The Canadian Press
MONTREAL–Randal Grichuk is OK with the experts and pundits already have counted out the Toronto Blue Jays this season.
“It’s one of those [teams] where people are under-estimating the talent that we have and the way we can go out there and play,” said the Jays’ outfielder.
Toronto has a tough road ahead of it this season in a division with the reigning World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the N.Y. Yankees also expected to return to the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Rays also were a 90-win team in 2018, leaving the Jays and the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East’s basement.
“I think if you just look at some of the teams we are competing against, on paper, it seems like a longshot,” Jays’ centre-fielder Kevin Pillar conceded.
“But our job as professionals is to go out there and play every single game,” he stressed.
“Sometimes when you take that underdog mentality, you’re really playing with nothing to lose.”
Toronto mustered just 73 wins last season and battled injuries to Josh Donaldson, Steve Pearce, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis.
Once their season was on the verge of being lost, they cut loose Donaldson, Pearce, and veteran pitcher J.A. Happ for rebuilding pieces.
Catcher Russell Martin, regarded as a leader, also is gone from last year’s squad.
“There’s so many intangibles that Russ brought,” Pillar said.
“[When] we were doing well, he just motivated us to keep going,” he noted. “When things slid, he would just sit in the front of the bus and just, very confidently, believe in this team.
“He made people believe we were playoff team before we even got there.”
In late-breaking news, veteran designated hitter Kendrys Morales was traded to the Oakland Athletics last night.
This year, Toronto will trot out a pitching rotation with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez returning as familiar faces.
Newcomers Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard, and rookie Trent Thornton will round it out.
Out in the field, veterans like Justin Smoak and Pillar will be counted on to pick up the slack.
However, most eyes will be on Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the leader of the Jays’ impending youth movement.
Rookie studs Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio also have impressed during spring training, but the hype train is full steam ahead on Guerrero, the team’s No. 1 prospect.
Guerrero Jr. suffered an oblique strain during spring training, which saved the Jays from having to decide if he would start with Toronto or ‘AAA’ Buffalo at the beginning of the season.
Manager Charlie Montoyo says he is ahead of schedule on his return from injury.
Pillar sees that Guerrero Jr. has the potential to become a once-in-a-lifetime generational talent, but also is wary of the monstrous predictions set for him.
“You feel for the kid a little bit,” he remarked. “You wish people would just allow him to go out and be a 20-year old kid and play, and not put those unfair expectations on him.”
The most ready of their young prospects at the moment is Danny Jansen, who is slotted in as the starting catcher for this season.
Jansen was ranked as the team’s third-best prospect per MLB Pipeline in 2018.
“He had a great training camp,” Montoyo said. “He’s been throwing to the bases. His times to second bases are also very good.
“Offensively, swinging the bat good.”
Montoyo also is a rookie of sorts, making his debut as a MLB manager today when Toronto hosted the Detroit Tigers.
Montoyo spent the last four seasons as a bench coach for the Rays.
“We’re ready to compete every day,” said Montoyo. “We got a good group and we’re going to play hard, and that’s all you can ask of these players.
“Our starters are good so we’re going to have a chance every day and I feel good about that.”