Gibbons praises Tellez after impressive spring with Blue Jays

Rowdy Tellez explains to Hazel Mae how he became a 'Rowdy' even before he was a Ryan John, but says if you call him by his real name, there will be trouble.

MONTREAL — Asked to recount what he saw on the long home run he hit over the left field wall at Olympic Stadium Saturday, Rowdy Tellez kept things simple.

"First pitch was a fastball. Second pitch was a fastball," he began. "Third pitch was a home run."

Hey, why complicate things? Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Montana DuRapau certainly didn’t, as he tried to sneak three straight heaters past the highly touted Blue Jays prospect in the seventh inning.

Alas, DuRapau discovered that’s not a good strategy against a hitter like Tellez, whose tape measure home run capped a terrific spring in which he hit .281/.378/.438 and flashed the potential that has Blue Jays manager John Gibbons heaping plenty of praise.

"I think Rowdy’s going to come fast. He’s the closest to the big leagues for us. I think first base will be his position for a lot of years here in Toronto," Gibbons said. "He’s got tremendous power. You saw it today going opposite field. But more than that, he’s a good hitter. And for a big guy, he’s a good baserunner. He’s really turned into a nice first baseman.

"He was really, really good in spring training. The sky’s the limit."

Tellez, of course, will begin his year at triple-A Buffalo, manning first for the Bisons as he looks to build on a spectacular 2016 season with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. But he could be a Justin Smoak or Kendrys Morales injury away from making his major league debut in 2017, something the 22-year-old says he’s doing his best not to think about.

"I just want to go out and do the best I can and leave everything on the field," Tellez said. "And whatever happens, happens. It’s outside of my control and I’m going to focus on things I can control and play as hard as I can. When that time comes, the time comes. But I’m not focused on that.

"It’s not my call. I’m going to control what I can control and play every day with a smile and leave it all on the field. That’s all I can say—leave it all on the field and enjoy every moment I have."

Tellez has been busy this spring, fastidiously working to soak up all the knowledge he can in big league camp. He’s learned hitting from Troy Tulowitzki, first base defence from Smoak, and plate approach from Josh Donaldson. He’s taken careful notes through it all and says he can’t wait to get the minor league season started, so he can start applying some of the tools he’s picked up.

"I learned so much from Justin Smoak on the defensive side. How to field groundballs, how to use my feet," Tellez said. "These guys, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to them and pick their brains on how they did the things—not only physically, but mentally. These guys have been successful at the highest level. So, why not use what I can use from them and make it into my own."

The Blue Jays front office has been blown away with the progress Tellez has made since he was selected out of high school in the 30th round of the 2013 draft. He’s completely remodelled his physique, following a strict conditioning and diet program that’s turned him into a promising defensive first baseman and baserunner. He’s also maintained his raw power, breaking out with 23 homers and a .917 OPS last season in double-A.

The primary knock against him is his work against left-handed pitching, which held him to a .264/.345/.456 line last year, versus .310/.404/.559 when facing right-handers. He struck out more and walked less against southpaws, something that will be a focus for him in 2017 as he tries to round out his abilities at the plate. But if he starts seeing left-handed pitching better, look out.

Play in the Sportsnet Fantasy Baseball Pool for your chance to win one of two prizes of $1000!

"He has tremendous ability—a really nice swing. It just seems like things are starting to fall in place for him," said Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. "He’s doing the right things. Even off the field. Keeping his body fresh, keeping his body mobile. When you’ve got a big body like that, you’ve got to take care of yourself.

"He’s going to hit homers. He just has that leverage, that power. And he’s got a really nice swing to go with that. Hopefully he just builds on that, has a great season, and I’m sure at some point he’ll be knocking on the door."

Who’s to say when that will be, but there certainly isn’t too much standing in his way. Smoak will begin the year as the Blue Jays’ primary first baseman, but he struggled significantly at the plate over the back half of 2016, and the club has shown a willingness to look for alternatives, giving him just 37 plate appearances from Aug. 16 through the end of the season.

Steve Pearce and Morales will likely play some first base as well, although the majority of their at-bats are expected to come at other positions. After that, Tellez is the next man up. And Gibbons hasn’t been shy to say the big left-hander could very well be a factor with the big league club in 2017—and perhaps for many years than that.

"I’m just humbled and honoured," Tellez said. "It’s been a great experience and a great feeling to have. But it’s not something for me to worry about. And it’s not something I’m going to worry about. When the time comes, the times comes."