TORONTO — There’s no arguing that chicks still dig the long ball in this exit-velocity-driven era, but absolutely nothing gets a rise out of baseball fans like eye-popping radar gun numbers these days.
Over the opening three games of the Toronto Blue Jays’ new season, Julian Merryweather and Jordan Romano stole the show in that regard, letting the baseball world in on a little secret: This club has quietly stockpiled some high-octane arms that are ready to contribute in major ways this season.
How they’re going to be deployed, however, is the mystery.
After Charlie Montoyo rolled out Romano in a pseudo closer’s role Thursday, leaving Merryweather with an extra-innings save opportunity in the opener, the Jays’ manager seemed to play the numbers Sunday.
Up 3-1, Romano was called on to begin the eighth against the heart of the Yankees’ order, and he promptly sat down DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks in order to preserve the lead.
Then Merryweather trotted out for the ninth and was unhittable for a second straight appearance, pumping six fastballs of 99 mph-plus to polish off his second save in three games.
The Jays have liked Romano in the fire extinguisher role — a fluid usage that could see the right-hander enter anytime from the seventh inning on when the game is deemed to be hanging in the balance or an opponent’s toughest hitters are lined up prior to the ninth — which would leave save situations for Merryweather or potentially veteran Rafael Dolis.
“I think having the open-minded approach that Charlie and [pitching coach] Pete [Walker] have, and then the open-minded approach that David Phelps, and Jordan Romano, and Ryan Borucki, and Rafael Dolis, and Julian Merryweather have about being at the back of a bullpen, that gives us different ways to put guys in positions to match up,” GM Ross Atkins said. “Whether it’s the split of Dolis, or the power of Romano, Merryweather, the different weapons of a David Phelps, and who they’re facing will allow us to put those guys in positions to be successful on a regular basis.”
Either way, the Jays’ bullpen was one of the reasons they were able to sneak away with two of three games, and that will have to continue to be the case from here on out.
Montoyo went with the exact same lineup for the first two games of the season, before inserting Alejandro Kirk and Joe Panik (at DH) on Sunday in the series finale in the Bronx. Montoyo has become known for shuffling lineups but you may see him become a bit more predictable now that there’s a clear group of veteran players who deserve to be in certain spots as everyday players … Hitless in his first eight at-bats, Rowdy Tellez took a seat Sunday after striking out three times Saturday. He was in a funk all March and that doesn’t seem to have changed in early April. Tellez will have to hit in order to play and right now he’s not doing that … Vladdy Jr. has been raking since February and really looks like the energetic presence he was back in 2018 when he was destroying minor-league pitching … Merryweather and Romano are going to get a lot of the attention right now, but I can’t remember the last time the Jays had two lefties with swing-and-miss stuff like Tim Mayza and Ryan Borucki … The Jays are encouraged by the progress of both Nate Pearson (groin) and Thomas Hatch (elbow), but neither is close to a return to game action. Both are in the early stages of playing catch and getting back onto a mound … Only positive reviews for the Jays’ revamped infield defence over the weekend. Vladdy looks more comfortable at first than he ever did in 2020, Marcus Semien’s transition to second base has been a great story, while Cavan Biggio looks smart and savvy at third. Let’s give it a few more weeks before getting overly excited, though. Consistency is the key for the gloves.
After a day off on the second day of the season, Montoyo and the Jays kickstarted a 16-games-in-16-days stretch Saturday, one that will span this week’s trip to the wild, wild west that is full-capacity Texas, followed by their first Dunedin homestand against the Angels and Yankees. They’ll then wrap up that run with a four-game jaunt to the Midwest to face the Kansas City Royals.
The big question this week is will Robbie Ray (elbow bruise) and George Springer (left oblique) be ready to return when they’re first eligible on Thursday? Both are trending in that direction and it would be a surprise at this point to see Springer held out longer than the minimum.
STAT DIG: 100.4 mph
Since the Blue Jays started tracking fastest pitches in franchise history in 2008, only four offerings have registered 100.4 mph and above. Merryweather got there Sunday afternoon, leaving the pitch tied for fourth in club history behind Jeremy Jeffress (100.8 mph on Sept. 4, 2013), Brandon Morrow (101.2 mph on Sept. 10, 2014) and Nate Pearson (101.5 mph on Sept. 25, 2020).
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“It was definitely weird. I asked a few people: What are all these people doing here? Who are these people? But it was great to have fans again.”
—Merryweather on having fans at Yankee Stadium on opening day last Thursday.
TWITTER QUESTION OF THE WEEK
“Could we see Alek Manoah in the big leagues this season?”
—James in Ontario.
ANSWER: If you would’ve asked me this in January, the answer would’ve been an easy no. Despite being the 11th-overall pick from 2019 and already 23 years old, thanks to the pandemic, Manoah has thrown just 17 innings as a professional pitcher, with those frames coming two summers ago at short-season Vancouver. But it’s become very apparent that prospects were still developing behind the scenes last summer at the alternate site setting, and Manoah’s spring outings were impressive. The numbers are impossible to ignore — seven frames, one hit allowed, 15 punch-outs — but the eye test backed it all up, too. Given obvious workload concerns with the lack of pro innings on his resume, it’s hard to envision Manoah as a rotation candidate in the second half of the season, but don’t rule out the bullpen as a way of breaking in the big right-hander and keeping his innings down. With the fastball/slider combo, it’s very clear Manoah could find success against MLB bats in shorter stints.
THE CALL-UP LIST
Five prospects most deserving of a call up when the need arises:
RHP Joel Payamps, taxi squad: With the minor-league season not getting underway until May 4, the debut of the call-up list is an easy one since it’s simply the five players the Jays are carrying from city to city on the taxi squad. Payamps made his Blue Jays debut with 1.1 innings of scoreless ball Saturday, before being shuttled off the roster in favour of a fresh arm in lefty Tommy Milone.
LHP Travis Bergen, taxi squad: Bergen struck out 11 over his 5.2 spring innings to earn a spot on the taxi squad to start the season. He’ll be up and down all year along.
RHP A.J. Cole, taxi squad: After pitching to a 3.09 ERA across 23.1 innings last year, the 29-year-old righty returns as taxi squad depth. Cole, who was in camp as a non-roster invitee, will have to be added to the 40-man roster in order to be activated.
INF Santiago Espinal, taxi squad: Espinal raked all spring, finishing with a .382/.432/.647 slash line and five extra-base hits in 34 plate appearances. Espinal would be best served getting a ton of at-bats at Triple-A, but that can’t happen for another month.
C Riley Adams, taxi squad: Now that Reese McGuire has cleared waivers, Adams will head to Triple-A next month to serve as the everyday backstop, but his strong spring shows he’s ready for a cup of coffee in his age-25 season.
PROSPECT OF THE WEEK
OF/INF Logan Warmoth, alternate site: There were a number of positive prospect performances for the Jays this spring. From Manoah and Simeon Woods Richardson on the pitching side of things to Orelvis Martinez and Josh Palacios impressing with the bat in Grapefruit League play, there was no shortage strong performances from the kids. I’d like to point out the way-under-the-radar spring from 2017 first-round pick Logan Warmoth, who went from No. 38 on my Jays top 50 prospects list in 2020 to falling off the list completely this February. Now 25, the former North Carolina shortstop was strictly an outfielder in camp this year as the Jays continue to turn the former 22nd overall pick into a jack-of-all-trades utility piece, hoping to eventually get something out of him at the major league level. While he’s not seen as any sort of top prospect anymore, that could still happen and Warmoth helped himself this spring by collecting eight hits in 22 at-bats, finishing with a homer and a .982 OPS.