Pitchers and catchers report to Jays’ camp

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Eager to look forward after another quick post-season exit last year, the Toronto Blue Jays opened camp Thursday with a sense of optimism and a belief that they have the ability to contend again in the always-tough American League East.

“This group is hungry,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “There’s guys that definitely want to do more things than they did last year.

“Not ignoring some of the really good things that we did do, but there’s definitely a sense of urgency to do a little bit more than we did last year.”

It was the first formal workout day for pitchers and catchers at the team’s Florida development complex. Some position players were on hand for training but they don’t have to formally report until early next week.

The Blue Jays squeaked into the playoffs last year after an 89-win campaign but were eliminated after back-to-back losses in Minnesota. It was the third time in four years that Toronto was swept in the opening round.

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In 2022, the Seattle Mariners erased a seven-run deficit in Game 2 at Rogers Centre to advance. Last year, Toronto managed only one run over two playoff losses at Target Field.

“That’s water under the bridge now, we have to turn the page,” said Blue Jays right-hander Kevin Gausman. “The guys who have been here the last two years, we’re definitely upset being 0-4 in the last two post-seasons.

“The goal is to always get that first win and then go from there. Obviously it starts today.”

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Most of the roster remains intact from the 2023 lineup with a few exceptions.

Third baseman Matt Chapman, designated hitter Brandon Belt and utilityman Whit Merrifield were lost to free agency.

Veteran slugger Justin Turner recently signed as a free agent and centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier returned on a one-year deal. Utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa inked a two-year contract and Cuban right-hander Yasiel Rodriguez signed a five-year deal.

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Turner, who hit 23 homers and drove in 96 runs last year for the Boston Red Sox, will likely serve primarily in a DH role this season.

“He’s already had an influence and impact on the organization from our interactions with him,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said at an MLB media event later in the day in nearby Tampa. “I’m very much looking forward to that being firsthand.”

Starting pitching and team defence were the main strengths last season but Toronto’s offence struggled at times. Don Mattingly has taken on an enhanced role as offensive co-ordinator in an attempt to get the bats back in form.

“It’s a really talented group,” Schneider said. “I’m looking to see how they respond to a few tweaks here and there from a prep standpoint and from an approach standpoint.

“I think adding a guy like (Turner) into our lineup really speeds that up a little bit too with what he’s done over his career.”

Meetings and workouts were the order of the day on a warm and breezy morning under partly sunny skies.

A trimmed-down Alek Manoah played catch with Chris Bassitt in the outfield before throwing in the gang mounds area under the watchful eye of Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker, who both looked impressed with his stuff.

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Manoah was shut down last September after receiving multiple injections in his pitching arm. The 2022 AL Cy Young Award finalist struggled most of last year and was demoted to the minor leagues on two occasions.

“When you get your butt kicked, you want to start a new year with a fresh slate,” Manoah said. “I’m super excited for the boys this year and super excited to get after it.”

Manoah, who changed his look in the off-season with a thick beard and longer hair, was expected to hold a formal media availability on Friday.

“He’s been such a good pitcher in this league,” Schneider said. “It’s an exciting time for him and it’s exciting for us to see what he looks like. The work that he did getting himself into shape and getting himself ready to pitch, the way he attacked this off-season has been really encouraging.”

The Blue Jays will begin their pre-season schedule on Feb. 24 against Philadelphia. The regular-season opener is set for March 28 at Tampa Bay.

“We feel like we are one of those top teams in baseball,” Gausman said. “We’ve just got to go out and do it now.”

Notes: Utilityman Cavan Biggio has yet to start on-field hitting due to left shoulder tendinitis, Schneider said. Biggio has been throwing and participating in fielding drills.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2024.

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