FORT MYERS, Fla. — Spring training’s period of leisurely and measured preparation started giving way to the days of decision for the Toronto Blue Jays, with Sunday’s 14-5 Grapefruit League drubbing from the Minnesota Twins contributing some meaningful feedback to the process.
Poor outings by the out-of-options Jeremy Jeffress and non-roster invitee Dave Bush served to help Brett Cecil’s chances of winning the long-man’s job in the bullpen, while other burning questions kept meandering their way to a tipping point.
There’s Brett Lawrie, looking more and more likely to open the season on the disabled list thanks to the left ribcage strain that knocked him out of the World Baseball Classic; closer Casey Janssen, making up for time lost building up strength in his surgically repaired shoulder, and still a possibility to break with the team; the suddenly hard-charging Dustin McGowan, impressing quickly as he recovers from shoulder surgery of his own; and of course the continuing conundrum of Ricky Romero, who’s been roughed up routinely this spring while odd-man out J.A. Happ has kept the heat on.
“We have our five starters,” GM Alex Anthopoulos repeated emphatically Sunday, looking to again close down the unending speculation that last year’s opening day starter might open this season with triple-A Buffalo with Happ taking his place. At this point Happ still appears destined for Buffalo or the Blue Jays bullpen.
Still, Tuesday seems to be shaping up as a big day on that front for Romero, who takes the mound against the Pittsburgh Pirates coming off Thursday's four-run, five-hit, five-walk hiccup in a minor-league outing.
Manager John Gibbons hinted at that when he said before the Twins contest that "when push comes to shove it's about results, too," while adding that he wants to see from his left-hander is "some consistency, throw a lot of strikes."
"When he does that he's fine," said Gibbons. "He's got a good arm, he's got good life on his ball. And that's the thing, walks have always been his Achilles' heel."
McGowan is also slated to pitch Tuesday and Gibbons said he's still "got a very remote outside shot," at breaking camp with the team, but the Blue Jays would also be cautious "because we don't want to rush him either."
The way the oft-injured right-hander has mowed through minor-league competition of late has forced the Blue Jays to give him some stiffer competition, and while in theory only one spot in the bullpen is open at the moment, two roster spots would open if Janssen and Lawrie started the season on the disabled list.
"Let's say it all comes together where he runs off a streak where he's healthy," Gibbons said of McGowan, "he can make it back real quick."
Where that leaves Jeffress and Bush is more complicated to assess.
The nuclear-armed Jeffress was roughed up for a third straight outing, pitching a clean third frame that included clocking 101 m.p.h. on the Hammond Stadium radar gun (the legitimacy of which isn't certain), before failing to record a single out in the fourth, giving up five runs on two walks and three hits, the last one Joe Mauer's three-run double.
Given his recent struggles, it would be easy to pull the plug on him, but the combination of being out of options and being able to bring it in the mid-90s may earn him a touch more rope yet.
"When guys throw really hard like he does, if you really think about it, very few of those guys have great control," said Gibbons, who knows Jeffress from their time together with the Royals. "I remember he would really scatter it when he was off, now he's not missing by much. That's the good thing. …
"Put it this way, I've seen a lot of progress out of him since the last time I saw him. And that's a good thing, he's moving the right direction."
Jeffress feels the same way, arguing that despite the numbers the Twins "didn't put any good swings on it," adding "I just felt I did as much as I can, I felt great."
Still, noteworthy to the Blue Jays is the way he lost the zone to open the fourth when he threw six straight balls and walked the first two batters, and got several batters to two strikes and was unable to finish them.
Pitching coach Pete Walker came out to pull him after Mauer's double, which landed just beyond the reach of a diving Rajai Davis in left field.
"Pete just told me, 'Stay right there,'" said Jeffress. "There's nothing you can do after you release the ball, me and Josh (Thole) today, we were making some good pitches, some good pitch selection. You can't put out fire with gas. The only thing you can do is release the ball and put it where you need to put it. They didn't put any good swings on me today. I guess the numbers tell different."
That they do, and the line wasn't much prettier for Bush, a revelation this spring until getting slapped around for six runs on six hits and a walk in two innings of work.
Though likely bound for the Bisons rotation, just as initially thought, the veteran right-hander has pitched beyond expectations to garner a long look this spring. At minimum, he's positioned himself to be an early favourite for a call-up if needed, and perhaps more, as Gibbons said it would be unfair to let one bad outing spoil an entire spring of good work.
"Some guys are entitled to more bad outings," Bush said with a wry grin. "I know I don't have a whole lot of room for error and I'm working against a lot of things, so I'm disappointed in the way I threw, there isn't a particular thing I can put my finger on other than I didn't command the ball on the edges of the plate very well.
"Today notwithstanding, I feel very good about (spring training), but I'm not sure where I stand to be honest with you, I'm not sure what the options are and opportunities are. I wanted to come in and pitch as well as I could and just show them I can still get people out. For the most part I've been able to do that. Where that gets me? I don't know."
By the sound of things, the Blue Jays aren't totally certain either, with Anthopoulos saying the roster jockeying changes almost daily. But the indecision won't last much longer, as the measuring stick only becomes more telling and accurate at spring's end, and the opportunities for bubble players to leave a lasting impression quickly run out.
Note: Mark Buehrle allowed two runs in 5.1 innings in a minor-league game Sunday, struggling with his cutter against strong winds. "I was kind of messing with a few breaking balls to try and work on some back-door cutters, just different location with some pitches," he said. "It just wasn't working the way I wanted it to, I hope just because of this wind." While he didn't want to use the weather as an excuse, "usually I don't have a problem throwing cutters and it just seemed like I was missing location a lot more today. Hopefully it was because of the wind." The veteran lefty has one more start this spring, and is debating going up to 100 pitches, or gearing back down to 75-80. … Josh Johnson starts Monday in Dunedin against the Philadelphia Phillies, who start John Lannan.