DUNEDIN, Fla. – There’s a new regime in Toronto.
Gone from the Blue Jays are Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.; in are Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Belt, and Chris Bassitt, among others. The average age on the roster shot up over the winter – a sign things were going to change.
This offseason, the Blue Jays forged a new identity as the pieces and personalities quilted together. It started at the top with manager John Schneider. Blessed with a fresh start and last season’s postseason calamity behind him, Schneider wants his players to sharpen the finer details.
“[We’re] playing loose, but maybe not as loose as before,” said closer Jordan Romano, ready to start his fifth season with the Blue Jays. “Even on the backfield, practice has been really good. It's been high energy. You mess up a rep, you’re back out there again. It's not a lot of just messing around. It's really focused.”
Through the additions of veteran players and seasoned coaches, the Blue Jays have crafted a singleness that everyone buys into.
“I think if you just look at our team the last couple years, [there’s] talent on paper,” Schneider said. “It's all there, whether it's offensively, defensively, [or] pitching. I think the next step for this group, or any group that's trying to win a World Series, is just being very, very attentive.”
Romano mentioned how Don Mattingly, hired as the Jays' bench coach this winter, has helped drive that message home. As Schneider puts it, Mattingly’s presence adds a pinch of credibility to the club’s new detail-oriented attitude that only “Donnie Baseball” can provide.
“It's nice to kind of add on to what I'm saying with him saying the same thing,” Schneider said. “And then just believing in it; just believing that this is a difference-maker.”
Together, Schneider and Mattingly have set the tone – and the players have been receptive. But when you stuff a bunch of passionate baseball personalities together for one season, the dynamic heightens. Like a mosaic, each veteran adds a dash of what they think a good club feels and plays like, and if everything works, voila, a World Series contender is born.
Take Kiermaier, for example. He leads with non-stop energy, much to the shock of his Blue Jays teammates, who were surprised he’s not jaded after years of grinding in the big leagues.
“I had one of the young guys ask me, ‘Do you still get adrenaline playing?' I said, heck, dude, every day. Every day, man,” Kiermaier said. “This is what I love to do. I love to play. [If] you win and have fun, it’s the best.”
That’s just who Kiermaier is – he’s the guy still buzzing on the bus at 4 a.m. after the team plane lands; he takes on a self-proclaimed energetic “alter ego” when he rolls up to the ballpark. Those are the superpowers he brings to any clubhouse lucky enough to have him.
For as much positivity as Kiermaier provides, he adds an equal dose of perspective. The 32-year-old has 10 major-league seasons and a World Series appearance under his belt, so he understands what it takes, especially when it comes to clubhouse culture. “Talented players who care” win championships, Kiermaier said, and his arrival in Toronto coincided with the Blue Jays wanting to build that type of mentality.
The “Barrio” home run jacket is no more – Bo Bichette filled Kiermaier in on the group decision to retire the garment – as the club pursues a more natural method of celebrating success. Kiermaier likes the new “been-there-before” attitude.
“I tell guys to get on camera for the stuff you do between the white lines. The camera will be on you plenty,” he said. “In today’s game, there are a lot of people doing a lot of things when they know that camera’s on them. And I’m old school, so I’m not into all that.”
It’s not fair to call the Blue Jays an old-school squad, even with all the veterans, but the club recognizes that sound baseball teams execute the fundamentals. And sound baseball teams are the ones who make a run in October.
“When you look at the teams in the postseason, there's rarely a glitch in their armour,” said Kevin Gausman. “And it's because they do those little things well and they keep the pressure on the other team. They don't give anything away.”
They don’t give anything away. A haunting concept given how the Blue Jays gifted the Seattle Mariners a victory last year in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card series. But with a rejigged roster, new coaching philosophies, and an intensified focus, Toronto feels better-equipped to contend down the stretch.
“It’s almost like we got asked to homecoming last year, and then this year we feel like we can go to prom,” Gausman said with a grin. “It’s kind of the way it feels.”
Last season, the Blue Jays got a taste – a sour taste – of postseason baseball. Now they’re ready to strike back and avenge those failures from a year ago.