DUNEDIN, Fla. – The final day of Grapefruit League action for the Toronto Blue Jays prompted a few players to sing Andy Williams’ “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” as they roamed the clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, packing up their gear for the trip north.
After six weeks of prologue to the 2017 season, you can understand why the Christmas classic’s message was borrowed. As manager John Gibbons put it after a 3-1 loss to the New York Yankees: “We’re excited to get going. This was starting to drag.”
Yet for the handful of players still on the Blue Jays roster bubble, these final days are far more anxious than wonderful, their cases for a spot made over a spring’s body of work, their fate in the hands of the front office and coaching staff.
One of them, reliever Dominic Leone, was optioned to minor-league camp in the early evening, after a strong camp capped by a scoreless inning Wednesday had him in the mix for one of the final spots in the bullpen.
The Blue Jays are in Montreal for a pair of exhibition games versus the Pittsburgh Pirates this weekend. Out-of-options Mike Bolsinger, fellow righty Ryan Tepera and lefty Aaron Loup are up for the final two spots in the bullpen. Gibbons said that call, and the one on whether the out-of-options Ryan Goins can bump Melvin Upton Jr., from the roster, will go right to the deadline.
Tense times for those on the ledge.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t stressful,” said Bolsinger, burned for two runs on three soft infield singles, two walks and an error in his inning of work.
“There are a few guys in that position and we’d love to know what’s going on, but it’s definitely coming down to the wire. Being out of options is new, I’ve always had options and I’ve always been told, ‘Hey, we’re going to send you down but look forward to coming up here during the season.’ It’s a little bit different this year but we’ll see what happens.”
Leone likely heard a similar message from Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker, after the 25-year-old claimed on waivers Nov. 18 from Arizona allowed only four earned runs in 11.2 innings over 11 games with 15 strikeouts. Earlier in the day Gibbons told reporters that “he’s going to be very valuable whether he makes the team with us to start or not,” and once the season’s roster churn begins, he’s sure to get some time.
“It’s in the back of your mind,” Leone said before getting the news. “I’ve spent time in this game where I’ve worried about it too much and it’s hindered me not only mentally but also physically. I came into this camp really just wanting to prove myself and hopefully show these guys I can pitch at the big-league level. Then it’s in their hands.”
With Loup likely in a strong position to make the team as a second lefty in the bullpen, the final spot may very well come down to Bolsinger and Tepera now that Leone is out of the mix. A prerequisite for the role is the ability to offer multiple innings and both fit that bill, although Bolsinger has 36 big-league starts under his belt.
Given that the Blue Jays are prioritizing starting pitching depth, the 29-year-old’s ability to serve as a possible swingman adds to his appeal, and then of course there’s the asset management element, as Tepera and Loup both have options remaining.
Bolsinger allowed only three runs over 10 innings with 12 strikeouts in his final five spring outings, including Wednesday’s unlucky BABIP day, taking off once he locked down the release point on his curveball, his bread-and-butter pitch.
“I work off the curveball,” he said. “Most pitches throw that fastball in there when they’ve fallen behind just to get a strike, but for me, 3-0, 3-1, 100 per cent I feel comfortable throwing that pitch in those counts because I know I can throw a good one for a strike. There's a difference between throwing a good one and really lollipopping one in there. I’ve got it down to the point where I can really throw a nice sharp curveball in there for a strike and throw it confidently in those hitters’ counts.”
Gibbons heaped praise on the pitch, which Bolsinger can make harder and sharper or slower and loopier, depending on the situation. He posted a 3.62 ERA and a 1.363 WHIP with 98 strikeouts in 109.1 innings over 21 starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015, but struggled last year and was traded to the Blue Jays at the deadline for Jesse Chavez.
“He’s got one of the better curveballs you’re going to see,” said Gibbons. “He could be a guy like (Brett) Cecil, where it’s got to be his primary pitch. If he can hone in his fastball location a little bit, he’ll be really tough.”
Against the Yankees, Bolsinger recovered from a bases-loaded, one-out jam by inducing a Matt Holliday popper to second before catching Chris Carter looking to end the threat. He maintained composure in an inning set up by three weak groundballs to, depending on your side of the diamond, perfect spots.
“It was really good damage control. That’s good to see,” said Gibbons. “He’s pitched really well the past couple of weeks. A big part of success in the big leagues is you’re going to give up runs and even though this is spring training, don’t let the game get out of hand.”
That’s a lesson Leone has learned from a wider perspective over the past couple of seasons. He enjoyed a terrific rookie season with the Seattle Mariners in 2014, posting an 8-2 record with a 2.17 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 66.1 innings over 57 games, but hasn’t been able to repeat that big-league success since.
The following spring, he struggled all camp with his mechanics and release point, lost confidence and struggled to regain his footing the past couple of springs.
“It wore on me mentally and it wore on my physically and it was a long process to get myself back to feeling confident again on the mound,” said Leone. “My personality and my thought process is I want to be aggressive and be that bulldog-type pitcher on the mound. The second you lose that, it’s tough and this game doesn’t wait for you to figure your stuff out.”
Getting claimed on waivers by the Blue Jays, Leone said, offered him a chance to clear his mind, and the reassurance that teams still valued him. He’s made a point to focus on what he can control – “that’s the 60 feet, six inches” – and on making the most of a chance to show off his stuff to a new staff.
His locker stall was a few down from Bolsinger and Tepera, with Loup right across. Their shared experience fighting for a roster spot hasn’t been getting in the way of developing friendships.
“Everyone who’s fighting for a spot, they’re all in, they’re backing you, nobody is dogging each other, it’s a really nice team environment,” said Leone. “It’s tough because you want to be one of the final guys but you feel bad for your brothers in the locker-room. Whatever happens, happens. My focus is on trying to be consistent on the mound and let the other stuff work itself out.”
For Leone, it already has, and for the others, it soon will.
Note: Roberto Osuna threw an impressive eight-pitch sixth, popping up Starlin Castro, getting Aaron Hicks on a soft liner to left field and making Aaron Judge wave over two vicious sliders before catching him looking with a changeup. “I thought he was good,” said John Gibbons. “He was pumping strikes, a couple of pitches were jumping for him, which is what we were looking for.” Intriguingly, the scoreboard radar gun ceased to function during the frame – it worked fine the inning before and the inning after – but a scout in attendance said Osuna’s fastball topped out at 93 mph, and praised his slider, which he said was very good.