Excitement builds for Blue Jays, who can finally open season in Toronto

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TORONTO — The last time the Toronto Blue Jays had a real home opener, Brandon Drury, Freddy Galvis and Justin Smoak were in the lineup. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette were at triple-A. The Blue Jays lost for the first of what would be 95 times.

Three years later, the Blue Jays are one of baseball’s most talented teams. Guerrero Jr. and Bichette have emerged as stars and expectations are as high as they’ve been in years.

When players talk about expectations for this team, it’s clear playoffs are the starting point, not the end goal.

“It’s just excitement,” Bichette said Thursday at Rogers Centre. “Everybody knows the talent we have and the things we’re capable of. We’re going to do everything we can to accomplish a World Series. It’s exciting to get started.”

And for Bichette and most of his teammates, experiencing opening day in Toronto will be something new. The team spent all of 2020 in Buffalo due to the COVID-19 pandemic then began the 2021 season in Dunedin, Fla., before moving to Buffalo and finally to Toronto, where they spent the last two months of the season only to miss the playoffs on the season’s final day.

“I’m so happy for our players and for our fans,” GM Ross Atkins said. “There’s 20-plus (players) that haven’t experienced that here in Toronto. I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces, to feel the energy in this stadium, and to see the excitement on fans’ faces. It’s something you can feel physically, that level of energy and intensity.”

It’s an exciting time, but as the Blue Jays and visiting Texas Rangers worked out in preparation for Friday’s opener, some questions lingered as well. For instance: how far away is Nate Pearson, what’s the status of pitching coach Pete Walker and are any talks ongoing with the Blue Jays’ young stars?

Pearson (mononucleosis) was officially placed on the injured list Thursday, but Atkins said he’s feeling better while indicating the right-hander could resume baseball activities before long. In the meantime, the Blue Jays have 10 relievers to help cover them off and Ross Stripling is positioned to make a spot start sometime this month as well.

Walker, who was arrested and charged with driving under the influence last month, was on the field at Rogers Centre Thursday, working out with the team as usual. According to Atkins, that won’t change until the legal situation develops further.

“Pete came to me very early in that process, came to Charlie, addressed the team,” Atkins said. “It’s still a legal process, so I’m limited in how much I can comment on that. … Once we have clarity on the legal process, we’ll look to make a decision if there’s things we need to do.”

As for the team’s offence, manager Charlie Montoyo hinted he’s settled on an opening day lineup without revealing specifics. As spring training came to an end, the Blue Jays played with different lineups, batting Guerrero Jr. third, where he spent most of last year, as well as second.

For the time being, Montoyo isn’t saying how he’ll line things up for the opener against Marcus Semien, Corey Seager and the Rangers.

Perhaps more important to the long-term structure of the team is the status of extension talks between the club and its emergent young stars. Bichette said there have been some discussions about a potential deal while indicating that his focus is now on the field.

“We’ve had conversations,” Bichette said. “I think right now we’re focused on the season and accomplishing what we think we’re capable of. Right now, we’re not talking.”

Asked whether the team is open to extension talks in-season, Atkins left the possibility open.

“Every situation is unique,” the GM said. “Every situation we’ll handle individually. So glad those players are here and any way that we can find a way to keep this group together longer, we’re always thinking about.”

Both Guerrero Jr. and Bichette are four years away from free agency now, so the Blue Jays have time on their side.

Where small market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates must rush to lock up the likes of Wander Franco and Ke’Bryan Hayes, the Blue Jays have spent big lately, signing three players to $100 million deals since the beginning of 2021 despite limited revenues.

Signing Guerrero Jr. or Bichette would likely require even greater commitments, but this franchise now operates more like a big-market team, so landing players at the top of the market is again a possibility.

Where those talks lead is hard to say, but for now this team is undeniably talented. With a powerful lineup and a deep starting rotation they’re arguably the best team in baseball’s deepest division.

Outside expectations are high, as you’d expect, but as Bichette told the assembled media Thursday afternoon, the players themselves see things similarly. After the way last year ended, they won’t be satisfied with another near-miss.

“I think we’ve expected a lot more out of ourselves than any of you guys have in the past,” he said. “For us, I think it’s more of, it’s about time. But like I said we’ve got to go out there and do it.”

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