Blue Jays’ Estrada won’t return until after all-star break

Baseball Central discussion on why the Blue Jays should target NL teams in any trade for J.A. Happ, or maybe Seattle, a team that's starving to make the playoffs.

BOSTON — Despite taking positive steps during a bullpen session Wednesday, Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada will not pitch again until after the all-star break as he continues to recover from a left glute strain.

Estrada last pitched July 3 when the injury forced him out of a start vs. the New York Mets after facing only three batters. He said at the time that he first began experiencing the issue during a start against the Los Angeles Angels on June 22. He pitched through it his next time out — June 27 vs. Houston — and was reasonably effective, holding the Astros to three earned runs on seven hits over five innings. But when he took the mound against the Mets he found the injury too excruciating to weather.

Wednesday’s bullpen was his first time pitching off a mound since, and although Estrada felt he could get through a start if needed, the Blue Jays will err on the side of caution with the right-hander.

“He could’ve gone out there, but he’d probably labour through it,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “It just makes no sense if he’s not ready to go this close to the break. This way, when he comes out of it, it’s gone.”

Depending how the Blue Jays line up their rotation following the all-star break, the club could potentially push Estrada as far back as July 24, which would give him three full weeks between starts. If he started that day, he could return to pitch on July 30, the day before MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline.

That’s an important date. Estrada’s a pending free agent, and it’s expected the Blue Jays will try to move him prior to the deadline if he’s healthy and effective.

After struggling to a 5.68 ERA through the end of May, Estrada rebuilt some trade value with a strong June — he pitched to a 2.35 ERA over five starts that month — before the glute injury threw that into question. But if Estrada can pitch without issue twice before the deadline, he’ll likely have done enough to convince a team looking for a starting pitching to consider acquiring him.

Meanwhile, pushing Estrada back leaves a hole in Toronto’s rotation for Saturday’s game vs. the Boston Red Sox. The club has yet to settle on a starter, although one option Gibbons raised Thursday would be to bring back Sam Gaviglio, who threw only 48 pitches over 1.2 innings Wednesday in Atlanta.

Gaviglio likely wouldn’t pitch particularly deep into Saturday’s game if he did get the start, which would make it essentially a bullpen day for the Blue Jays, with relievers Luis Santos and Jake Petricka both able to give the club multiple innings. But the feasibility of that option will depend on how taxed Toronto’s bullpen is over its next two games at Fenway Park.

Other options to start Saturday are triple-A right-handers Nick Tepesch and Chris Rowley. Tepesch is coming off a pair of extremely rough outings with Buffalo — he’s allowed 12 earned runs on 19 hits over his last 7.2 innings, striking out four and allowing three home runs — but he does have plenty of big-league experience, with 44 major-league starts to his name. Rowley last started Sunday, allowing two runs over six innings in Buffalo’s final game prior to the all-star break.

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Guerrero set to return

After passing a battery of tests and drills this week in Dunedin, Fla., Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is finally ready to get back into games. He’s scheduled to begin a rehab assignment for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays Friday, serving as a designated hitter.

Guerrero has been out of action since early June with a patellar tendon strain in his left knee. He was enjoying a prodigious season prior to the injury, batting .407/.457/.667 with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats as the youngest player at double-A, a level at which the average age is more than five years his senior. Already considered one of baseball’s best prospects entering the season, the 19-year-old managed to raise his stock even higher, and is now considered by most to be simply the best prospect in the game.

It’s unclear how long Guerrero’s rehab assignment in the GCL will last, but the Blue Jays will certainly want to see him play third base before it’s completed. Determining the level he reports to from there is where things get interesting.

Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun reported earlier this week that Guerrero would be promoted to triple-A Buffalo upon returning from his injury. That would be a surprising departure from the cautious approach the Blue Jays have taken with their top prospect to this point.

Guerrero was poised to make the jump to triple-A when the injury occurred, and the club certainly feels he could handle the challenge. But, considering Guerrero hasn’t played in five weeks, the move would nonetheless be an aggressive one. Upon delivering Guerrero’s injury update Thursday in Boston, a club PR official added, “and it is not a definite he’s going to Buffalo.”

It stands to reason that the Blue Jays would prefer not to task Guerrero with a new level immediately upon his return. The least demanding option would be to return him to the familiar environs of double-A to allow him get his feet underneath him before he’s progressed to the highest level of the minor-leagues.

But it’s worth noting that there are less than eight weeks remaining in minor-league seasons, which means the Blue Jays are operating with limited time if they want to get Guerrero an extended taste of triple-A competition before the end of the year.

Considering Toronto’s current placement in the playoff picture — not to mention the realities of service time and their effect on club control — it’s very unlikely Guerrero reaches the majors this season. But if Toronto believes the third baseman would benefit from more plate appearances and time in the field at the end of the season, it could send him to the Arizona Fall League, and even to winter ball in Guerrero’s native Dominican Republic, where he played 26 games last year.

Elsewhere in the infirmary

Blue Jays starter Jaime Garcia will pitch an inning for high-A Dunedin Thursday night as he continues to recover from left shoulder inflammation. He last pitched June 19 when he lasted only three innings against Atlanta.

Reliever Ryan Tepera is also scheduled to throw an inning in a rehab game this weekend, as he works his way back from right elbow inflammation that has held him out for two weeks. It was originally thought he may have a chance at rejoining the Blue Jays this weekend in Boston, but now that won’t happen until after the all-star break.

Meanwhile, Aaron Sanchez continues to long toss and will aim to throw a bullpen in the coming days. He’s been sidelined since June 21 with a right index finger contusion. Danny Barnes, who is battling left knee tendinitis, will also throw a bullpen on Friday before being re-evaluated.

Finally, outfielder Dalton Pompey has fully recovered from a torn ligament in his left thumb. He’s been activated from the disabled list and assigned to double-A New Hampshire.

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