In two weeks, the Toronto Blue Jays will be in Philadelphia for two games against the Phillies leading into opening day. By then, manager John Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos will have presumably determined answers to the same questions confronting them when camp opened a month ago.
Will the two closers be able to bounce back from their shoulder surgeries? Who plays second base? Which of two candidates will be the backup catcher? Will Adam Lind be able to hit left-handed pitchers? Where art thou, Ricky Romero?
One question that’s popped up during camp: how serious is third baseman Brett Lawrie’s ribcage strain?
Toronto’s most pressing issue is the back of the bullpen. While the Jays have a luxury with two right-handers able to finish games, neither is ready to pitch. Casey Janssen threw a half-inning of batting practice on Thursday, using his fastball, slider and changeup from both windup and stretch positions. When he next pitches depends how his shoulder recovers. Janssen has yet to throw a curve or cut fastball this spring, but says those pitches return naturally. “It’s really about the fastball and slowly trying to step on it,” he said.
Sergio Santos, the original closer in 2012 until bowing out with injury in midseason, threw 20 pitches on Wednesday though not in a Grapefruit League game. He’d been out of action nine days, and Gibbons is getting anxious to determine whether his shoulder can withstand back-to-back outings. Opening day? “I would think so, barring any new setbacks,” Gibbons said.
The choice is between free agent signee Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio, who arrived in the 12-player swap with Miami. Izturis, who drove in five runs Thursday, is a reliable defensive commodity, while Bonifacio brings a livelier bat and more speed to the basepaths (64 games, 30 stolen bases). “It’s just, what makes us better?” Gibbons said. “They’ll both play, they’ll both get a lot of playing time. But you better be strong up the middle. We’ve got a good pitching staff and at the big-league level in those middle-infield positions, you’ve got to take away hits.”
If Izturis wins the job, Bonifacio becomes the primary utility player, getting time at second, outfield and possibly DH. The decision is being complicated by the absence of shortstop/double-play partner Jose Reyes, who’s playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Reyes played five Grapefruit League games before departing.
An unacknowledged option for the Jays would be to move Melky Cabrera to centre field from left if Colby Rasmus struggles. That move could leave Izturis on second and Bonifacio in left field.
It’s between right-handed-hitting Henry Blanco, 41, and left-handed-hitting Josh Thole, 26, who caught knuckleballer R.A. Dickey when both played for the Mets last season.
Right-hand hitting Edwin Encarnacion is the cleanup hitter in the batting order, after hitting 42 homers and driving in 110 runs last season. Left-hand hitting Adam Lind is having a strong spring, and Gibbons dishes out compliments by routine without committing to his role. Last season, the Jays sent Lind to Triple-A Las Vegas to work on his plate discipline. He returned successfully before a recurring back strain forced downtime – one reason he may be better suited to DH. On the season, the left-handed hitter averaged .202 against left-handed pitching and unless he convinces Gibbons of his ability to boost that number, Lind could be held to a platoon, playing only against righties. In Gibbons’s opinion, Lind was more potent a few years ago when he hit to all fields, but he had transitioned into pull hitting. Gibbons wants Lind to revert.
Ricky Romero is scheduled to pitch four innings Friday against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. He’s coming off a spring outing that conjured images of last season, when, during a 13-game losing streak, he issued 6.1 walks for every nine innings, allowed opponents a .324 batting average, and incurred a 7.42 ERA. Overall on the season, he issued 105 walks. Last Sunday against the Yankees, he walked the first batter of the game and his body language suggested someone looking for answers and not finding them. Romero had blood-spinning procedures performed on both knees in the offseason, and his elbow cleaned out with an arthroscopic procedure. Left-hander J.A. Happ, 35-35 with a 4.19 ERA over his career with Philadelphia, Houston and the Jays, is battling for the spot. If he doesn’t make the rotation, the team seems inclined to send him to Triple A to keep him on a starter’s schedule.
Santos, Janssen, Darren Oliver, and then ...? In the mix are Steve Delabar, Jeremy Jeffress, Aaron Loup, Brad Lincoln and Esmil Rogers. Former Jays starter Brett Cecil is being considered as the long man (two innings-plus).
The third baseman strained his ribcage area before the World Baseball Classic. He says it feels nowhere near as uncomfortable as a similar injury that kept him out of action for a month last season. Mark DeRosa, who hit a homer on Thursday, is the backup.