DUNEDIN, Fla. – From J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada to Mike Hauschild and Luis Santos, 14 pitchers started games for the 2018 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays.
In that context, the additions of Clay Buchholz and Bud Norris are easier to interpret. On paper, Buchholz appears to bump Ryan Borucki out of the starting rotation, assuming the Blue Jays don’t deviate from their plan to break camp with a front four of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard.
At the same time, opportunities will exist for all of those starters and then some over the course of a long season.
“Competition’s great,” Blue Jays bench coach Dave Hudgens said Friday. “Competition with young guys or veteran guys makes you a little bit better, a little bit sharper.”
The Blue Jays haven’t officially confirmed the moves, but they’re expected to be finalized by early next week at which point team decision makers will publicly explain how Norris and Buchholz fit into the clubhouse and onto the pitching staff.
“They offer leadership. They’ve been through the wars,” said Hudgens, noting that he hadn’t heard official confirmation of the deals. “They’ll probably come in and feel around, get to know the guys and I think they’ll add a lot.”
While Buchholz pitched out of the bullpen 16 times in 2016, the vast majority of his big-league experience comes as a starter, and that’s presumably how the Blue Jays will use him after making a $3 million commitment, as reported by Jon Heyman of MLB Network.
Of the five veteran starters in the rotation, Richard would theoretically be easiest to bump for Borucki considering he’s 35 years old with a 5.03 ERA over his last 59 starts. It’s conceivable that the Blue Jays could shift him to the bullpen if Borucki pitches well enough this spring, especially considering that Tim Mayza would otherwise be their lone left-handed reliever.
Still, the Blue Jays liked Richard enough to acquire him after the Padres designated him for assignment and have said publicly that he’ll be in the rotation. With that in mind, Borucki’s path to a starting role isn’t as clear.
For now, the Blue Jays are easing Richard into action slowly because last year ended with season-ending knee surgery, but have been impressed by his preparation so far.
“He’s a workaholic,” said Hudgens.
“He’s fun to be around,” GM Ross Atkins said Thursday. “The way he talks about his goals, the way he talks about his own continued development and how he’s trying to get better every day, it’s the type of professional that you’re very pleased to have.”
Best-case scenario for the Blue Jays, all five of their established starters pitch well and stay healthy, forcing some tough decisions. Rarely do springs go according to plan, though, and each of those five starters missed time last year, including Buchholz who finished 2018 on the sidelines because of a flexor strain.
Look no further than Sam Gaviglio for a reminder of how much plans change once injuries strike. Gaviglio wasn’t even in camp with the Blue Jays last year, but he ended up starting more games than anyone but Estrada.
So even if Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley have been pushed down the depth chart for now, those most deserving of starting roles will eventually get their chances.
VELO TO SPARE
While most pitchers would be thrilled to see their fastball clocked a couple miles per hour faster than normal, that wasn’t Borucki’s reaction on Thursday. He sat around 94-95 m.p.h. in his second start of the spring, but still surrendered five runs to the Phillies.
“That might be a thing that I don’t want” Borucki said. “I feel like I’m best when I’m throwing 90-92 and I can let my sink work. I feel like the harder I throw, the flatter the ball gets and that’s just not how I pitch. I want to be able to keep the ball on the ground and let the defence work.”
Borucki pitched two innings Thursday, walking three while striking out one. He averaged 91.5 m.p.h. as a rookie in 2018, when he posted a 3.87 ERA in 17 starts.
“I feel like as my body gets more reps and I get a little more tired, that’s when my sink is there and I’m spotting up the ball,” he said.
LUCIANO ON THE RADAR
The Blue Jays’ bullpen now looks more crowded with the addition of Norris, but Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano continues pitching well enough to intrigue Atkins. The 19-year-old struck out two in his most recent outing, a scoreless inning against the Pirates Wednesday.
“He has the stuff and he has the ability,” Atkins said. “What will determine his ability to impact our major-league team is his heartbeat, and when I say heartbeat it’s not just that, but how he handles the expectation, the pressure, the actual execution as that pressure intensifies. It will only get greater.”
BLUE JAYS NOTES
The Blue Jays are pleased with Sanchez’s progress so far this spring and will be looking to see how well he commands the ball in his first outings of the spring. “He looks great physically. The ball’s jumping out of his hand, he’s recovering very well,” Atkins said. “We’re extremely encouraged thus far” … While coaching in Houston, Hudgens asked Yuli Gurriel whether he was more talented than his younger brother, Blue Jays infielder Lourdes. “I think my brother’s the better player, but I’m better looking,” Yuli replied … Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was slated to play in consecutive games for the first time this spring Friday.