On Monday afternoon at the Rogers Centre, on the occasion of his own press conference, the significance and impact of the moment did not seem to have yet fully registered with 53-year-old Charlie Montoyo.
It was not a dream. He was really, truly the 13th manager of the Toronto Blue Jays after a 22-year wait.
The Puerto Rican-born former infielder, owner of two major-league hits with the Expos in 1993, was answering questions about strategy and the Jays’ future direction while looking around and trying to soak it all in.
The easy public perception is that Montoyo was hired by the Jays from among the final five candidates who were interviewed in person — a list that included David Bell (Giants), Joe Espada (Astros), Rocco Baldelli (Rays) and Brandon Hyde (Cubs) — because the Jays are in love with analytics, defensive shifts, the starting pitcher opener and low payroll. Montoyo claims he is open-minded about them all.
“That will be a conversation with our front office, our coaches,” Montoyo said. “Just because I come from Tampa Bay doesn’t mean we’re going to do everything that they did over there. We’re a different team and we’re going to adjust to what we have.
“When you guys talk about openers, it doesn’t mean that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get our brains together and talk about it and go from there.”
After watching the final months of the season with a makeshift rotation that often did not make it through a batting order three times — not on purpose — the Jays will surely at least consider a modified version of what the Rays introduced to the game: leaning on one starter, Blake Snell, for much of the year and improvising the other four days depending on matchups.
Spring training will be a very interesting time for Montoyo and the Jays as they try to decide how to best handle a starting rotation that had been considered a team strength coming out of last year’s camp, but slipped on the banana peel of life. Could the Rays’ mix-and-match pitching model be right for the Jays?
General manager Ross Atkins has insisted his No. 1 priority this off-season will be to add controllable power arms via trade. Unless help arrives, the Jays rotation could end up a hybrid of starters and openers with a healthy Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez joined by young left-hander Ryan Borucki, and the other spots open to the manipulations and imagination of Montoyo and his coaching staff.
“A lot of times analytics are just giving you what you knew already by managing,” Montoyo said. “I’m going to have seven coaches. I’m going to use that information, that analytics side, my gut feeling, and then we’re going to make a decision. That’s how I’m going to do it, not just one way or the other. Looking at this team from the outside, it almost reminds me of the team we had in Tampa.”
There is a lot of young talent at the upper levels of the Jays’ system and on the 40-man roster. The Rays showed how quickly a young team can compete (if not make the playoffs), while in 2017 the New York Yankees started to go younger at the trade deadline only to improve as a team relying on youngsters.
It used to be that talent and experience were necessary to building a winner, but it now seems that analytics and dissecting numbers have partially replaced the need for years of toiling in the minors. Outfielders have cue cards in their caps with information about where they should position themselves, and infielders are carefully placed in the centre of the most likely hitting zones for each opponent.
“People do it right now because there’s numbers,” Montoyo said. “That’s one thing I can tell you that I learned with the Rays, that some of those things work. You’ve got to make an adjustment. It’s a game of adjustments.”
After eight years managing at Triple-A Durham and 18 years total in the minors, Montoyo could be forgiven for giving up hope on a major-league gig. The window often closes on baseball lifers his age, but his teaching personality and the success of the Rays — with their keen grasp on, and sage use of, modern analytics — impressed Atkins enough to give him his opportunity.
“Experience is very important to me,” Atkins said. “I have a great deal of respect for how that translates into leadership.
“I have a hard time seeing a (successful) manager that doesn’t have a deep level of empathy, (someone) who is willing to be vulnerable in today’s game with — however you want to categorize them — millennials or just today’s players. I think a willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to have a deep sense of empathy, is crucial. That was overarching in the guys that we were considering.”
While Montoyo was not sure it would happen for him, he knew what teams are looking for and one of the classic examples was coaching with him at Tampa Bay. He encouraged Rocco Baldelli to be aggressive in looking for a job. The 37-year-old former outfielder listened and is now managing the Twins.
“During the year I was telling him, ‘Dude, they’re looking for guys like you. You’ve got to do it,’” Montoyo said. “I love him and he got one, so I’m really happy for him. And then it happened to me and it’s awesome. You just never know.”
Coincidentally Montoyo’s Jays and Baldelli’s Twins have each been installed at 75-to-1 odds to win the World Series.
Richard Griffin is a sports columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @rgriffinstar