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Gregor Chisholm: There’s plenty of promise hiding in the Blue Jays’ opening-week losses

Gregor Chisholm: There’s plenty of promise hiding in the Blue Jays’ opening-week losses
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The start of the Blue Jays’ season has not gone according to plan —neither has Major League Baseball’s — but for the first time in four years most of the pieces are here. Now it’s about trying to make them fit.

Toronto is off until at least Tuesday after its weekend series in Philadelphia was cancelled because of a mini coronavirus outbreak within the Phillies organization. The Jays’ next scheduled game is Tuesday in Atlanta and whether the season even gets that far could be determined by the number of positive tests across the sport in the coming days.

The Jays are spending the weekend working out in Washington, where they will have time to reflect on what could have been during the first week of the season. Toronto finished its opening week with a 3-4 record, which isn’t so bad against Tampa Bay and defending champion Washington, but it should have been so much better.

Toronto has been in almost every game and was a couple of late inning collapses away from being 5-2. All but one of their losses have been by three runs or fewer and the competitive nature of the games is why there has been such a big focus on Charlie Montoyo’s bullpen management. When games matter, every in-game decision by the manager gets put under a microscope.

The lowest points of the rebuild should be in the past. Socrates Brito is no longer swinging through 15 pitches a game. Most of the top prospects have arrived and how they perform over the next couple of years will determine the direction of this franchise. The painstakingly long rebuild led to the moment where Nate Pearson, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio would be on the field at the same time.

“There’s no doubt it feels like the start of something,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “We are very confident that this is an exciting young group that believes in themselves. They’re in every game, they’re one pitch away from big moments.

“Our pitching has been really solid out of the gates, with a lot of young pitching in the mix. Very confident about the young position players, and it’s going to turn into from staying in games to winning games. That is a fine line that we can see on the horizon, for sure.”

Just because a team amasses a slew of top prospects does not mean contention is imminent. There are countless examples of teams that thought they got through the worst of it only to see the top talent fail to materialize because of injuries or unmet expectations. That could happen here too, it has before.

About a decade ago the Blue Jays thought they were building something special. Former GM Alex Anthopoulos stockpiled a promising group of minor-leaguers and continued adding young, controllable talent at the big-league level. Guys like Travis Snider, Travis d’Arnaud, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow were supposed to usher in an era of winning baseball. Except they didn’t.

Snider, Lawrie, Rasmus and Morrow were among those who did not develop as anticipated. After a couple of failed seasons, Anthopoulos started moving prospects as he entered win-now mode. The trades gutted the system but, outside of Noah Syndergaard, most of the players sent away never lived up to hype. If they had stuck around, the results would not have been any different.

History could repeat itself, but this situation feels different. The infield appears in good hands with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. Toronto has a pair of capable young catchers in Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire. The rotation, headlined by Nate Pearson and veteran Hyun-Jin Ryu, has a slew of promising depth options such as Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch and Ryan Borucki. Jordan Romano looks like a future closer.

Just as impressive is the number of quality guys who have yet to make their debuts: first-round pick Austin Martin, right-hander Simeon Woods Richardson, infielder Jordan Groshans and catcher Alejandro Kirk. This is what the front office envisioned; once the young talent started arriving, it wouldn’t stop.

For Montoyo, it brings back memories of his time in Tampa Bay, where he managed at triple-A before being promoted to the big-league staff. Unlike the Rays, though, the hope is that Toronto will be able to afford to keep these guys around for more than a few years at a time.

“We have guys who can do different things,” Montoyo said. “Guys who can come in in relief, guys who can start games. That’s how the Rays did it, and that’s what I feel like right now. We’ve got guys like Borucki coming out of the ’pen, but he can also start. It feels just the same way, and that’s good news because the Rays have good pitching. I feel really good about my pitching right now.”

There’s no denying the Jays have an impressive young core. In some ways, it’s the envy of teams across baseball, but the real test will come over the next 12 to 24 months as the front office is challenged to add to that mix.

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Long-term questions remain in the outfield and at first base/designated hitter. The proper acquisitions will have to be made in the bullpen and, at some point, being competitive will longer be good enough, wins will have to follow. The transition from rebuilding team to contender is not complete, but the wheels are in motion.
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