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Rising sons give rebuilding Blue Jays reason for optimism

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

By IAN HARRISON

Associated Press

TORONTO (AP) The Toronto Blue Jays feel good about four rising sons who made big strides in 2019 and figure to become lineup fixtures moving forward.

The pitching, however, remains a work in progress.

The Blue Jays went 67-95, six games worse than last year. It was Toronto's first 90-loss season since 2004, and their poorest performance since a 95-loss showing in 1980.

One silver lining? Strong performances from four players with famous fathers, including two sons of Hall of Famers.

Slugging third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. impressed as runner-up in the All-Star Home Run Derby, and led AL rookies with 126 hits. Flashy shortstop Bo Bichette set one major league record by doubling in nine straight games, and another mark with 13 extra-base hits in his first 11 games.

Cavan Biggio played four positions and showed a veteran's eye, leading AL rookies with 71 walks. After a shaky start as a second baseman, sophomore Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was demoted to Triple-A, returned as a left fielder and hit 20 home runs in 71 games.

Those performances give the Blue Jays reason to expect better in 2020.

"I think we've got a chance to surprise a lot of people next year and come out here and be a team that people don't want to face," Bichette said.

Guerrero's father and Biggio's dad, Craig, are both in Cooperstown. Bichette's father, Dante, starred for the Colorado Rockies, while Gurriel's father is a Cuban baseball great whose elder son Yuli plays for the Astros.

Hopes are high for many of Toronto's youngsters, but highest for Guerrero, 20, and Bichette, 21.

"They're going to be studs," catcher Danny Jansen said. "They're going to be the guys catapulting this team. It's going to be fun to watch."

Blue Jays pitching wasn't always fun to watch in 2019. Including openers, Toronto used a club-record 21 different starters, the second-highest total in major league history. Only the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics (24) used more.

Half of Toronto's 20 rookies were pitchers.

General manager Ross Atkins has spoken of building multiple "waves" of minor league pitchers, the first of which is poised to start contributing next year, but acknowledged a need to add more pitching depth through free agency and trades this winter.

"I know from talking to Ross that we've got a lot of arms coming," first-year manager Charlie Montoyo said. "They've just got to prove themselves from level to level, so we'll see."

Here are some other things to know about the Blue Jays this offseason:

VLAD IN REVIEW

After making his much-anticipated debut April 26, Guerrero went on to hit .272 with 15 home runs and 69 RBIs in 123 games. He drew 46 walks, none intentional.

"Every time he goes to the plate people expect so much, but he's 20," Montoyo said. "I thought he did a great job."

Guerrero made 17 errors in 96 games at third base but showed good hands and a strong arm. Montoyo said Guerrero got better in the field but acknowledged "plenty of room for improvement."

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Toronto rookies hit an MLB-leading 97 home runs, a team record and the third-highest total in big league history (Marlins 112 in 2006, Twins 101 in 1982). Besides homers, Blue Jays rookies also led the majors in hits (535), doubles (115), RBIs (284), walks (224) and extra-base hits (218).

THE WAIT FOR NATE

Toronto's top pitching prospect is hard-throwing right-hander Nate Pearson, who rose from Class A Dunedin to Triple-A Buffalo, posting a 2.30 ERA in 25 starts at three levels. Pearson threw a 103 mph fastball in the Arizona Fall League last year, and reached triple digits three times at the All-Star Futures Game in 2019. He'll likely begin the 2020 season in Buffalo, but could join the Blue Jays by May or June.

SELF-ASSESSMENT

At the end of his first season as a big league manager, Montoyo felt good about the way he handled a difficult campaign.

"If I look in the mirror, I'm happy with the job I did," Montoyo said. "Everybody stayed positive and I think that was good. We didn't quit in games."

Montoyo said he and Atkins have discussed bringing the coaching staff back intact, and possibly adding an assistant hitting coach.

CONTRACT TALK

First baseman Justin Smoak and veteran right-hander Clay Buchholz are Toronto's only free agents. Neither is expected back. Nine Blue Jays are eligible for arbitration, including closer Ken Giles, right-hander Matt Shoemaker and infielder Brandon Drury.

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Updated September 30, 2019

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