(The Canadian Press)

Baseball is Back: New-look rotation and young core has Jays feeling optimistic

The uncertainty is yet another hurdle in this most unusual 2020 season

The road will be home for the Toronto Blue Jays over the course of the 2020 regular season, which kicks off Friday night at Tampa’s Tropicana Field for Canada’s lone Major League Baseball team.

A proposal to use Rogers Centre for home games was kiboshed by the federal government due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan would have required regular back-and-forth travel to the United States, a non-starter for Ottawa given the surging positive cases south of the border.

The Blue Jays were close to booking Pittsburgh’s PNC Park for most of their home schedule, but that plan was shut down this week by state health officials.

Baltimore, Buffalo and Dunedin, Fla., could still be landing spots for a team that remained homeless as of Thursday afternoon, just days before its home opener July 29 against Washington. It’s also possible that Toronto could play home games against so-called road teams in the opposition’s own stadium.

The uncertainty is yet another hurdle in this most unusual 2020 season, trimmed to 60 games from the usual 162 due to the pandemic. The Blue Jays are expected to improve upon last year’s 67-95 effort, when several of Toronto’s highly touted youngsters got regular playing time at the big-league level for the first time.

General manager Ross Atkins made a number of signings in the off-season in an attempt to strengthen the starting rotation and provide stability to a roster that had been overhauled over the last few years.

“It’s an exciting group, it really is,” Atkins said during a recent media availability. “Our position player core, they look great. The quality of our at-bats from a year ago to now is noticeably different and noticeably much more advanced and mature than where we were as a team.

“We feel like we’ve gotten more athletic, we feel like we’ve increased our agility and feel very good about our pitching depth.”

Toronto holds the No. 21 spot in the latest 30-team MLB.com power rankings.

Making the pitch

The Blue Jays have a new-look rotation anchored by ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, the team’s prized off-season free-agent signing. Ryu, who finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, signed a US$80-million, four-year deal with Toronto.

Matt Shoemaker, who missed most of last season due to injury, appears to be back in form and will be joined by new additions Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark. Anderson starts the season on the 10-day injured list due to a right oblique strain.

Top prospect Nate Pearson appears primed to crack the rotation but he’ll start the year on the three-man taxi squad.

Crossing the diamond

One of the main storylines from the Blue Jays’ two-week summer training camp was word that young slugger Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., would move from third base to first base.

Guerrero’s defence on the hot corner was so-so in his rookie campaign. Travis Shaw will likely take over at third base and designated hitter duties should fall to Rowdy Tellez, who impressed at summer camp and this week’s pre-season games in Boston.

Youth is served

After showing impressive flashes of its potential in 2019, Toronto’s youthful core appears ready to build on that foundation.

Guerrero’s bat is fearsome and Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., also look like the real deal.

The Blue Jays caught a break in the MLB Draft last month when Austin Martin surprisingly fell to fifth. The 21-year-old Vanderbilt star joined Toronto’s 60-man player pool for summer camp.

East beast

One of the downsides of the truncated schedule is that Toronto will play 40 games against opponents from the tough American League East and 20 interleague games against National League East competition.

The upside of the compact campaign is an August hot streak could make for a very interesting September.

Manager Charlie Montoyo’s club will be tested out of the gate. Three games against a deep Rays squad will be followed by four against the World Series champion Washington Nationals.

The Blue Jays will play the powerhouse New York Yankees 10 times over an 18-day stretch in September.

Ball call

Rather than travel to the COVID-19-ravaged United States, Blue Jays rightsholder Sportsnet is planning to have broadcasters call the action from the network’s Toronto studio.

Sportsnet reporters will also remain in Canada and provide remote analysis and commentary.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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