There were times last season when Dioner Navarro would call a pitch for Marco Estrada, and you could detect verbal and non-verbal raising of eyebrows from former catchers-turned broadcasters Buck Martinez, Joe Siddall and Gregg Zaun.
You should have seen and heard the Toronto Blue Jays dugout. There were times, manager John Gibbons said, when he and bench coach DeMarlo Hale or pitching coach Pete Walker would exchange audible ‘what the hells?’
“Navvy … he was a little creative back there with Marco on the mound,” Gibbons said with a smile. “He’d call for a pitch and we’d have no idea what he was doing. Damned if it didn’t nearly always work out, though. Sometimes, you see things like that. It just clicked.”
Navarro, a switch-hitting, sublime clubhouse presence, has moved on to the Chicago White Sox leaving Russell Martin essentially on his own – Josh Thole won’t likely see the light of day unless R.A. Dickey is pitching – which means it will be up to Martin to continue the magic that developed between Navarro and Estrada, the Blue Jays pitching revelation of 2015.
It’s become a part of the folklore that was 2015: Navarro and Estrada had a ‘thing’ that saw Estrada’s earned run average and opponents average against be much better with Navarro behind the plate (2.63 and .181, respectively) than with Martin (4.11 and .244). Navarro started all three of Estrada’s post-season appearances, including that signature performance in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals in which Estrada tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-hit ball.
Estrada is still scheduled to make his first appearance of the spring on Sunday, but Saturday’s rainout of the scheduled Grapefruit League game against the Philadelphia Phillies meant that in order to keep everybody in turn – and with an off-day on Monday – Gibbons was determining who would instead take their turn pitching in minor-league camp. Gibbons wants everybody who was scheduled to pitch Saturday to pitch Sunday without knocking back Sunday’s pitchers. Gavin Floyd was scheduled to work in Saturday’s game against the Phillies.
This is what a rainout does to you at this point in the spring – beyond also creating mystery story-lines such as Kevin Pillar’s status as lead-off hitter, which was was apparently confirmed Saturday even though neither Pillar nor Gibbons figured there was anything to confirm. Estrada was due to pitch two or three innings Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, instead of perhaps five innings at the Bobby Mattick facility, after he’d told Walker it was time to see some Major League hitters following a spring hampered by a back strain suffered during off-season training.
Estrada has yet to work with Martin this spring, but he isn’t unduly concerned and believes people have made a little too much of the connection between himself and Navarro.
"I thought Russ and I had it, also," Estrada said. "Navarro was great back there but Russell … he’s just as good, man. He calls a great game but when he caught me last season I wasn’t pitching as great as I was later in the year because I just wasn’t ready."
Estrada, of course, started the year in the bullpen after a spring in which he’d sustained a mild ankle sprain. His first start came on May 5, when he lasted 4.2 innings. Martin caught that game and his next seven starts before Navarro took over on June 19, in a 5-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles in which Estrada tossed a one-hitter over seven innings.
"It was coincidence, more than anything," said Estrada. "Once I was ready to start, they just switched catchers on me. I think Russ remembers enough from working with me that we’ll be able to pick it up quickly. I’m not worried about that."
Estrada acknowledged that one difference between Navarro and Martin was that Navarro "called for my cut fastball more often (than Martin.)"
It was a pitch that Estrada – who signed a two-year, $26-million deal with the Blue Jays in the off-season- used in 2011 and then shelved until he started to wonder whether a drop in velocity meant he should resurrect the pitch.
"I showed it a bit in spring training, worked on it in the off-season, but it really wasn’t until a start against Houston (May 16, in a game started by Martin) that I found a (cutter) grip I liked. Russell and I will get lots of opportunity to use it this season."
Estrada is adamant that starting the season on the 15-day disabled list – something that seemed to be an option a week ago – is no longer on the table. He will be ready for Opening Day, he said, and Gibbons seems inclined to go along with it even though the battle between Aaron Sanchez and Floyd surely suggests the Blue Jays ought to err on the side of caution, since the loser of that battle could easily fill in for Estrada early. Estrada came to camp a little behind the norm - by design. After breaching the 200-inning mark including playoffs last season, he was told to ease off. So where in the past he would have throw five bullpen sessions by the start of spring training, this season he hadn't thrown any.
"We’ve talked a bit about the off-days early in the season, and how you might not really need a fifth starter much early in the season," Estrada said, shrugging. "But I don’t want to miss any starts."
The Blue Jays are said to be quietly making inquiries about catching depth, because as one club source said: "The drop-off from Russell to everybody else is so huge." Thole is the nominal backup by virtue of his comfort with Dickey; A.J. Jimenez and former Pittsburgh Pirates first-rounder Tony Sanchez are just so-so, and have been found wanting offensively to various degrees. Navarro was the topic of frequent trade rumors last season, but the truth is he was more valuable to the Blue Jays than anything they would have received in return. There are reasons to want the Blue Jays to upgrade their depth behind the plate, but none of them should focus on Martin’s ability to work with Estrada. If the pitcher himself isn’t worrying about it, neither should the rest of us.