A Jeremy Jeffress fastball lit up the scoreboard on Sunday, as the radar gun registered 101 miles an hour.
“Was it a ball or a strike?” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons asked rhetorically after the 15-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins, and with those few words he described the newcomer’s career-long challenge.
Picked up from Kansas City for cash in the off-season, Jeffress, 25, has struggled to make the majors because of control issues at the upper levels of the minors. He pitched a 1-2-3 third inning in relief of David Bush but issued two walks to start the fourth and got yanked after Joe Mauer hit a three-run double.
“You’re pulling for him because there’s so much in there that when it finally clicks, there’s no telling how good he can be,” Gibbons said of Jeffress, 25.
Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the three-hour bus trip from camp in Dunedin on Sunday because the team needs to make several roster decisions in the coming days:
Jeffress and Bush are among the contenders for the one or two bullpen spots, depending whether closer Casey Janssen is placed on the DL following off-season shoulder surgery.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie has yet to play since being injured in the World Baseball Classic, and it is to be determined whether he starts the season on the disabled list with Mark DeRosa, 38, in his place. The Jays are holding him out of Grapefruit League games because if placed on the DL, he’d be eligible 15 days after playing.
Ricky Romero and J.A. Happ are battling for the No.5 spot in the rotation, although the Jays have made it clear the position is Romero’s to lose.
The decisions “are taking longer than we thought they would,” Anthopoulos said. “We are using every available game.”
Romero is scheduled to pitch Tuesday, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Usually diplomatic when discussing his players, Gibbons said: “I expect him to have a big day. It has nothing to do with Happ. It could click for him on Tuesday, and all is forgotten.”
As with Jeffress, the issue is command. Unlike Jeffress, Romero has earned the organization’s patience, having been an employee since 2005. Coming off an 89-14 season, he’s allowed 11 hits, seven walks and eight runs in 82/3 innings this spring. In a minor-league game on Thursday, he made 64 pitches with only 25 strikes. Happ, obtained from Houston last July, has allowed 19 hits, three walks and four runs in 19 innings.
“All due respect to J.A., we have our five starters,” Anthopoulos said. “He hasn’t had a strong spring but it could click anytime.”
Anthopoulos said no consideration is being given to putting Romero on the disabled list, in order to continue working on a mechanical adjustment in Florida once the season starts. At this point, with opening day looming next Tuesday, he makes the team or gets demoted.
Bush, 33, a starter for the Blue Jays eight years ago and Milwaukee thereafter, has since spent time in the Rangers, Cubs and Phillies organizations, and the last half of the 2012 season in Korea. Starting on a muggy day at Hammond Stadium, he gave up six runs on six hits and a walk in the first two innings. In the first, before Bush got an out, Mauer cranked a three-run homer into a palm tree behind the centre-field fence, and Brian Dozier hit a two-run homer off him in the second. Both shots came off 3-2 fastballs.
“I’m disappointed in the way I threw today, but I still feel very good about the spring,” he said. “I wanted to come back to North America and see where it took me.”
Bush has no leverage, having signed a minor-league deal. In contrast, the club is unable to send Jeffress, Brett Cecil or Dustin McGowan to the minors without making them vulnerable to other teams on a waiver claim. As a lefty, Cecil may have the advantage and it’s likely that McGowan, 31, starts the season on the disabled list.
Notes: First baseman Edwin Encarnacion is expected to play this week. He’s been out since the World Baseball Classic with a finger injury, but a medical test showed no problems. ... Justin Morneau also homered for the Twins, his third of the spring. ... McGowan, who turned 31 on Sunday, is being given a shot at converting to the bullpen, after spending much of his career as a starter, at least when he’s been healthy. McGowan has been on the disabled list six times in his career, missing three entire seasons including 2012 with plantar fasciitis.