and I just felt like it would throw off the routine schedule for me getting ready for the big-league season. The Blue Jays are my primary focus and I just felt like it was the right call just to stay here and stay on schedule.”
The Markham, Ont., native is also eligible to play for Canada and Guardians starter Cal Quantrill recently tried to convince him to switch sides. The travel would be easier with Canada set to play out of Pool C in Arizona with the United States, Mexico, Columbia and Great Britain.
“Me and Quantrill are pretty good buddies and he approached me wanting me to come play,” said Romano. “Hanging out with Quantrill does seem pretty cool, but I committed to Italy, so if I was going to play, it would just be for Italy this year.”
What about next time?
“That’s a discussion for a few years from now,” said Romano. “It’s Italy right now but we’ll see in four years.”
NEW RULES FOR NEW YEAR: Bo Bichette and his teammates took the field for the first time with the new expanded bases – now 18 inches squared from 15 inches squared – and part of the Blue Jays’ planning this spring will revolve around adjusting to the changes.
Also new for 2023 will be a pitch clock and the elimination of infield shifts. Having stolen 25 bases in 26 tries in 2021 before going 13-for-21 a year ago, the shortened distance between bags and limits on pickoff attempts could entice players to be more active once aboard.
“The (bigger) bases don’t really mean too much to me – I was planning to be more aggressive anyways,” said Bichette. “I guess it’s going to be easier with those rules, pick-offs and all that. That’ll be something we have to learn and see what we can take advantage of there. But I definitely want to be aggressive either way.”
John Schneider said the Blue Jays “have been trying to come up with ways to train accordingly and put some constraints on some guys, whether they’re working off the mound or whether we’re working defensively. We’re excited to see how it plays out and I think it’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment for every team in the league.”
LINEUP LOOKS: John Schneider, new bench coach Don Mattingly and others have “kicked (batting order possibilities) around” and while he wasn’t sharing where they’re at, he’s excited about “a different look” that will include lefties Brandon Belt, Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier.
Spreading them out to “where you can kind of stay out of some predictable pockets for the opposing bullpen,” will likely be part of the plan. “Whether you’re right-handed or left-handed, we have some really, really good hitters that can do a lot of really, really good things. A lot of it’ll be performance/health dependent. In a perfect world, if you can spread them out a little bit and ensure that at least one guy gets a really favourable match-up in a three-hitter pocket, that’s what you’re shooting for.”
Last year the Blue Jays were last in the majors in at-bats with platoon advantage at 30.7 per cent, miles away from the league average of 52.7 per cent.
QUOTABLE: “I think that you have to learn to lose together before you can learn to win. We definitely need to go out there and learn from what we didn’t do right, me included, a little bit of maturing as a professional and as a person. I think we’re all ready to do that.” – Bo Bichette