For Blue Jays, six rookies may make or break their playoff hopes
The rookie at second base is just happy to be here. “This is, like, the coolest thing in my life,” Devon Travis said Wednesday afternoon in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. A 24-year-old who before this week had never played above Double A, Travis was talking about his breathless first days in the big leagues. One morning last week in Blue Jays camp, he was called into the manager’s office and told that he’d made the team, “and from then on, I’ve been the happiest kid in the world.”
On Monday, a few hours before his major league debut, Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez waved the rookie over during batting practice to introduce him to a man who was dressed impeccably in a suit and standing behind the cage watching hitters take their cuts. “I was like, holy crap, that’s Reggie Jackson!” Travis said. They shook hands. “I was totally tongue-locked. He had no clue who I was, and I don’t blame him for that.”
It’s safe to say that few in the ballpark had a clue who the undersized, barrel-chested second baseman in the Jays uniform was until he stepped up to the plate in the seventh inning that night and launched a ball over the leftfield fence off Yankees reliever Chasen Shreve to help fuel Toronto to a 6–1 Opening Day win. “For the next five minutes after the home run,” Travis said, “I pretty much blacked out.”
Travis is one of The Six—the six rookies who could make or break the most important Blue Jays season in decades and who are at the center of the ballsiest youth movement in recent memory. Toronto raised eyebrows when it broke camp with the half-dozen rookies on its 25-man roster, and after the first series of the season, it’s clear the Jays aren’t messing around.
In Thursday night's game—in which Travis drove in his third run in three contests—rookie starter Daniel Norris allowed three runs over 5 2/3 solid innings, rookie reliever Roberto Osuna logged 1 1/3 scoreless innings of relief to hold the Yankees in check, and rookie righthander Miguel Castro took the mound in the ninth with a three-run lead. Here was a surprise switch: Brett Cecil, the team’s closer entering the season, had worked the eighth. Just three games into the season, manager John Gibbons was already making a closer change, turning to a 20-year-old who before this week had never pitched above A ball. Castro set the Yankees down in order, and the Blue Jays took two of three from New York to open the season.
The kids are all right—so far, at least. They make the Blue Jays one of the most fascinating teams of the early season, and the hardest to forecast. “I could see them doing everything from running away with the division to finishing fourth and below .500,” says a rival American League executive. “But give them this: They’ve sure got guts to do this.”
Youth movements in baseball are typically the business of non-contenders, franchises in reboot, or teams that have cashed in their big trade chips for young players. They're not for win-now franchises like the 2015 Blue Jays, who have as much at stake this season as any other team in baseball. The playoff drought in Toronto, which stretches back to the first year of the Clinton Administration, is the longest in the four major North American professional sports leagues, but the Blue Jays' trade for Josh Donaldson and signing of Russell Martin affirmed that they are all in this year after two seasons of massive disappointment.
But while the Jays are a star-studded team, the biggest names are all nearing the end of their prime. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes and their highest paid pitchers, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, are all over 30. Alex Anthopoulos, now in his sixth year as general manager, and Gibbons could lose their jobs if Toronto doesn't end the streak this season. There may not be a team with more at stake, and a fan base—one whose last October memory was Joe Carter floating across the bases after his championship-clinching home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series—more starved for baseball in October.
All of that makes Toronto’s no-holds-barred youth movement—one that’s taken place more quickly than even those in the Jays' front office envisioned—one of the most compelling stories of the year. The rookies are not here merely to to get their feet wet or to be showcased; they are here because—service time and future costs be damned—they give the Blue Jays the best chance to win a wide open AL East.
There is Dalton Pompey, the 22-year-old from Ontario who grew up rooting for the Blue Jays and is the team’s starting centerfielder after a season in which he played at four different levels before reaching the majors last September. In a rotation that took a big hit when it lost Marcus Stroman to injury during spring training, there are the two young guns: Aaron Sanchez, the 22-year-old who was brilliant in a late-season relief role (1.09 ERA and 0.697 WHIP in 33 innings) with a fastball touching 99 miles per hour and a bat-breaking two-seamer, and the 21-year-old Norris, the dude with a 1978 Volkswagen van down by the Wal-Mart and the strikeout rate (11.8 K/9) that was best among qualified starters in the minors last year.
In the bullpen, there are two 20-year-old righthanders who, entering this season, had never pitched above A-ball. Osuna, who returned from Tommy John surgery in the second half of last season, defied expectations to make the team (“Osuna will likely have a chance to move up to Double A at some point in 2015,” read the Baseball Prospectus assessment of Osuna from this spring). Castro, meanwhile, is a towering Dominican (6'5") who signed for $180,000 and suddenly finds himself closing games for a team with World Series aspirations.
And then there’s the rookie second baseman who was acquired during the offseason from the Tigers in exchange for outfielder Anthony Gose. Not even Travis thought he had a realistic shot to make the roster out of spring training, but he turned heads in camp with his bat (he led the team with 23 hits in exhibition play) and his glove, and when Maicer Izturis went down with a strained groin, the rookie became the Jays’ everyday starter at the position.
Travis knows he has a serious job here—a team with big things in mind this year is counting on him—but the kid doesn’t hide his giddiness. “It’s crazy that we’re all basically starting our careers right now at the same time. It’s really, really cool,” said the rookie, who roomed with Pompey during spring training and will live with him this season in Toronto. As he spoke, Travis looked over to the player next to him. “I mean, man, I get to locker next to Josh Donaldson! How cool is that?”
There’s a perception that the Blue Jays are a small-market franchise in a division of big-market titans, but the reality is that Toronto is the fourth-largest major league city. Toronto is a sleeping giant: Over the last decade, the team has perennially ranked in the bottom half in attendance (they attracted 2.3 million fans to their downtown stadium, the Rogers Centre, in 2014). But during the early 1990s, the era when the Jays dominated the AL East, the franchise became the first team to surpass the four million mark in attendance, and Toronto did so for three straight years.
There’s been a push in recent years to brand the Jays as Canada’s Team. Every game is now broadcast coast to coast, including on the French-language TV network, TVA Sport, based out of Montreal. The team returned the Maple Leaf to the team logo and expanded the winter tour caravan to extend across the country. “I think the Jays have the whole country locked in,” says pitcher and Vancouver native Jeff Francis, who signed a minor league contract with Toronto this spring. “They have a minor league team in Vancouver, and they caravan across the country to connect with the fans, people across the whole country that live and die with the Jays [now that] the Expos [are] gone. They’re on national TV every day, they have national coverage every day. I don’t think there’s any other team that can say that. I don’t think people realize what a huge, passionate fan base it is.”
Is this the year the torture in Canada ends? The Blue Jays have potentially the best offense in the majors, and in the rotation they have a pair of old horses in Dickey and Buehrle and a 24-year-old on the cusp of a big breakout in Drew Hutchison. But the key to it all may very well be The Six.
They are happy to be here, of course, but they also know they have a big job to do. “It’s exciting, and we’re all pumped,” Travis says. “There are going to be plenty of butterflies along the way, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.”