Guelph’s Diamond eyes return to MLB with 2016 Blue Jays

Scott Diamond delivers a pitch with the Minnesota Twins (Steven Senne/AP)

GUELPH, Ont. – With just a few short weeks remaining until Toronto Blue Jays pitchers report to spring training, Scott Diamond is putting the finishing touches on a curveball he hopes could help him crack the team’s opening day roster.

If he does, he may want to break out that lucky Blue Jays belt he wore as a teenager.

The Guelph-raised lefty was signed by Toronto in November as part of Mark Shapiro’s efforts to re-stock the organization’s minor league arms, after the Blue Jays traded away 11 pitching prospects last season in their bid to reach the playoffs.

Diamond, 29, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013, and it’s been even longer since his 2012 breakout, when he won 12 games with a 3.54 ERA for the Minnesota Twins.

But the Canadian, who obtained a minor-league deal with a spring training invite, believes his curveball is back to being the confounding out-pitch it used to be. If that’s true, the six-foot-three, 220-pound career starter could be a dark horse candidate to crack the Jays’ bullpen out of spring training.

Signing with the Jays is as good as it gets for Diamond, whose family consists of die-hard Toronto fans who had season tickets when he was a kid. He lived an hour’s drive from the SkyDome, and says all those Sunday afternoons at the park helped kindle his love for baseball.

In high school, he used to wear a commemorative Blue Jays belt given to him by his grandfather.

“I grew up a Jays fan,” he said. “To be able to sign with Toronto, to come full circle, is just so special.”

He became a Blue Jay just days after a command performance for Team Canada in the semifinals of the Premier 12 series, the tournament trying to bring back baseball to the Olympics. He pitched seven dominant innings against Mexico in the quarterfinals, finishing with four perfect frames.

Diamond says he’s been getting ready for spring training by bulking up and studying slow-motion video of his own pitches. He’s been breaking down his delivery systematically, and has tweaked the way the ball leaves his hand.

The key for Diamond, whose fastball tops out around 89 miles per hour, has been learning to not over-think and let his pitches do their work.

“It’s felt good so far,” he said. “My approach when I was younger was to just go 100 per cent, and work as hard as I could. But I’ve learned if I slow it down, and if I hold back on the reins a bit, I’ve actually made way more strides.”

Andrew Tinnish, the Jays’ assistant general manager, told Diamond when he signed that he’ll likely start in the rotation in Buffalo. But he added there’s opportunity in Toronto’s bullpen, particularly after the departures of Liam Hendriks, Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins.

“The starting five is pretty much set, but that doesn’t mean that would be the only way I could break with the team,” Diamond said.

Diamond, who recorded a 3.71 ERA and 91 strikeouts against 26 walks with triple-A Durham last season, made three relief appearances for the Bulls. He’d be happy to work out of the bullpen for the Jays, if it meant making the opening day roster.

“At this point, it seems like I’m probably going to be starting in Buffalo, but a need might arise out of camp,” he said. “I’d do anything to pitch in the big leagues again. It’s not like I’d be alien to pitching out of the bullpen. I’m not afraid of it.”

Whether he pitches in Buffalo or Toronto, Diamond is excited to be able to take the mound in front of friends and family a short drive from Guelph.

The former Atlanta Braves prospect said he’s entering this season trying to model himself after Jeff Francis, the fellow Canadian hurler who retired after last season. Like Diamond, he was a starter for most of his career, but was used by the Jays both as a long man and in shorter relief appearances in 2015.

Pitching for Team Canada in November helped another part of his game, too. Working with coaches Paul Quantrill and Denis Boucher, Diamond says he fine-tuned his control of the running game, making it harder to steal against him.

When the Jays came calling after he returned to New York City, where he now lives, Diamond asked Premier 12 teammate Andrew Albers about playing in Toronto. Albers had nothing but praise for the organization, and that helped seal the deal.

Diamond signed with the team he loved as a kid, and began getting ready for February. Now, about to step to the mound at the Jays’ spring training complex in Dunedin for the first time, he just has to remember one simple thing: Breathe.

“The biggest thing for me is to just breathe and relax and remember there’s a month and a half of spring training,” he said. “My only experience in major league spring training has been with the Minnesota Twins. So to do it with an organization that I grew up watching, it’s that much more special.”