DUNEDIN, Fla. — There is no definitive list of Worst Possible Events™ for the Toronto Blue Jays during 2018 spring training. But if there was, it’s safe to say a long-term injury to Marcus Stroman would be near the top of it.
For that reason and more, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins was very relieved to hear the results of Stroman’s MRI early this week, which showed no structural damage to his nagging right shoulder, but did reveal some inflammation of which the starter will spend the near future trying to rid himself.
“Very encouraged with the news,” Atkins said Tuesday. “Certainly, that he had the setback is never good to hear with a starting pitcher of that calibre. And someone that’s as tough and as athletic as he is. Initially, you obviously have concern.
“But I think with the physical exam, with all the information that we’ve gathered, we’re extremely encouraged with all the information that we’ve got. Now, we’ll shift our focus to him getting ready for the season.”
Just when Stroman will be ready remains a question. The 26-year-old says he’s hoping to be back up to speed for “the start of the season.” Asked for his own version of a timeline Tuesday, Atkins was more conservative.
“Start of the season, is that Game 10 or is that Game 1? I don’t know,” Atkins said. “Early in the season is maybe the better way to say it.”
The opening day start Stroman would have made if healthy seems unlikely now, and the latest the Blue Jays could push him back as part of a season-opening five-man rotation would be April 2, when the club begins its second series of the year against the Chicago White Sox.
That gives Stroman a little less than five weeks to let the inflammation subside, progress through a throwing program to build up his pitch count, and meet his goal. Considering he’s going to be shut down for at least four to five days in order to rest and receive treatment, the clock is decidedly against the confident right-hander.
Stroman would no doubt love to be healthy and a part of his team’s 25-man roster when its read over the Rogers Centre PA the afternoon of March 29. But Atkins says the Blue Jays will prioritize caution and care with Stroman, and not rush anything to meet an arbitrary timeline.
“We’re really just focused on what’s best for him. We’ll isolate that and try not to put a hard start on it,” Atkins said. “Oftentimes — it happens all the time in spring training — the opening day factor is a real factor to manage. It’s such a special day. And it’s such a big benchmark for the industry, for the game, and for the players. We have to manage our emotion and be disciplined to do what’s best for the individual over the long haul — not just in season, but career.”
Of course, Stroman has made a habit out of expediting his recovery from injuries. In 2015, he returned to the mound less than six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Last season, he pitched through persistent blister issues, and didn’t miss an outing after taking a 108-m.p.h. Mark Trumbo liner off his pitching arm during an early-September start.
Atkins is the first to acknowledge Stroman’s perseverance, frequently crediting him for his dedication and diligent work off the field. He’d surely be delighted to see Stroman reach his goal of starting the year in the rotation. And yet, the Blue Jays GM says he expects Stroman will “be ready to help us early in the season,” which leaves a rather wide window for his 2018 debut.
“We’re trying not to put a firm timeline on that and leave some flexibility,” Atkins said. “He’s as intense as they come when it comes to beating those timelines. I think the most realistic aspect that we see is he has a little bit of rest, and as he builds back up, depending on how that goes and how he feels with the rest and how quickly he’s asymptomatic, that really will determine the next steps.”
Carrera praised as he exits
When the Blue Jays signed Seung-hwan Oh to a one-year deal this week, somebody had to be moved off the 40-man roster to make room for the new set-up man. That somebody was Ezequiel Carrera.
The 30-year-old outfielder was designated for assignment Monday, giving the Blue Jays 10 days to find Carrera a new home, whether it’s on another team through trade or waivers, or in free agency through an outright release.
Carrera essentially became expendable in mid-January, when the Blue Jays added Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson to the outfield mix. Granderson in particular, a fellow left-handed hitter, made Carrera redundant on a Blue Jays roster that was never going to carry five outfielders on opening day.
Rather, the Blue Jays would prefer to carry four, with Kevin Pillar ensconced in centre, Grichuk playing every day in right, and Steve Pearce and Granderson forming a platoon in left. The club kept Carrera around into spring training to preserve depth in case there was an injury to one of those four. But when a spot was needed for Oh, Carrera was the odd man out.
“Really, the way the team was put together,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, “numbers weren’t in his favour.”
It was nevertheless a difficult move for Atkins to make. He’s been a fan of Carrera’s for some time, getting to know the Venezuelan when he was bouncing between the majors and minors in Cleveland’s organization from 2010 through 2013. Atkins was Cleveland’s director of player development at the time.
“It was a tough day for Ezequiel Carrera, a tough day for us,” Atkins said. “He’s done great things for us and we’ll do anything that we can to help him moving forward.
Carrera was a dependable, if unspectacular, player for the Blue Jays over the last three seasons, serving as the club’s fourth outfielder. He appeared in a total of 332 games for Toronto, the seventh-most of any Blue Jay over that span, hitting .267/.336/.380 with a 95 wRC+, which suggests he was just marginally below a league-average offensive player.
Last season, in a year when the Blue Jays had the worst offence in the American League, Carrera was one of Toronto’s top contributors at the plate, posting a 107 wRC+, the third-highest mark on the team.
Of course, that says more about the kind of season the Blue Jays had than it does about the kind of season Carrera had. And advanced defensive metrics paint an unflattering picture of his work in the field, as he’s put up a -19 DRS and -7.3 UZR over his career. Still, Gibbons is sorry to see him go.
“Zee’s done a lot of good things for this team. You hate for it to happen,” he said. “Zee will do all right — he’ll do all right somewhere. It’s tough. I’ve got a special place for the guy.”