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Daily Duce: Sportsnet isn’t planning to produce Grapefruit games for TV, Alek Manoah talks Alternate Training Site, and more!

Daily!???!?!!?

We’re only a few days away from the first Blue Jays game of 2021.

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On Sunday, the team will head to George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa to play the Yankees, a game that will be televised on Sportsnet. But don’t get used to these Grapefruit Games reaching your screen.

According to a post from Rob Longley in the Toronto Sun, the Blue Jays are banning fans and media from their training complex on the other side of Dunedin and Sportsnet isn’t planning to produce television broadcasts of Grapefruit games.

The Jays are one of a handful of teams that are banning fans and media from all activity at the club’s training complex 6 km across town from TD Ballpark. While the restrictions are allowed under MLB spring training regulations, it will certainly leave a void in the usual flow of information and allow the Jays to control exactly what details become available to their  loyal fan base.

Once games begin, the exposure will increase with limited numbers of fans and media allowed in the stadiums, but even then fans will be left largely in the dark. Broadcast rights holder and fellow Rogers family member Sportsnet has no plans to produce any games while its radio network will carry a handful of contests at best.

We’re told that, when possible, Sportsnet will pick up games broadcast by the Yankees and Phillies, a small consolation for Canadian fans.

The team barring access to the training complex isn’t all that surprising given this pandemic is still happening, but it’s a little shocking and, well, disappointing that there aren’t plans to televise these games, especially after the hype generated around the team after a huge off-season.

A month-long slog of non-competitive baseball games that start at 1:00 PM ET time doesn’t draw eyeballs like the NHL or NFL’s pre-season does, but more people are sitting around at home these days than usual and it seems like a great time for fans to get to know the wealth of exciting talent on the roster and in the system.

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I mean, the team is going to be playing at TD Ballpark in Dunedin for the first month or two of the regular season, so Sportsnet is going to need to get things set up for television broadcasts at some point regardless. Why not start in spring? Why not get the hype train rolling as early as possible and get people invested in the team? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Anyways, we’ll get to watch the team (via the opponent’s broadcast) when they hit the road to play the Yankees and Phillies, which, by my count, is eight games. Otherwise, we’ll be consuming Grapefruit action on the radio (though, as Longley says, not all of the games will be on the radio, either).

Also, speaking of the radio… We don’t yet know who will be partnering with Ben Wagner in the booth to call these games. It had been Wagner and Mike Wilner, but the latter was let go by Sportsnet over the winter and no replacement has been announced. I wonder if the plan is to have Pat Tabler on the radio now that Buck Martinez is doing colour on the TV broadcasts with Dan Shulman doing play-by-play. Who knows.

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Moving along…

Alek Manoah, the team’s first-round pick from the 2019 draft, is continuing to endear himself to Blue Jays fans with a World-Series-or-bust mentality. He also spoke quite a bit about how much of a game-changer it was for him pitching at the team’s Alternate Training Site last summer while minor-league ball wasn’t being played.

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Had things been normal last year, we would have likely seen Manoah start the season with the Low-A Lansing Lugnuts and he probably would have made the jump up to High-A ball in Dunedin at some point, putting him on track to pitch at Double-A New Hampshire in 2021. While Manoah lost an entire season’s worth of games last year, as many prospects did, the time in Rochester seemed to be positive.

“In [Class A] Vancouver, I was able to blow guys away with the heater and put them away with a slider,” Manoah said. “Now, I’m able to throw changeups in the 3-2 count to a righty. I’m able to throw changeups in 1-2 counts, 1-1 counts, 2-1 counts. I’m able to throw different variations of the slider and fastballs in different locations.

“I got great feedback and that was amazing, because at the alternate training site we had guys like Reese McGuire, Derek Fisher, Forrest Wall, Josh Palacios — guys that are lefty hitters that can give me really good feedback on the changeup. You know, it’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it coming out of the hand?’ or [they’d say], ‘You kind of showed that one a little bit. The arm speed was good on that one.’ So being able to get that big league feedback was great for me.”

The Alternate Training Site is a fascinating mystery. There weren’t any fans around watching and the media wasn’t there to report on what was going on so we’ve only ever really had a small amount of information seep out through fall and winter, but, based on what we have heard, you can see why teams around baseball are favouring this kind of thing for development of young talent.

From a fan’s perspective, gutting minor-league ball and having fewer affiliates is clearly an overarching negative for the sport and its essence as The National Pastime, but it’s pretty easy to see how much of an impact working with high-level technology and with coaches and trainers on specific skills can be advantageous to a player’s development.

For a guy like Manoah, he spent last summer getting hands-on work with high-quality staff, learning specifically how to improve his changeup and how to attack hitters in different counts. Compare that to a traditional minor-league season for a prospect, in which you go out and play games and try to put up good numbers in order to jump to the next level, possibly leaning heavily into things that make you good while potentially ignoring things that can be improved.

I actually wonder, long-term, how many levels of minor-league ball are going to stick around. Organizations are undoubtedly going to favour being able to put prospects in controlled, simulated situations to work on specific skills over playing random games against random players. I wouldn’t be shocked if, by 2030, we saw the majority of prospects working at some kind of Training Site with only Double-A and Triple-A functioning as actual leagues.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing but it does feel inevitable.

Elsewhere, another guy who had a good time at the Alternate Training Site last summer was Alejandro Kirk. He spent August working with big-league-calibre pitchers and ultimately earned an earlier-than-expected call-up to the team in September and didn’t at all look out of place.

Per Arden Zwelling, Robbie Ray raved about how easy it was to pitch with Kirk behind the plate, which is a pretty impressive look for someone who just turned 22 years old in November…

 

This is one of the more interesting roster battles to watch this spring. We have a very good idea of what the team is going to look like come April but one place that’s up in the air is the back-up catcher spot. Logic would indicate that it’s Reese McGuire’s spot to lose, given the fact he’s more experienced and he’s out of options, but the Blue Jays might be best with Kirk on the roster.

“It’s certainly a realistic scenario for him to be a backup in the Major Leagues. Then, balancing what’s best is the question,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “We’ll have to factor in, one, how he’s performing and how he’s recovering, and then two, what our options are internally, or of course, we have to consider externally, too. Balancing all of that, we’ll see, and we’ll determine what’s not only best for him, but you always have to factor in what’s best for your organization, as well.”

A year or two ago, the Blue Jays were still rebuilding (or tanking or whatever you want to call it) so being conservative with prospects was the obvious play. But the team now has an open competitive window and they have to field their best team possible.

Last year featured small sample sizes, but it’s difficult, at this point, to argue that the team is better off with McGuire splitting the load with Danny Jansen than they are with Kirk, who could also be a boon offensively to the team in off-days as the designated hitter.

We’ll have to watch* and see! *listen, on the radio, occasionally.