TORONTO — If last year had resembled anything close to a normal 2020 season, Jordan Groshans would’ve been rubbing shoulders with his prospect peers in the lower minors to start.
Instead, at the age of 20 with just 303 professional trips to the plate under his belt, the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2018 first-round pick was running around Rogers Centre at something called summer camp, competing against big-league pitchers who were quickly trying to ramp up for a shortened 60-game season that was three weeks away.
Strange times to say the least.
It was a whirlwind time for veterans, let alone a prospect like Groshans, who was just trying to figure things out on the fly as part of the Jays' 60-man player pool quarantined inside the stadium.
“The only thing I was really thinking about was to develop,” Groshans recalls. “It’s still early in my career and I got the opportunity to be around big-league guys and do something really, really good with my career. I took every day and decided to learn from those guys and figure out the best way to become the best player I can be and hopefully one day contribute to the big-league club. I feel like that’s the position I’ve put myself in. It’s probably one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had, honestly.”
The process wasn’t without bumps.
There were no publicly available statistics from summer camp during intrasquad games and controlled live at-bat scenarios, but it was clear Groshans was overmatched.
As he should have been.
Many of the prospects who made the initial player pool struggled.
As they should have.
For a high-end talent like Groshans, taken 12th overall in his draft class, there hadn’t many struggles up to that point.
He raked at Magnolia High School in Texas, and then went out and posted a .296/.353/.446 slash line with 18 extra-base hits in his first 48 professional games in 2018.
To begin 2019, Groshans was about to put himself on the fast track with a .337 average and a .909 OPS out of the gates at Low-A Lansing before a foot injury in May interrupted that breakout and eventually ended his season.
The point is, the lean, 6-foot-3 right-handed hitter hadn’t faced much, if any, adversity in the batter’s box.
His aggressive approach had always worked.
It took a pandemic and a completely unique situation for Groshans to be challenged, and he quickly figured some things out alongside big-league coaches once things moved to the Jays’ alternate training site in Rochester, where the goal was to keep the depth ready for MLB competition.
“There were some things with my timing and my hands and certain things that I fixed — maybe I wouldn’t say fixed, but just tweaked a little bit,” Groshans said. “That helped, along with my approach, and allowed me to do certain things that could hit big-league pitching. A lot of that’s with our hitting coordinator, Hunter Mense, me and him worked a lot mentally, approach-wise and stuff like that at the plate.
“It changed my career. My career is completely different now. My approach, my mindset, everything in my career is in one direction now.”
3B OF THE FUTURE?
Don’t tell Groshans he’s viewed as the club’s third baseman of the future or that his estimated time of arrival, realistically, is probably sometime in 2022.
After his experience at the ALT site, where he continues to develop as a shortstop while dabbling at the hot corner, Groshans is looking at 2021 with tunnel vision.
Asked if he expects to play more third base this year than in the past — he only has 20 starts and 172 innings at third, compared to 41 starts and 346 innings at short in the minors — Groshans answers quickly.
And takes it a step further.
“Absolutely, but the difference is I expect to play it in the big leagues this year,” he said over the phone from Texas, ahead of the 14-hour drive he’ll make to Dunedin for big-league camp alongside his dad next week. “A lot of people don't think that, you know? They think 2022, 2023, but trust me, I think I can play in the big leagues at third this year. That’s the goal, that’s the plan.”
So what gives him that type of confidence heading into spring training?
“The player I am now leaving Rochester is a completely different player than I’ve been so far in my career,” Groshans said. “I think that’s what makes me believe that. Just the player I’ve become mentally, maturity-wise, that’s the biggest one. Just growing as a player and as a person, I think that’s what’s given me that confidence.
“I knew I had good ability, but I didn’t know if it was good enough to play at that level and I think going to Rochester and doing some of the things I did, it was a confidence booster. Like I just said, it went from ‘I don’t know’ to ‘absolutely’ that I can play at the big-league level.”
IT'S BEEN THAT LONG?
It’s amazing to think Groshans, then still a teenager at 19 years old, hasn’t had an at-bat in a “real” game since May 11, 2019, when he walked, singled and scored a run across three trips to the plate for Low-A Lansing.
How much has changed since then?
Well, the Lugnuts aren’t even a Blue Jays’ affiliate anymore after a minor-league wide restructuring took place late last year, and no one walked out the door making sure they had their mask and hand sanitizer.
Seems like forever ago.
With the 2021 minor-league season start date potentially pushed into May — there’s a lot up in the air right now at every level — there’s a chance it’ll have been two full calendar years since Groshans put on a game uniform and went to work.
He’s far from alone, but the 2019 foot injury that ended his season puts him in truly a unique position.
While player development people will obviously bemoan the lack of reps, Groshans isn’t too worried.
“It’s weird because that was the official last time I’ve played a game, but going up to Toronto and playing, for me, that was playing games,” Groshans said. “I know it didn’t count, but I think that made everything better. It’s different. I would say the biggest thing is not being in a stadium with fans. It feels like we’ve been going through a long instructs, that’s the best way to put it.”
Just about every prospect around the game has been talking about getting back to the competition aspect of things.
Going through a daily routine as the creatures of habit they are, pulling on a uniform, and trying to beat an opponent on a daily basis.
That’s what baseball players are used to, and that was taken away in 2020.
“Nothing’s better than that,” said Groshans, who finished his summer in Rochester at 190 pounds but has now bulked up to around 210. “For me, I love the routine. Being at home, at first it’s fine, you get your break, but after a couple weeks you miss it. You miss getting up at 8 a.m., going to the field, having breakfast, hitting B.P., stuff like that. That’s what I miss. Being on that constant baseball routine, knowing you’re about to go play in a game. I’m excited to get back to that.”
As far as where he’ll be suiting up, the best guess is Double-A New Hampshire, but the minor-league season, let alone individual assignments, is cloaked in uncertainty.
“I know no one’s really heard anything because the focus has been spring training, getting guys down there, figuring out how many guys can be there, but I have no idea how it’s going to work,” Groshans said. “I don’t know if there’s going to be an alternate site, if Double-A and Triple-A are going to play. Honestly. I have no idea. I’m in the same boat you are.”
Uncertainty may still surround the minor leagues as a whole, but there’s very little uncertainty when it comes to Groshans’ status as potentially one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball.
Now he just needs some game action to remind everyone.