NEW YORK — Marcus Stroman’s interrupted climb to the big leagues resumes Sunday when he’s slated to start for the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, and the Toronto Blue Jays will be closely monitoring the progress of a pitching prospect who may quickly force his way into their near-term plans.
The hard-throwing right-hander, drafted 22nd overall last year, opened some eyes during a pair of crisp pre-season outings and continued to impress at extended spring training, where he waited out the 42 games remaining on his suspension for ingesting a stimulant banned by the minor-league drug program.
That transgression now behind him, both the 22-year-old and the Blue Jays will get a better sense of how much he developed in Dunedin, Fla., when he faces more advanced hitters in a proper game setting, a moment both have been waiting for.
“I’m excited, it’s been a long time coming,” Stroman said Saturday over the phone from New Britain, Conn., where the Fisher Cats are playing the Rock Cats this weekend. “It was in the back of my head every day that I was down there, wanting to get back. In the end I took that out of my mind and focused on getting better every day, developing while I was waiting for games and I feel like I’m in a great position right now.”
Stroman last pitched Tuesday at extended spring training, impressing a host of Blue Jays player development people including assistant general manager Tony LaCava.
The reports that came back to GM Alex Anthopoulos, "said he looked really, really good," and maintained his velocity in the 91-95 range through 75 pitches. The plan is to continue using Stroman as a starter for the time being, although there are those who believe he could pitch in the big leagues as a reliever very soon.
Either way, Stroman will have about 80-90 pitches to work with Sunday, and he likes where he's at as a starter.
"I feel like I've really been able to maintain my velocity through my core strength, flexibility and a lot of lower-body lifts," he said . "Going into it I feel like I have the ability to start just because I can maintain my stuff and I've been used to it because I did it my whole senior year at Duke (14 starts, 2.39 ERA), it's like I've almost been there before.
"I definitely enjoy getting in the routine and being on a five-day (schedule) because I know when I can pitch."
Among the things he'll get to test Sunday is the changeup that was a focal point for him the past three months, plus the true curveball and slider he's now throwing in place of his slurve and cutter.
The idea there was to give him a visual differentiation between his breaking balls, with the curve having more of 12-6 drop and the slider breaking down to the side late.
While he believes he refined the pitches to "where I needed those to be," only the Rock Cats and any team he subsequently faces will be able to confirm that.
"I'll definitely be able to get a better read (Sunday)," said Stroman. "But down there, from the beginning of spring to the end I feel like I made some strides, not even as far as what the hitters are doing against me, just for myself, the action on my pitches, the ability to throw any of my off-speed in any count. I got a really good feel for pitching. I'll definitely find out how it plays here but I feel like I'm in a really good position to pitch right now."
Already Stroman's name has come up in internal discussions to fill the various holes the Blue Jays have had in the rotation, but the activations from the disabled list of Chad Jenkins, who's set to make his second start for Toronto on Monday, and Sean Nolin, the Fisher Cats left-hander who's probably next in line for a call-up, have pushed him down the depth chart a bit.
All that can change quickly depending on how he pitches, as the four shutout innings he threw over two spring games against the Pirates and Phillies left the right kind of impression on the club's decision-makers and on Stroman himself.
"Getting a taste of it, it's just an unbelievable lifestyle up there, it's probably the best experience I've had to this point," he said. "It definitely makes me that much more hungry to get there, I try to keep those outings in the back of my head and they make me strive to be even better to hopefully get there at some point."
If Stroman comes out the gate strong and need arises, that may be sooner rather than later.