Blue Jays spring takeaways: Relief corps looks strong

The Blue Jays scored three runs in the fifth in a bat-around inning but fell to the Twins 4-3.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays wrapped up their citric schedule with a one-run loss to the Twins to finish 17-6-3 for the spring, with three rainouts for good measure, and they’ll now pack up and head north to Montreal for a pair of pre-season affairs against the Boston Red Sox before coming back down to central Florida to open the season for real against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday afternoon.

Gavin Floyd (five outs), Roberto Osuna (four) and Brett Cecil (three) looked terrific in combining to face the minimum over four innings of relief work. The only batter to reach in that span was Brian Dozier, who bunted his way on off Floyd in the fifth inning and was subsequently erased, doubled up by Domonic Brown on a fly ball to right field.

Ryan Tepera started the game, having been told he’d made the team, and gave up singles to the first three batters he faced to put the Blue Jays in a 1-0 hole. He then got a couple of strikeouts and a pop-up to thwart the rally. Drew Storen, working the second after finding out he wouldn’t be the Jays’ closer to start the season, gave up a couple of one-out singles before Danny Santana laced a two-out triple down the right field line to increase Minny’s lead to three.

The biggest takeaway from the game, though, came from John Stilson, the 25 year-old righty who missed almost all of last season with shoulder issues that eventually required surgery. Stilson came in with the go-ahead run on second and one out in the bottom of the eighth, issued a walk and gave up the eventual game-winning RBI single to Oswaldo Arcia. But he then struck out James Beresford and Eduardo Nunez, showing a fastball that sat at 95-96 miles per hour and touched 98.

It wasn’t too long ago that Stilson was seen as someone who could grow into being a big piece of the Blue Jays’ bullpen. In 2014, he made a big impression at Jays’ camp, striking out nine in 9.1 citric innings and leaving people thinking that he was very close to the majors, but the shoulder got in the way.

If Stilson is throwing in the high 90s and can command it like he used to, he might emerge as this season’s out-of-nowhere surprise weapon.

With the Grapefruit season done, here’s what jumped out the most to me in the month of March:

THE SANCHIZE: Aaron Sanchez was the story of the spring, the tall righty showing everything that made him a first-round pick out of high school back in 2010, simply dominating the opposition to the point that the Blue Jays couldn’t hold him out of the starting rotation. It’s rare that you see an organization’s hand forced in spring training, but Sanchez was undeniable.

In his three starts this spring (after a couple of appearances out of the bullpen), he threw 15 innings and allowed just one run on seven hits, with three walks and 13 strikeouts. He threw heavy sinkers at 97 to 99 miles per hour, mixed in with a killer curveball that at times seemed just unfair. In his last start Sanchez threw 6.1 innings, the deepest any Blue Jays starter got into any game all spring.

He’ll get the ball on Tuesday night for the Blue Jays’ third game of the season.

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ALLAYING FEARS EARLY: With Michael Saunders having missed almost all of last season due to knee surgery and a bone bruise that followed, the Blue Jays weren’t sure what to expect of the man they hoped would be their left fielder this season. They even tried to trade him, a three-way deal with the Angels and Reds falling apart at the last minute just as camp was opening.

Saunders looked great from the moment he took the field, though he almost overran the first fly ball hit to him this spring out of sheer nervous excitement. He never favoured the once-injured knee at all, took great routes in the outfield, ran the bases hard, and hit three home runs in a span of five at-bats in the Grapefruit season’s first week.

He didn’t go deep again, but wound up hitting .293/.356/.561 in 45 plate appearances. More than the numbers, though, the Victoria, B.C. native proved to anyone who watched that he’s healthy and ready to resume his career. There haven’t been many players who have been more excited to be traded to Toronto than Saunders was when the Blue Jays picked him up from Seattle for J.A. Happ last off-season, and now it appears as though he’ll finally get the chance to contribute.

EDWIN-FREE SINCE FEBRUARY: It doesn’t happen very often that a team’s opening day clean-up man gets zero at-bats in the pre-season, but that’s going to be the deal with the Blue Jays this year.

Edwin Encarnacion reported to Dunedin in great shape and ready to go, but an abscessed tooth knocked him out of action just as Grapefruit League games were getting set to start. Once he recovered from the surgery and started to get ready to play, Encarnacion suffered a mild oblique strain and was shut down for another couple of weeks, finally getting into a minor-league game for the first time on March 28.

He homered in his third plate appearance – though since it was a fake game he left the parrot on its perch – and it doesn’t seem as though he’d be a guy who would be too terribly affected by the layoff. But Edwin is a key cog in baseball’s best offence, and he basically missed all of spring training. It will be interesting to see if there are any lingering effects, or how far behind the rest of the hitters he is when the bell rings, if he is at all.

On the whole this spring, the Blue Jays also found out that they might have a lot more depth than was otherwise thought. It’s impossible to go 17-6-3 without nearly everyone playing well, but the team saw a lot of players with promise for whom there was no room on the team.

Drew Hutchison, Pat Venditte, Chad Girodo and Chad Jenkins all showed well on the mound this spring, and Conner Greene left an awfully nice impression in the big club’s first-ever look at its top pitching prospect.

As far as position players go, Darrell Ceciliani put himself on the map with a huge spring, Richard Urena showed why he’s a top prospect, and with guys like Andy Burns, David Adams, Jio Mier, Casey Kotchman and Matt Dominguez at Triple-A, the Blue Jays know they have reliable replacements should the need arise. They even added one-time super-prospect Jesus Montero this week, to see if they can add him to their list of successful reclamation bats.

The Blue Jays cut a swath through Major League Baseball last year, going 42-14 from Troy Tulowitzki’s arrival until they clinched the A.L. East, which is a 122-win pace over a full season. That’s not going to happen, clearly, but 2016 is a season that isn’t full of “ifs” for this group. The Blue Jays are very clearly the team to beat in the East as they begin defence of their first division title in over two decades.