Jays begin early training camp, keen to make strides after wild-card exit last fall
Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette fields a ground ball in a drill during baseball spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Monday, February 13, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, February 13, 2023 5:02PM EST
Feelings of optimism, joy and excitement were ever-present Monday at the Toronto Blue Jays' player development complex as a couple dozen players kicked off spring training ahead of the 2023 season.
With light winds gently swaying the tops of the palm trees on a brilliant mid-February morning, the mood was as breezy as the favourable conditions in the Sunshine State for Day 1 of early camp.
Distractions seemed virtually non-existent in a welcome change from this time last year when MLB was mired in a lockout and COVID-19 protocols were still top of mind.
The sting from last fall's wild-card sweep long since faded, the Blue Jays worked out under blue skies and bright sun with a clean slate for 2023.
"It's been hectic and busy but (I'm) exactly where I want to be," said manager John Schneider. "I'm excited to get going."
Pitchers and catchers kept busy in one area of the sprawling complex during the morning session. Other players took swings in the batting cages or played soft toss in the outfield.
The camp seemed devoid of any of the pre-season challenges — injury woes, trade requests, positional concerns and the like — that can sometimes hang over the spring training period.
General manager Ross Atkins deserves some credit for the buoyant mood, as he made some intriguing moves in the off-season to help improve run prevention, versatility and team depth.
"We have a pretty set team I think," Schneider said. "There's going to be competition for a few spots and you want to look at those and dive into those at certain positions. Just seeing how the guys play together too and how they mesh.
"Building off of the last month of the season last year and carrying it over into this year and seeing how they come together as a team I think is important this time of year too."
Kevin Kiermaier, Chris Bassitt, Daulton Varsho and Brandon Belt are among the key additions. Out are Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Ross Stripling and Gabriel Moreno.
"I'm really excited to see the new guys," said shortstop Bo Bichette. "I'm very optimistic on how our season is going to turn out this year. I just can't wait to get going and work with them and just get after it."
The Blue Jays avoided arbitration with Bichette last week when the two sides agreed to terms on a three-year contract. The US$33.6-million deal covered his remaining arbitration years and prevented a hearing.
"I think arbitration is an incredibly flawed process and one that isn't very good for the game or players or owners or teams," Bichette said in his first public comments since the deal was announced.
"To avoid it is good but also just to be on the same page with the team is nice too."
Bichette's contract, which includes a $3.25-million signing bonus, has a base salary of $2.85 million this year, $11 million in 2024 and $16.5 million in 2025.
He and fellow franchise cornerstone Vladimir Guerrero Jr., are still scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the 2025 season. Atkins has said he's open to exploring the possibility of long-term deals with the team's young stars.
The focus for now turns to preparation and the steady buildup to the Feb. 25 Grapefruit League opener against Pittsburgh and eventually the March 30 regular-season opener in St. Louis.
However, the schedule is slightly different for some players this year with the World Baseball Classic on tap next month. Four Blue Jays regulars are set to play in the tournament.
Guerrero and reliever Yimi Garcia will represent the Dominican Republic, right-hander Jose Berrios will play for Puerto Rico and catcher Alejandro Kirk will suit up for Mexico. Minor-league infielders Otto Lopez and Damiano Palmegiani will play for Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2023.