The Blue Jays are at the beginning stages of a rebuild, and also have a new manager. With so much change, what does Charlie Montoyo owe the holdover veterans, if anything?
We know that the 2019 season will be a lot different from the last two for the Toronto Blue Jays, and regardless of how it works out that’ll be a good thing.
After back to back disappointing campaigns the Blue Jays have hired a new manager, several new coaches, and put the wheels in motion for a rebuild and a focus on the highly rated minor league system they boast. Last year we watched the departure of several notable veterans including Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna, Curtis Granderson, and more.
That trend will continue a bit this season and next, however, there aren’t a lot of veterans still left on the roster, depending on how you define the term. There are young pitchers like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, each with two years of contract control remaining, but in their mid-twenties they hardly qualify in the same way. I’m talking more about the veteran holdovers like Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, and even Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar.
The players above represent the last generation of the Blue Jays, and one that is likely past their respective primes. That would definitely be the case for Martin, Tulowitzki, and Morales, but you could make an argument for both Smoak and Pillar being in a similar boat, especially in terms of a rebuilding piece for the Blue Jays’ future.
Each situation is admittedly a little different. For example, Smoak is in the final year of his current deal which was a club option the Blue Jays exercised on him this winter for a measly eight million. For a player of his production levels the last couple of seasons, that’s a bargain. He likely has the brightest future of any of the five veterans, but at 32 there won’t be a lot of his peak left.
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Pillar is the youngest of the group at 29, but after failing to take a step forward at the plate over the last couple of seasons, and simultaneously watching his defensive numbers start to trend in the wrong direction, he could be in a similar boat if he doesn’t have a career year in 2019. There have been plenty of rumours and lots of discussion about whether the Blue Jays should trade him this offseason, but my guess is that’s a year away, or at least half a season.
The last three are different in that they’re in their mid-thirties, nearing the end of their careers, and undoubtedly at the end of the road in terms of their Blue Jay tenures. Morales has one year remaining on his current deal, and it’s expected that he’ll play out the 2019 season in Toronto acting as a mentor for the younger Latin players on the roster, a role he apparently flourishes in. Martin is a decent candidate to get traded, assuming the Blue Jays are willing to eat some/most of the 20 million he’s due in 2019. Tulowitzki is an ongoing question mark with his health, but he does have two years remaining on his current deal.
When I look at the veteran group and the job that Charlie Montoyo is walking into in Toronto, I can’t help but ask out loud, “what does he owe the Blue Jay veterans?”.
Pillar and Smoak are going to see regular playing time in 2019 as long as they’re around, but what about the other three, assuming they’re on the roster? I’ve already mentioned that I expect Martin to get moved, but if he doesn’t then new skipper Charlie Montoyo is going to have an interesting time finding him at bats, unless of course it comes at the expense of the development of the youngsters. During a rebuild that’s the opposite of what they’ll be looking for, so I assume they’ll look to deal him even if they’re paying the majority of the salary.
For Morales, he’ll be once again relegated to DH only duties, and hopefully he’ll be okay with even a few less starts than he had in 2018. Injuries played a big part in him starting as much as he did, but then again, by the end of the season he was one of the most reliable hitters. However, as a mentor he’ll also have to understand the Blue Jays need to prioritize getting at bats for guys like Teoscar Hernandez, who could see plenty of time at DH. They need to figure out if Hernandez and others are going to be a part of the next generation of this team, and they can’t worry about Morales’ feelings too much in the process.
For Tulowitzki, I’m sure the Blue Jays are privately hoping that he can’t get healthy enough to play next season. That sounds crazy when you consider that he’s due at least 38 million over the next two years (which includes a buyout for 2021), but with the plethora of infield talent in the system and the fact that Tulo is un-tradable, having him on the active roster just complicates things. That said, if he is healthy he’s going to command some playing time, and that’ll throw a bigger wrench into Montoyo’s gig.
What the new skipper will have to balance is how much he owes the veterans in terms of playing time (and ultimately respect), vs. the development of the younger players. The latter is obviously the priority at this time, but the former is also important for a number of reasons. That’s why I believe the Blue Jays will ultimately (have to) trade Martin, out of respect for him as much as anything. If they’re going to play him this season then there’s nothing wrong with keeping him around. If they’re planning on letting him wilt on the bench, he’d very much appreciate going to a team that wants and needs him.
All three players will want the opportunity to either, a) prove they can still perform, and earn their next contract elsewhere, or b) go out on their own terms. That’s a bit of a complicated situation in Toronto, and it’s that much more interesting with a new manager. We know that if John Gibbons were still around that his loyalty to his veterans would have played some factor into how he distributed playing time. With Montoyo there won’t be a lot of direct loyalty.
That said, I’m sure that Montoyo understands that veterans need to be shown respect in one way or another, even if that means they’re not playing everyday. It might not be that difficult if Martin is traded and/or Tulowitzki doesn’t get healthy enough to play, but if all three veterans are around come Opening Day it’ll be a tough gig for the first year bench boss.
That’s part of navigating a rebuild though, and I’m sure that Montoyo and the Blue Jays discussed this very topic with their managerial candidates, including the man they ultimately hired. As this team morphs into a new generation it’ll certainty be a situation worth watching, but something tells me Montoyo will handle it just fine one way or another.